Candidates visit L.A. homeless encampments. Not everything goes according to plan

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WEST LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 30: Jonathan Garcia, 35, sits next to his tent in a homeless encampment outside the West L.A. Veterans Affairs facilities on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. The encampment is on San Vicente Boulevard in an unincorporated area near Brentwood in West Los Angeles, CA. Dozens of veterans live at the encampment, sometimes called Veterans Row, where some tents are decorated with U.S. flags. Recently a homeless veteran had been stapped to death near by. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Jonathan Garcia sits next to his tent in a homeless encampment outside the West L.A. Veterans Affairs facilities. (Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

The shouting started shortly after L.A. City Atty. and mayoral candidate Mike Feuer began speaking to reporters near a high-profile homeless encampment outside the Veterans Affairs campus in West Los Angeles. A homeless veteran had been killed there earlier in the day.

A man, angry over the federal government's use of the site, repeatedly interrupted Feuer, demanding to know his plans for homelessness.

“What are you going to do for veterans?" the man yelled during Wednesday's encounter.

Homelessness is the top issue for voters in the 2022 mayor’s race, according to a recent poll, and political candidates are heading to areas with homeless encampments to address the crisis and announce their solutions.

Feuer's visit laid bare the complicated issues surrounding the row of tents outside the VA campus.

It also showed that candidates' visits to areas with large homeless populations can quickly become chaotic, reflecting the on-the-ground reality.

In June, City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who also is running for mayor, abruptly ended an event after police spotted a woman with a knife. Buscaino, who was flanked by supporters at the news conference, was quickly hustled away.

The team of Larry Elder, whose candidacy for governor ended last week, was physically and verbally accosted during a recent tour of Venice. A woman threw an egg at Elder, missing him. Elder's team contends the incident was racially motivated.

Political consultant Eric Hacopian said candidates who have news conferences at encampments to talk about homelessness “aren’t adding anything.”

“Unless you’re doing something constructive, you’re being opportunistic and exploitative,” Hacopian said.

Feuer said Wednesday's slaying at the encampment prompted him to visit and call on L.A. County officials to clear the tents and house residents. Services at the VA are available, Feuer told reporters, and the encampment — known as Veterans Row — is dangerous for its residents.

“No one should live this way,” Feuer said. He also said that he would seek more funds for mental health services if he's elected mayor.

The situation outside the Veterans Affairs campus has been fraught, in part because of distrust of the government by some veterans. Feuer, at his news conference, said the encampment started as a protest over the use of the campus.

Anthony Allman, executive director with the nonprofit Vets Advocacy, told The Times last week that resources are available.

"There has been a concerned effort between VA, L.A. County and providers to offer services on Veterans Row," Allman said.

Rob Reynolds, a nonprofit volunteer who works with veterans at the encampment and met with homicide detectives after the man's killing last week, accused Feuer of using the situation for political gain. He also said veterans on Veterans Row struggle to get same-day, consistent services.

One of the encampment’s residents, GemBob Brookhyser, said he’d been unable to get help.

But Brookhyser said he welcomed mayoral candidates at the encampment. He spoke with Feuer after his news conference, he added, calling him an "all right guy."

"There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” Brookhyser said. “Bringing light into the dark corners of this horrible problem is a good thing.”

The same sentiment was expressed by some residents in neighboring Brentwood, who have long been concerned about the tents.

Michelle Bisnoff said she agrees with the city attorney about the need for a “full-scale county response” at the site.

“For us, it was refreshing to see Mike Feuer there,” said Bisnoff, who is chair of the Brentwood Community Council, a group of residents, business districts and homeowners associations.

Mel Wilson, a lobbyist for a real estate trade group who is also running for mayor, criticized political candidates who hold events near encampments.

“For them to go and have a photo op, that’s using the homeless as a prop,” Wilson said.

Feuer and Buscaino should be visiting encampments to apologize to homeless residents for the condition of the city, Wilson said.

John Shallman, Feuer’s political advisor, said Feuer also visits encampments without bringing reporters along.

“Sometimes you have to have a public event to apply pressure to public officials,” Shallman said of Wednesday's event.

In some cases, activists angry over the city's homelessness policies are targeting mayoral candidates at their public events.

Protesters got into a scuffle with one of Buscaino's aides at an event in Hollywood last month after the aide grabbed a sign from a protester.

Buscaino, who talked about his plans to prohibit tents from going up near schools, delivered his remarks in front of a Hollywood school. Nearby was a roadway lined on both sides with tents, bicycle parts and other possessions.

Protesters said they gathered behind Buscaino to ensure that he would not provide television cameras the encampment as a backdrop.

Robin Petering, policy chair of homeless services group Ktown for All, was one of the protesters who tried to block the view.

In an interview, Petering accused Buscaino of trying to exploit the encampment, rather than talk about larger systemic problems that lead to homelessness.

Petering expressed frustration that politicians portray encampments as a nuisance to a neighborhood and link crime and blight to tents.

“These are places where people are living because they have been pushed out of other places,” Petering said.

Mike Trujillo, a political consultant who is advising Buscaino, said that when political candidates want to talk about education, they go to schools.

"And when you talk about homelessness, you go to where unhoused residents are experiencing it," Trujillo said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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