‘A World Gone Mad’: Upscale LA Neighborhood Wrestles With Worsening Homeless Crisis
Abbott 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 are proud to reside in this unique nook of town.
But over the last year, the community within this stretch of Venice grew even closer over a common frustration: the growing homeless encampments.
The issue is not new to 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 countywide. A forecast by the Economic Roundtable estimates that 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. They say 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 her home on North Venice Blvd. between Abbott Kinney and Electric Ave., her reality is not 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. She filed a police report against the apparent ringleader of the RV encampment, Brandon Washington, because she says 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,’” Keaton said. “It was scary.”
She 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 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 said 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 the plight of Washington 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 H.E.L.P.E.R Foundation, a gang intervention coalition serving the Venice and Mar Vista neighborhoods.
Venice neighbors say they trust him so much they call him first when there’s a safety or noise issue. The homeless trust him, too, so he is able to keep the peace.
Most of the vagrants in Venice are involved in some element of gang activity, even if they are not officially part of a set, he 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 earlier this year 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 (LASD HOST) conducted a cleanup of the sidewalk surrounding the RVs on Sept. 8 and 9, but Keaton said they won’t enforce any measures that would force the RVs to move. She fears 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,” Keaton said.
Venice Neighborhood Council Board member Soledad Ursua told The Epoch Times the RVs receive citations, but a homeless service provider in the area allegedly pays for the tickets.
Ursua 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,” she added.
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 this year, the Los Angeles Fire Department reported.
The neighborhood experienced a sharp uptick in crime during the summer, too, according to statistics provided to the Venice Neighborhood Council by LAPD Capt. Steve Embrich.
Year-to-date numbers showed that robberies nearly tripled since the same period last year. Homeless-related robberies were up 260 percent, homeless-related assaults with a deadly weapon were up 118 percent, property crimes and area burglaries were up 85 percent, and grand theft auto was up 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 press conference inside the Hall of Justice on June 23. “And that is a microcosm of what’s going on throughout the entire county of Los Angeles.”
Los Angeles 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 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 most homeless people in Venice don’t want the 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 dealt with a homeless crisis prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, city restrictions may have exacerbated the problem. Curfew on tents in public were rolled back and sanitation crews were cut to mitigate the spread of the virus. Other city codes were suspended, too. 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 always had a quirky community of homeless individuals, but they were largely artists and entertainers. They weren’t addicts. He 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 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, Gov. Gavin Newsom visited West Los Angeles VA Medical Center. During the press conference, Newsom told reporters that $22 billion in funds 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 they look around, and 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,” said Venice Neighborhood Council Board member Robert Thibodeau.
“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—the heartbeat of Venice—have been speaking out, too. 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,” he said.
Moeller added his employees have been attacked by transients on the boardwalk.
Neighbors also criticized Proposition HHH, a $1.2 billion bond passed in 2016 by Angelenos to build 10,000 supportive housing units. As of February, the city controller discovered only 489 of the bond-funded units were ready for occupancy.
Because of the lack of supportive housing, a number of tiny home villages have popped up across the county as 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 are given orders.
Previously, Lt. Deedrick told The Epoch Times: “The HOST team provides that guardian mentality, so you can have a safe space for those discussions, but that’s where the policy makers and executives and those things, we leave that to them; we deploy at the direction of the sheriff.”
Residents Launch Recall Campaign
Many Venice neighbors who originally voted in Councilmember Bonin to represent them in the 11th district, like Keaton, are pulling back their support. Earlier this year, a recall campaign was launched, and on Nov. 10, petitioners collected enough signatures to move forward in the recall election process.
They blame Bonin for the increased homelessness and 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 the only two dissenting votes.
Thibodeau said Bonin’s views are on the “radical fringe,” that aligns with special interest groups and far-left activists. Thibodeau, who identifies as a centrist, said he’s sent dozens of emails to Bonin’s office with no response.
“The sad thing is 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 a city council meeting last month, Bonin voted not to 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 residents’ frustrations, the LAPD has their hands tied due to the city’s catch-and-release policies. Homeless people who commit crimes are often back on the streets within hours if they refuse services.
Thibodeau said he believes 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 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 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,” he said.
As far as the sidewalk on N. Venice Boulevard taken over by RVs and tents, Thibodeau said, “Living next to this stuff is very draining.” He said he’s thinking about organizing street protests to address the issue.
Councilmember Bonin’s office did not respond to a request for comment by press deadline.