The nonprofit community health center serves 4,500 unhoused people in West LA and has worked there for decades.
In a statement, they say the LA County Sheriff’s Department is pushing for the forced displacement and criminalization of people experiencing homelessness, which is detrimental to their health.
The clinic’s CEO Elizabeth Benson Forer tells KCRW that when the sheriff and others showed up to the beach last week, they weren’t trying to solve the core of the issue. “They're trying to exacerbate it. They're trying to score political points. And they're stirring up people in Venice and other communities whose solution to housing issues is to simply say, ‘I don't care what you do, governmental officials. I just don't want those people living near me.’”
The clinic has been sending doctors to encampment areas for the past 15 years. Forer says they work with different organizations to help unhoused people, including the LA County Department of Public Health, LA Department of Mental Health, local nonprofits and governmental offices.
They also work with the LA Police Department whose turf involves Venice Beach. “We have a lot of good contact with the LAPD police officers who work with the homeless in Venice. And the sheriff [is] just popping up out of the blue with personnel, without coordinating with anybody really in the realm that we work in,” says Forer.
She says the sheriff doesn’t actually have the housing and service resources needed to do the outreach he says they’re going to do. “There are many other things going on in LA County that require your attention. This is one conversation that you do not need to be part of. That's it.”
Benson Forer questions the sheriff’s motive. “The sheriff is essentially showing up and saying, ‘That's not good enough. If I clean these people off the streets, they'll not be with you.’ So is he planning on jailing people? Which right now, the law does not support that in any way, shape or form. What are the intentions? Is he considering doing violent harm to people as a way to get them to go away? I'm not sure. What is his jurisdiction? Has he been ordered by the county supervisors to come in? I haven't seen that happen. So therefore, one has to ask the question: Why is this person popping up here and now?”
However, the issue goes beyond the sheriff. It involves wealth “What the sheriff's doing, he's being the street sweeper, and sweep it on down the street somewhere else. And as a wealthy community, that's what Venice is trying to do,” says Forer.
She’s sympathetic to residents who complain about homelessness problems in their neighborhood. “It's a hard thing to live with someone when you walk outside of your home and in your alley. And there's a mess there because of the homeless person. It's an awful thing every day and I understand that. But the only way to fix this is to come together and work together.”
For the advocate, LA’s homelessness crisis boils down to affordable housing. “As almost everyone who lives in Los Angeles knows, we have had a failed housing policy in this city for more than 30 years. We continue to not invest in housing. Finally, it's caught up with us. The pandemic has exacerbated it.”
She continues, “If we're truly going to create or help people who are living on the street … we need to treat it as the emergency that it is.”
She and the Venice Family Clinic point out that while some unhoused people struggle with mental health or substance abuse, people with permanent housing deal with those issues too. However, she notes, “They're much more able to cope and begin to address those issues … if they have a home and a shelter and a place to be.”
Meanwhile, Villanueva has rebuffed criticism, saying the LASD will continue to “provide service for those who need them and continue to ensure all residents can enjoy public spaces.”