‘Unzipped’: Intimate look at housing-insecure families in Venice

By Zeke Reed

Venice, California is known for its boardwalk, beaches, and laid back surfer lifestyle. It is also a flashpoint in local and national conversations about housing, homelessness, and gentrification. 

Venice used to be affordable and home to a diverse range of artists, outsiders, and a large Black and Latino community. Nowadays the median home price is around $2 million, and rising rents far outpace stagnant wages, pricing a lot of folks out of the neighborhood. 

The housing crunch precipitates homeless encampments in beaches, parks, and alleyways — a stark display of income inequality in one of LA’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Residents, politicians, activists, and unhoused folks scramble for solutions while pointing fingers.  

A new documentary from director Colin K. Gray and producer Lucy Liu, featuring original music from Run the Jewels, depicts two years in the struggle over who gets to call Venice home and the ripple effects of poverty on the community. It’s called “Unzipped: An Autopsy of American Inequality” and is currently on a limited run at the Laemmle Santa Monica. 

Gray says the project started as a broader effort to locate inequality in various zip codes across the country before landing on Venice. 

“We decided to use this local lens, one community, and several families to investigate this story [of] this national issue.”

During the course of filming from 2018 to 2020, Gray witnessed the changes taking place in real time. Homelessness increased both anecdotally and statistically in the neighborhood. The numbers have fluctuated over the last several years, but currently hover around 1000 people according to recent estimates. Some argue the numbers are likely higher. 

Gray describes how this is a matter of life and death: “While we were filming, over 5000 Los Angelenos died on the streets of LA,” he explains. “The average is three people die every day on the streets of LA because of homelessness.”

The film humanizes these statistics through up-close and intimate portrayals of several struggling families like De Shawn Huff and Nikol Sapien’s. 

According to Gray, “Nikol and De Shawn had been living on the streets 62 consecutive days without shelter when we first started documenting them. They were very brave to allow us into their lives, and we followed them for over two years. But the interesting thing is that they are almost one of the hopeful parts of the film because of the intervention of incredible frontline services organizations like St. Joseph Center and Safe Place for Youth, which are based here in Venice. They go from the street to a temporary motel, and without giving away the entire ending of the film, they find stability.”

While happy endings like theirs exist, the ongoing housing crisis continues to prevent lots of folks who work in Venice from living there. For Gray, this harms the diversity of the neighborhood and undermines a basic social contract.

“Teachers, firemen, nurses, service workers — they can't even afford to rent or buy in the communities where they work. … People who contribute to making our communities thrive should be able to rent and buy in those areas.”

In a town famous for its contributions to the international art world, many local artists are among the victims of what Gray calls the “tsunami of gentrification.” 

The documentary also looks at the effects that homelessness has on the housed residents of Venice who see their quality of life impacted. It follows the heated debate over a bridge housing development built on a former Metro bus parking lot and features several residents advocating for the mass removal of the unhoused from Venice.   

Gray, a long-time Venice resident, empathizes with his neighbors who are tired of the status quo. He’s even found used syringes in his own backyard next to his daughter’s swing set. 

“We wanted to make sure we gave space in the film to hear from residents who were beyond frustrated, who were fearful. …But I think where I come from is that these are fellow American citizens and human beings first. Demonizing them, and sweeping them out of our communities, when we don't have enough shelter beds or permanent supportive housing for them, I just don't think is the answer.”  

Gray disagrees with folks who would like to see Venice reserved for only those who can afford the prevailing housing costs. In his mind, the path forward will require something like “a Marshall Plan for housing in this country. We need to be thinking long-term and about the systemic issues that lead to this growing disparity.” 

Despite the challenges he’s witnessed as a filmmaker and Venice resident, Gray remains optimistic about the change in local leadership in the Mayor’s Office and at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). He hopes that housing affordability can become a nonpartisan issue. 

Whether this optimism becomes reality, one fact remains clear: If Venice doesn’t build more housing and provide more services to folks in need, current trends will continue.