Crews continue cleanup of homeless encampments in Venice as deadline arrives

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Saturday, July 31, 2021
Venice homeless encampment: Crews continue cleanup as deadline arrives
Crews on Friday were working to remove tents along the Venice boardwalk as part of an effort to clear homeless encampments from the area.

VENICE, LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Crews on Friday were working to remove tents along the Venice boardwalk as part of an effort to clear homeless encampments from the area.

Early in the morning, a number of tents were still on the sand, but a lot of them had been cleared near Ocean Front Walk. The Los Angeles Police Department said officers were on hand to help remove them.

The deadline for unhoused people living along the boardwalk to relocate was just before midnight Friday.

According to L.A.'s Homeless Services Authority, about 183 people have been moved off the boardwalk and nearly 165 people have been moved to interim housing.

Sanitation workers were supposed to start cleaning up more homeless encampments along a portion of the Venice boardwalk Friday morning, but the process is still delayed.

Residents upset over government inaction that allowed the problem to get out of control are warily watching how it unfolds and whether the cleanup takes hold.

A problem once largely limited to the Skid Row section of downtown has spread to virtually all parts of Los Angeles. The nation's second-largest city also has the second-largest homeless population in the country - 41,000 among the overall city population of 4 million people, according to the most recent survey conducted before the pandemic.

Venice has a disproportionate concentration with an estimated 1,600 homeless people in the neighborhood of about 40,000.

When COVID-19 struck, streets already were lined with inhabited RVs and sidewalks overflowing with tents, collections of bikes, furniture and shopping carts. Encampments sprang up along the beach when restrictions on camping were not enforced during stay-home orders.

At one point, more than 200 weather-beaten tents had sprouted along the sand and grassy knolls that run between the bike path and Ocean Front Walk, the concrete boardwalk. Mattresses were stacked next to volleyball nets. Tarps reinforced with pallets, fencing and plywood created larger shelters. Sofas and chairs served as open-air living rooms.

Residents fumed at City Councilman Mike Bonin, saying he neglected the area for too long. Brash L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva inserted himself into the debate, veering outside his traditional jurisdiction and receiving a hero's welcome of sorts when he showed up on the boardwalk in a cowboy hat last month promising a cleanup.

"Everyone was waiting for someone to ride in on a horse," said Cari Bjelajac, a resident who helped form the group Friends of Venice Boardwalk. "It was hilarious it was the sheriff."

Villanueva, whose department is under investigation by the state for excessive force and other alleged misconduct, faced sharp criticism from the local political establishment for wading into city turf. He dubbed city and county leaders "architects" of the homeless problem and rejected taking a more measured approach.

"There's a time when you have to call people out and just cut through the BS," he said. "This is that moment in history for the entire region to say, 'Enough is enough. Let's get the job done.'"

Two weeks after the sheriff's appearance, Bonin announced a more comprehensive "Encampments to Homes" plan that promises permanent housing to 200 people. City records show Bonin sought $5 million to fund the program long before Villanueva arrived for the "carnival sideshow." He said Villanueva had no idea of the resources available and the groups already working with homeless people.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is blaming the mayor and the Los Angeles City Council for a growing homelessness problem in Venice and is promising to handle it himself.

One of the main questions is whether people will accept housing and stay there. A similar effort to remove a large encampment near Penmar Golf Course - a public nine-hole course about a mile from Venice Beach - succeeded in clearing the area but many people ended up back on the streets.

Some went to a temporary shelter the city set up in a former bus yard. But neighbors complained others planted their tents outside the shelter. Some who stayed indoors overnight maintained tents where they could keep possessions or use drugs and drink during the day.

Bonin, who is the target of a recall campaign, said one of the Penmar weaknesses was that it offered temporary stays but permanent housing relied on a "hope and a prayer." A lesson from that experience was to line up permanent housing vouchers in advance for the beach dwellers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.