Homelessness in Venice becomes political flashpoint, LA County sheriff now involved

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski and Rosalie Atkinson

LA City Councilman Joe Buscaino is running to replace Mayor Eric Garcetti, and he held his first official campaign event on Monday along the Venice Beach boardwalk. LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva was also in the area. When people in the crowd saw an unhoused woman standing nearby holding a knife, police immediately detained her as onlookers jeered at her. It was a dramatic moment in Venice, as the homelessness crisis has gotten out of control in the beachfront community.

Anna Scott, KCRW reporter covering housing and homelessness, explains that the woman was 19-year-old Alaia Smith from Washington state. 

Buscaino was unveiling new policies he’d have as mayor, including opening enough shelters for the unhoused, building new affordable units, and enforcing anti-camping laws in the city.

“We need to ban encampments in parks, beaches and sidewalks. And for those who refuse to go into shelters or permanent housing, we must engage every measure available in order to get them off the streets. And if that means using law enforcement, I support it,” Buscaino said in Venice.

Scott points out that homelessness isn’t new to Venice. It has the largest population of unhoused people in the city outside of Skid Row. 

“That's partly because there is a concentration of services there. In the past year, the pandemic has made homelessness more visible throughout the city. So that is especially true in areas that already had a large number of unhoused people,” she says. “Venice is a world-famous tourist destination. It also has many homeowners who are very vocal on this issue and have been for a long time. So for all those reasons, it is a real flashpoint right now.”

According to City Councilmember Mike Bonin, whose district includes Venice, Buscaino and Villanueva are using the homelessness problem as a political tool. 

“It was really interesting: two politicians in one day exploiting the crisis in Venice and grandstanding for their own political benefit. I think that's the politics of it. We've got people who are exploiting a crisis rather than trying to solve it.”

He points out that the presence of the Sheriff’s Department on the beach will only do harm.

“The sheriff, who has a terrible track record of civil rights violations and defying civilian control, [comes] in and [tries] to do what he claims is outreach. Except he's … trying to push people away, not offer them any services. And what's going to happen [is] they're going to wind up moving a block from the beach, away from the services we're trying to offer them, and they're gonna move into people's carports. And that doesn't solve a damn thing.” 

Bonin says he understands that there is a crisis in Venice and action needs to be taken. 

“I walked down the boardwalk and my blood boils. And you can do one of two things with that anger. You can use that anger to sort of rage blindly, oppose housing and shelter or services, as the sheriff has done, and as some of the people who were there yesterday have done. Or you can use it and you can double down, and you can focus on providing the housing and the services that we need.”

Bonin states that he favors providing services to shelter people at Venice Beach, which includes opening a converted motel with 33 rooms in July and providing more rooms in bridge housing. 

“We are not going to ask LAPD or, god forbid, the sheriff's office to come in and militarize the entire place and declare martial law and shut the place down for a couple of months. The beach belongs to everybody. And the idea that you deny the beach to everybody in order to get some people out of there just doesn't fly.”

He adds, “We've got two options here. We can either do what we know addresses homelessness. We can do what we know reduces encampments: getting people housing, shelter and services. Or we can double down on the failed policies of criminalization, which costs more, and just pushes people from neighborhood to neighborhood.”