Column: Yikes! Is Sheriff Villanueva actually making sense about homelessness in Venice Beach?

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VENICE, CA - APRIL 16, 2021 - - A bicyclists rides past several homeless tents along the bike path in Venice on April 16, 2021. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
A bicyclist rides past homeless people's tents along the bike path in Venice. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The debate over homelessness in Venice Beach reminds me of the old advertising slogan for Certs: “It’s a breath mint. No, it’s a candy mint!”

Some insist the explosion of people living on the street is a result of addiction and mental illness. Others blame the lack of affordable housing.

Anyone capable of critical thinking, however, can see it’s actually all of those things. The causes of the current misery on Oceanfront Walk, where about 200 people in various states of distress are sleeping in tents, shooting up, drinking, smoking meth and often acting out in violent or self-destructive ways (not to mention making life hell for residents, business owners and tourists), are deeply tangled and multifactorial. The pandemic seriously exacerbated the problem.

But regardless of the causes, just about everyone agrees: The situation is out of control.

Still, Sheriff Alex Villanueva came off his usual arrogant, posturing self when he swooped down on Venice Beach and announced his intention of clearing the boardwalk of homeless folks and their tents by July 4.

His action was certainly meant to show up both the LAPD, which has said its hands are tied in dealing with the Venice situation, and L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, who furiously denounced the sheriff on Twitter.

The move also was fairly insulting to the many dedicated activists and organizations — like St. Joseph Center — that have been working hard to help folks get off the streets.

But you know what? Since Villanueva's surprise invasion of Venice in early June, I've started wondering whether the slap in the face he delivered was just what the doctor ordered.

We don’t often see an open-air feud like this between public officials; in fact, the last time I remember such discord was in 1992, when then-Mayor Tom Bradley and then-Police Chief Daryl Gates, who were at war with each other, refused to communicate even as chaos erupted in the city after officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King.

It pains me to say this, since our sheriff sometimes behaves like a lawless rogue, but maybe his grandstanding will pay off for the many long-suffering people of Venice Beach, and by people I mean the housed, the unhoused, the business owners and the tourists.

All of us are diminished by the current humanitarian disaster.

When people speak of this stretch of beach as an open-air asylum, they are not exaggerating.

Friday morning, as I dropped my 11-year-old off for surf camp in the Rose Avenue parking lot, a man was screaming obscenities into the air and a disheveled woman was slumped over in a daze against the low parking lot wall. Videos of the dysfunction in Venice Beach have become a YouTube genre all their own.

Last Tuesday, in timing many of his critics scorned, Bonin, who has been served with recall papers, released a long letter to the community, laying out the bones of a six-week-long “ambitious and unprecedented program that will humanely address the homelessness crisis in Venice Beach.” He has asked the City Council for $5 million to fund the effort.

Starting Monday, outreach workers will be offering housing to those living in encampments: up to six months in temporary quarters, which the councilman hopes will pave the way “to permanent housing,” he wrote.

Bonin, whose principles I generally admire, slammed Villanueva, “whose presence and lack of familiarity with Venice and available services has been disruptive to outreach efforts.”

Disruptive to whom, though?

The sheriff’s Homeless Outreach Services Team, led by Lt. Geoffrey Deedrick, has helped move people off the boardwalk into a shelter in Bell that is run by the Salvation Army. On Friday, Deedrick told me that his team has placed more than 15 people from Venice in shelters and directed others to substance-abuse programs. He is taken aback by the criticism, saying that his team was established eight years ago, follows strict protocols, treasures its relationships with social service agencies, and has never made an arrest or used force when trying to help homeless people into shelter. "It's a humantarian mission," he said, noting that his job is to protect vulnerable populations from violent crime, which is abundant on the boardwalk.

Many locals have applauded the sheriff's arrival.



“I think the beauty of the sheriff coming in is it’s shaking things up and forcing action,” said Heidi Roberts, a Venice resident who, with her husband, John Betz, founded Haaven, an organization that is currently housing 170 people in several apartment houses that the couple own in Los Angeles. She thinks it’s wrong, during a crisis like the one we are confronting, to focus on permanent affordable housing, which is in such short supply.

A marquee outside a shop reads, 'Thank you, Sheriff Villanueva. Screw the Shame Mongers.'
The marquee at Arbor Collective, a Venice Beach skate shop, has reflected community frustration with Councilman Mike Bonin. (Robin Abcarian / Los Angeles Times)

“We have people rotting on the streets, people dying in front of us. We can’t go from the beach to permanent solutions. We cannot wait for this future perfect housing to be built,” she told me Thursday. “What I wish more than anything is something I tweeted at Bonin,” she told me. “‘Come on! Just man up on this one and go shake that sheriff’s hand and say, ‘I don’t agree with how you are going about this, but we all have the same goal. Don’t arrest anyone, and I will work with you.’”

Instead, Bonin has stooped to tweeting out attacks on the sheriff, who has rightfully been criticized by the department’s Civilian Oversight Commission for a laundry list of abuses, including arresting journalists at political protests and mishandling the investigation into the leaked photos of the Kobe Bryant crash.

“The sheriff says he’s coming to Venice,” warned Bonin the day after Villaneuva swooped in.

“He didn’t call to offer services or housing which would help,” tweeted Bonin. “He went on a PR blitz, promising his own notorious brand of justice. To anyone familiar with Villanueva and LASD, that’s incredibly ominous.”

But that does not appear to be how things are actually going down on Venice Beach right now, and for many people who have despaired, there is finally a sense of hope.

“I am experiencing my first sense of optimism in two years,” said Elaine Spierer, who has lived in Venice since 1985.

She had an unexpectedly strong reaction to the feud between Bonin and Villanueva: “Thank God,” she thought. “Let’s have a rumble.”

@AbcarianLAT

For the record:
10:16 a.m. June 27, 2021: An earlier version of this article misspelled Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s surname in the headline as Villaneuva.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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