Dressed in a denim button-down, with a brown and white blanket draped over her legs, Heather Hansen sits on the stoop of an orange apartment complex looking out onto Venice Beach. In a passing glance, she could be just another homeowner, watching the waves from her back porch on this slightly overcast January day.
But Hansen does not live in this neighborhood of colorful houses, pressed between the palm trees and the row of T-shirt peddling gift shops—at least, she does not formally live here. Rather, she is a new kind of resident—one that is at the center of a growing controversy in this town known for surfing and sprawling boardwalks: she is one of the area’s homeless.
Despite the diligent efforts of longtime activists, a narrative of crisis-level homelessness has long been a part of Los Angeles’s history. However, the traditional stronghold in Skid Row–the district which has become synonymous over the years with ‘homelessness’–is no longer the only locus for this humanitarian emergency.
According to the most recent reports from LAHSA, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, there has been a 12 percent jump in homelessness in the city overall between 2013 and 2015, including increasing pockets in residential areas. This development has tested the liberal attitudes of places like Venice Beach, where Hansen has made her camp, as homeowners are forced to confront homelessness less in theory and more in day-to-day life.
Data viewable on a Los Angeles Times topographic map displays bubbles of homeless encampments (tents and makeshift shelters) as well as people living in cars and vans in large numbers throughout residential LA communities. These neighborhoods, some quite far outside of the center of Skid Row, include Willowbrook, Westmont, Florence, Hollywood, Jefferson, and more. Venice and the immediate surrounding area claimed 422 individuals sleeping or staying on the street, 113 tents and other makeshift shelters, and 160 vehicles with homeless citizens on the night of the count alone.
“People are coming from all over the country to be homeless here because of the lax law enforcement,” says Mark Ryavec, President of the Venice Stakeholders Association, and resident of Venice Beach for more than 25 years. “There’s a reputation that you can do whatever you want at Venice Beach.”
Ryavec created the Association about five years ago in response to what he saw as major issues caused by the “transient population,” with parking, noise pollution, violence, sanitation, and drugs. He worries that the Venice attitude toward homelessness, which he sees as more relaxed than in neighboring Santa Monica, is only exacerbating the problem.
Indeed, a passing glance can discern the boundaries between the neighborhoods: where the untouched stretches of beach in Santa Monica end, the mounds of personal belongings and card-table tradesmen in Venice begin.
Hansen, who describes herself as being “in and out” of homelessness for about six years, knows all about Santa Monica’s harsher policies. She describes how stricter patrols and sometimes privately-hired security guards often police the Santa Monica coastal area at night looking for the homeless.
“They’ll kick you out,” Hansen says.
But Venice has not always been welcoming either, she says. Hansen recalls how just recently, a wary resident forced her out from underneath his balcony after seeing her stand there with her belongings.
“A guy came down and said he was going to hose down the area and I had to get out. All because I left my stuff there for more than five minutes,” Hansen says.
A little over 18 miles away in the notorious Skid Row, police have long tried to take a sympathetic stance with those in Hansen’s situation. Captain Donald Graham, Patrol Commanding Officer of the LAPD Central Division, which covers the Skid Row region, describes the homeless population as “vulnerable,” and emphasizes that, “no one is more interested in getting these folks permanent housing than the police department.”
At the same time, he says the overwhelming number of citizens living on the sidewalks, combined with the bulk of their belongings, has begun to cause serious safety concerns for other residents and pedestrians.
“The accumulation of property allows for mental stability,” he explains, “But this affects the ability of citizens to use sidewalks as intended. … Shops can’t open doors, wheelchair-bound pedestrians need to go into the street.”
“It’s a clash of the wills,” says Taneka Poarch, a Peer Leader at the Downtown Women’s Center in Skid Row, who has been homeless for the last four years. “This population says ‘I’m here, I have my tent, I don’t wanna move’ and business owners saying ‘No you’re gonna move.’ … It’s almost like a stand-off.”
“People on the streets are very territorial. They’ve been there so long, they think they own that spot,” chimes in Pamela Walls, another Peer Leader with the Downtown Women’s Center, who had been homeless herself for five years.
Back in Venice, though, the neighborhood is attempting to resist realities like Walls and Poarch describe: where business owners yell in exasperation at the homeless sleeping in front of their fire exits and shop fronts. The community here prides itself on a liberal and compassionate attitude.
“The reason I’ve been here this long is because everyone was welcome. … The community supports everyone, no matter color or economic situation,” says Sylvia Aroth of the Venice Neighborhood Council and a resident of the area since the 1960s. To her, it seems that the recent tensions in the community have more to do with the type of high-end homes going up in the area.
“Venice is a place where homelessness has been condoned. … There have been traditionally less rules than in other places. They [the homeless] haven’t been as enthusiastically chased out as they have been in other places,” she reasons. “[But] since Venice has become so popular and so expensive, there are a lot of people who feel they should be chased out.”
“The more affluent … they prefer not to have homeless individuals residing as their neighbors,” echoes Dr. Hsun-Ta Hsu, lead author of “Location, Location, Location: Perceptions of Safety and Security Among Formerly Homeless Persons Transitioned to Permanent Supportive Housing.”
Many residents, however bristle under accusations of NIMBY-ism, the “Not In My Backyard” attitude that wants “problem populations” elsewhere. According to local homeowners and many of the area’s homeless themselves, the neighborhood has been overwhelmingly sympathetic. Hansen recalls home-owning residents coming around during the holidays to hand out plates of food to the fellow homeless; local patrols of officers stand at the ready with pamphlets on resources and are greeted affectionately by homeless men and women during the day; Aroth recalls “75 percent positive responses” from her neighbors on a local petition to establish a storage facility for belongings of homeless residents.
Sergeant Howell of the LA Police Beach Control, Venice Beach Detail, identifies it as an issue of balance “between personal rights and the needs to take care of your fellow man.” He notes, “We have to deal with enforcing laws for residents and supporting the homeless. We go on a lot of calls and some people will feel we’re being too harsh and some will feel we’re not doing anything.”
Officer Kwon, also on the Detail, notes that there is roughly a fifty-fifty split between support of and resistance to the homeless population among home-owning residents. He echoes Howell, “Some say ‘Get these people out of here by any means necessary;’ others say ‘We appreciate the support you’re giving them.’” In the end, Kwon says, it becomes a question about how far the police can and should go with enforcement versus outreach and support.
Homeowners on both sides of the issue can agree, though, that Venice and Los Angeles as a whole need to be working to find long-term solutions to the problem that has sprouted this secondary community inside their own.
“There’s a big difference between giving someone one meal and giving someone a step up out of homelessness,” Hansen comments, as she looks out toward the graying sky.