By Jamie Joseph
LOS ANGELES—Abbot Kinney Boulevard is a picture-perfect hidden gem in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles, known for its boutique shops and locally owned dining joints. The mile-long strip sings to the tune of upper-middle-class patrons who come to Venice Beach to soak in its peculiar rhythm. The neighborhood’s tight-knit community of homeowners who have lived in the area for decades is proud to reside in this unique nook of town.
But over the past year, the community within this stretch of Venice grew even closer over a common frustration: the growing homeless encampments.
The issue isn’t new to the city of Los Angeles as a whole, which has more than 41,000 people living on its streets, according to the latest homeless count, with more than 66,000 homeless people residing in the county. A forecast by the Economic Roundtable estimates that the number could reach nearly 90,000 by the year 2023.
Venice has approximately 2,000 people living unhoused, making it the second-largest congregant of homeless people in the city after Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.
Drugs, needles, trash, violence, fires, and encampments have become all too common to the Venice community. Representatives for the community say that their pleas for help often fall on deaf ears when it comes to their city leaders, while tourists, homeowners, workers, and other homeless people have become victims to random assaults by a more violent crowd of transients.
“It’s a world gone mad,” Venice resident Deborah Keaton told The Epoch Times. “It’s our own making, too. I’m a liberal, a Democrat, and we voted for these measures that decriminalize a lot of this behavior, and so there’s no repercussions for these guys.”
When Keaton steps outside of her home on North Venice Boulevard between Abbot Kinney Boulevard and Electric Avenue, her reality isn’t the white-picket-fence experience she bought into 30 years ago when she purchased her home. An encampment, including a handful of parked RVs, has popped up adjacent to her house, making hers the closest house to the neighborhood’s new hot spot for crime and drug dealing.
The transients living inside the RVs play loud music all day and night, she said. Keaton filed a police report against Brandon Washington, the apparent ringleader of the RV encampment, because he approached her gate and allegedly made threats against her family.
“He rang the bell, and he was wasted, and he said to me: ‘I just need to know all the evil people, is your husband evil? Because I need to kill your husband,’” she said. “It was scary.”
Keaton captured the entire interaction on her Ring doorbell camera.
“There’s no repercussions for these guys, and they can’t be held and they know it. A lot of these guys have been arrested 400 times,” she said.
Neighbors allege that Washington—who often appears to be on drugs—has prostituted women in the RVs, in addition to dealing methamphetamine to other homeless people. Keaton said in the summer a woman was hiding in her backyard because she claimed that Washington was “pimping her out.”
These stories have become all too common in Venice.
Ansar El Muhammad, who goes by “Brother Stan” in Venice, knows Washington’s plight all too well. About 20 years ago, Washington was in Muhammad’s niece’s wedding. Both were born and raised in Venice and ran in the same circles.
“Even though everybody is up in arms about this, these are human beings,” Muhammad told The Epoch Times. “Brandon’s a good guy. It’s the drugs that are doing that to him. So, I understand the neighbors’ perspective.”
Muhammad has become somewhat of a neighborhood protector, taking matters into his own hands. He runs the HELPER Foundation, a gang intervention coalition serving the Venice and Mar Vista neighborhoods.
Venice residents say that they trust him so much that they call him first when there’s a safety or noise issue. The homeless people of the area trust him as well, so he’s able to keep the peace.
Most of the vagrants in Venice are involved in some element of gang activity, even if they aren’t officially part of a set, Muhammad said. Drug addiction is also rampant among the homeless, making it more difficult for them to accept resources.
“So, for my friend over here, what do I do? I build rapport, I have to wait for him to say ‘Stan, I’m ready,’” he said.
Other outreach workers across the county have told The Epoch Times the same thing—contact must be repeatedly made before some people accept help.
Pat, an unsheltered resident in Venice Beach, told The Epoch Times that there should be more solutions by city leaders to encourage special rehab programs that would “give people a sense of accountability.”
“There’s got to be a way, a path forward from sleeping on the pavement to eventually having a place. But I think all of the energy to give that path forward should come from the person in that situation,” he said.
Neighbors Criticize Local Policies
The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Homeless Outreach and Services Team (HOST) conducted a cleanup of the sidewalk surrounding the RVs on Sept. 8 and 9, but Keaton said the department won’t enforce any measures that would force the RVs to move. She fears that the trash will pile up again and attract additional criminal activity.
“The LAPD says they can’t enforce it because it comes down from the mayor’s office, but according to the sheriff’s department, the LAPD are not supposed to take orders from the mayor’s office—but that’s the deal,” she said.
Venice Neighborhood Council Board Member Soledad Ursua told The Epoch Times that the RVs receive citations. But a homeless service provider in the area allegedly pays for the tickets. She said the pandemic also changed the homeless situation by encouraging transients to move to new residential areas in the city near commercial areas.
“This is different because there’s people who are totally selling drugs. They’re doing drugs, and it’s outside a residence,” Ursua said.
“I’ve had to clean up human feces in my carport three times.”
During the summer, HOST conducted a massive cleanup and outreach effort on the Venice boardwalk. Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva deployed deputies to the area, while media reports slammed city leaders for not addressing the issue. Encampment fires were at an all-time high: more than 54 percent of all fires in Los Angeles were caused by encampments in 2021, the Los Angeles Fire Department reported.
The neighborhood experienced a sharp uptick in crime during the summer as well, according to statistics provided to the Venice Neighborhood Council by Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Capt. Steve Embrich.
Year-to-date numbers show that robberies have nearly tripled since the same period in 2020. Homeless-related robberies were up by 260 percent, homeless-related assaults with a deadly weapon were up by 118 percent, property crimes and area burglaries were up by 85 percent, and grand theft auto was up by 74 percent.
“We’ve been inundated with calls, with concerns, with images from the news, from people picking up the phone, emailing, sending us letters, about what’s going on in Venice,” Villanueva told reporters during a June 23 press conference. “And that is a microcosm of what’s going on throughout the entire county of Los Angeles.”
Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin—who was also a local advocate for defunding the LAPD—countered Villanueva’s efforts and asked the Los Angeles Homeless and Poverty Committee to shift $5 million in budgeted aid to fund housing programs in his district. Those funds were sent to the St. Joseph Center in Venice to conduct outreach on the boardwalk.
However, some tents have started popping back up on the boardwalk, with residents saying many homeless individuals have just been moved around.
An unhoused member of the Venice community, Butch Say, believes that most homeless people in Venice don’t want help. Say, who described himself as a traveling nomad, told The Epoch Times during the boardwalk cleanup that most of them prefer to live on the street.
“They go, ‘No, I love it out here. Nobody tells me what to do, and I run around in my underwear,’” he said. “You know, whatever. They’re crazy. What can I say? It’s Venice.”
Not a ‘Housing’ Problem
While Los Angeles was dealing with a homeless crisis prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, city restrictions may have exacerbated the problem. The curfew on tents in public was rolled back, and sanitation crews were cut to mitigate the spread of the virus. Other city codes were suspended as well. As a result, many homeless people—mostly addicts—flocked to the beach.
In a previous interview with The Epoch Times, local bar owner Luis Perez said Venice has always had a quirky community of homeless individuals, but they were largely artists and entertainers. They weren’t addicts. He also said he saw homeless individuals being bussed in and dropped off on the boardwalk.
As state and city leaders peddle the state-sanctioned “housing first” model, which suggests that the solution to homelessness lies within building more affordable housing units, Venice Beach natives have a different perspective.
“A lot of them don’t want housing. See, this is the issue: They put all this money in here for housing, but there’s less than 5 percent of this population across the city that want it. They say ‘to hell with housing,’” Muhammad said. “You know why? Because they’re addicts.”
On Nov. 10, California Gov. Gavin Newsom visited West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center. During a press conference during the visit, Newsom told reporters that $22 billion is being invested to address “the issue of affordability, housing, and homelessness, to support these efforts all across the state of California.”
“Yes, I see what you see. Yes, I’m mindful of what is happening, but I’m also more optimistic than I’ve ever been. We are seeing progress,” he said.
But residents say that the problem seems to be getting worse.
“I voted for Proposition HHH. I [would] be the first one to say I want a solution. And honestly, I would probably vote for another one if I thought the money was going to be correctly spent,” Venice Neighborhood Council Board member Robert Thibodeau said. “But the thing is, where’s the light on the ground solutions? Where’s the FEMA style response, the striking sort of immediate solutions that you would have with [Hurricane] Katrina. Because to me, this is Katrina.”
Local business owners have been speaking out as well. Klaus Moeller, co-owner of Ben & Jerry’s on the boardwalk, told The Epoch Times in an email during the summer that “this is not a local homeless problem.”
“This is a problem about out-of-state transients and drug dealers/users moving in because they can act without repercussions,” Moeller said.
he noted that his employees have been attacked by transients on the boardwalk.
Residents have also criticized Proposition HHH, a $1.2 billion bond approved in 2016 by Los Angeles voters to build 10,000 supportive housing units. As of February, the city controller discovered that only 489 of the bond-funded units were ready for occupancy.
Because of the lack of supportive housing, a number of tiny house villages have popped up across the county as a lower-cost alternative for interim housing. However, some residents say they won’t make much of a difference.
“They wouldn’t move indoors. It’s not a housing crisis—it’s an addiction crisis,” Los Angeles native and new Venice resident Kate Linden told The Epoch Times.
Linden said she emails Lt. Geff Deedrick—who leads the HOST efforts—weekly, letting him know what’s going on. But the HOST team can only come in when they’re given orders to do so.
“The HOST team provides that guardian mentality, so you can have a safe space for those discussions, but that’s where the policymakers and executives and those things, we leave that to them,” Deedrick told The Epoch Times. “We deploy at the direction of the sheriff.”
Residents Launch Recall Campaign
Many Venice neighbors who had originally voted for Bonin to represent them in the 11th district, such as Keaton, are pulling back their support. Earlier in 2021, a recall campaign was launched. On Nov. 10, petitioners collected enough signatures to move forward in the recall election process.
The petitioners blame Bonin for the increased homelessness and the lack of enforcement on street camping that they say brings gang activity into the neighborhood. On Oct. 22, the Los Angeles City Council voted to ban encampments in 54 specified areas, with Bonin and Councilmember Nithya Raman serving as the only two dissenting votes.
Thibodeau, who identifies as a centrist, said Bonin’s views are on the “radical fringe” that aligns with special interest groups and far-left activists. He’s sent dozens of emails to Bonin’s office with no response.
“The sad thing is a lot of this has happened because of a higher level of tolerance in the community and a compassion in the community—we’ve been abused because we’re compassionate people,” Thibodeau told The Epoch Times. “He will not enforce [camping restrictions] in his district. So, now what? He’s in charge of policing too?”
During an October city council meeting, Bonin voted to not enforce a ban on camping due to a lack of prior street engagement to notify the homeless. But according to city documents (pdf), the cost of signage and outreach would cost as much as $2 million.
“There was an agreement about street engagements, and I think we need to live by that part as well,” Bonin said. “I am certain that a lot of work has been done, but it still isn’t to the level of what we committed to as a body. And I’m concerned about us losing the commitment to the street engagement strategy and not making sure that it is adequately resourced.”
Adding to the frustrations of residents, the LAPD has its hands tied due to the city’s catch-and-release policy. Homeless people who commit crimes are often put back on the streets within hours if they refuse services.
Thibodeau said he believes that Bonin is transforming Venice into a “containment zone” by not enforcing any anti-camping ordinances. Meanwhile, Bonin is planning several large supportive housing developments in Venice Beach and Mar Vista.
Bonin and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti have also championed A Bridge Housing supportive units in Venice for $8 million that came out of Prop. HHH funds. Residents say most of the homeless who reside in the shelter are “dual residents,” meaning that they have a bed in the shelter as well as a tent on the street.
“There are no new planned facilities in Pacific Palisades. Brentwood happens to have the VA, but nowhere else in Brentwood. … So, we’re making a Containment Zone here like Skid Row,” Bonin said.
As far as the sidewalk on North Venice Boulevard being taken over by RVs and tents, Thibodeau said that “living next to this stuff is very draining.” He said he’s thinking about organizing street protests to address the issue.