Trouble in Venice: can this trendy LA enclave reconcile a deep divide?

As the neighborhood floods with tech workers and new wealth, its homeless population keeps rising – and a political battle is raging over what to do

It is less than a hundred yards from the hipster restaurants, cafes, and giant street art installations of Main Street in Venice, California, to a straggly line of industrial warehouses and storage facilities where a homeless encampment has sprawled over an entire city block.

Tents and shopping carts filled with clothing and possessions obstruct sidewalks and parking spaces along 3rd Street and Rose Avenue and prompt unceasing complaints from nearby residents as well as stares of amazement from tourists. The encampment, home to people with nowhere else to go, is a constant reminder that all is not well in one of the fastest gentrifying neighborhoods in North America.

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Venice is the quintessential southern Calfornia beach community, an edgy, artsy pocket of the city of Los Angeles where industry, poverty and creativity have always found a way to coexist. But it is also ground zero in a battle in which an unprecedented official effort to fight homelessness across Los Angeles is being met with growing skepticism, impatience, and, at times, outright hostility.

At public meetings, people are openly calling homeless residents “lepers” and likening Venice to Baghdad. Local elections being held tomorrow pit a popular incumbent city councilman, Mike Bonin, who has championed efforts to build new low-income housing and provide services to homeless people including showers, bathroom and storage space, against an energetic underdog, Mark Ryavec, who thinks the situation is spiraling out of control.

“We see snowbirds in their RVs and young people from all over treat Venice as the campground of America,” Ryavec charged. “I want to provide a bus fare to send them home, because there’s no future for these people here.”

The future certainly seems to belong to a new wave of highly paid tech workers, many of them working for Google or Snap, who have flooded into Venice – now often nicknamed Silicon Beach – and pushed rents and house prices through the roof.

Industrial warehouses have been transformed into luxury condos and shabby-chic restaurants. Abbot Kinney Boulevard, once a relative backwater where local restaurants struggled to obtain liquor licenses, has become one of the trendiest streets in the country, where coffee shops offer $6 lattes and tables at the hottest dinner spots are booked out weeks in advance. Meanwhile, the homeless population keeps rising – it’s close to 1,000 people, by some estimates, and almost 30,000 across the city of LA as a whole.

It is this stark contrast of extreme wealth and growing poverty that has pushed city and county leaders to take unprecedented action. After decades of doing little more than moving homeless people around and offering services so they don’t starve or freeze to death, the political class is making the case that ending homelessness is both a moral and an economic imperative.

Michael Munsterman from Oklahoma has been homeless in Venice, California, for six years.
Michael Munsterman from Oklahoma has been homeless in Venice, California, for six years. Photograph: Dan Tuffs/The Guardian

Up to now, the electorate has been fully on board. An impressive 76% of Los Angeles voters approved a bond measure last November to build 10,000 affordable housing units on 12 parcels of public land around the city, including one in Venice. The signs look promising, too, for a countywide measure on tomorrow’s ballot that would increase the sales tax by half a percentage point and raise more than $3.5bn for homeless programs over the next decade.

In Venice, homeless residents certainly feel the difference. Reynaldo, a 59-year-old man who sleeps in a tent on 3rd Street, said he had friends who were being moved into housing and offered help by teams of social workers, mental health consultants and addiction specialists. He appreciated the free showers and noticed a far more conciliatory attitude from police, who ride down 3rd Street every couple of hours during the day to make sure tents are packed away and not being used for drug-dealing or prostitution, but no longer conduct large-scale sweeps as they used to.

“If you’re polite and respectful to them, they’ll be the same way to you,” Reynaldo said.

Still, the political leadership is under pressure . On one side are residents who say they find homeless people urinating on their front lawn and allege, like Mark Ryavec, that the new city services are only drawing more homeless people into the community. As Ryavec put it: “I do not want to see the city of LA become the trailer park of last resort for everyone who has chosen either involuntarily or voluntarily to live in their vehicles.”

And on the other side are advocates who have spent decades railing against what they see as an unnecessarily belligerent police presence and worry that the climate has not changed as much as the city claims. Becky Dennison, director of the nonprofit Venice Community Housing, said the city was not doing nearly enough to slow gentrification. At the same time, she noted that the police continue to enforce a nighttime beach curfew, close the boardwalk to pedestrians at dusk and, under an ordinance that came into effect last month, send people sleeping in their cars to one of just a handful of streets zoned exclusively for industrial use.

“The idea that we can push people around and criminalize them doesn’t cut it,” Dennison said. “We need to build and preserve affordable housing to protect the racial and economic diversity of Venice.”

Josh Corr from Las Vegas (left) and Laz from Miami (right) on Venice Beach, where they have been living for a year.
Josh Corr from Las Vegas (left) and Laz from Miami (right) on Venice Beach, where they have been living for a year. Photograph: Dan Tuffs/The Guardian

Such strong opinions have made for a vigorous and, at times, nasty political season. In the city council race, Ryavec has been accused, unfairly, of an association with Donald Trump because he briefly represented Trump’s hotel interests as a lobbyist 26 years ago. He, in turn, has accused his challenger, sitting councilmember Mike Bonin, of working to cover up an MRSA infection outbreak at the 3rd Street encampment, an accusation that city and county health officials say has no basis in fact.

Much of the city’s plan for Venice hinges on a new low-income housing facility now being developed on the site of a parking lot on Venice Boulevard. (It was one of the sites approved by voters in November.) But those plans are under threat from yet another item on tomorrow’s election agenda – a slow-growth ballot initiative, championed by opponents of mega-developments sprouting in Hollywood and elsewhere in Los Angeles.

If it passes, the initiative would freeze parts of the city planning process for two years and outlaw almost all the low-income housing developments, including the one in Venice. It’s a prospect that both alarms and infuriates advocates of the homeless.

“You can’t complain for years and years that the city isn’t doing something substantive about homelessness and then, when they do start acting, say you’re against it,” Becky Dennison said.

On the streets, people like Reynaldo are watching the battle unfold without too many expectations one way or the other. “I just live day to day,” he said, “and stay out of trouble.”

  • This story was updated on 6 March to correct the location of Venice’s new low-income housing facility

Contributor

Andrew Gumbel in Venice, California

The GuardianTramp

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