In an unusual move, Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva has sent a letter to the County of Los Angeles Board of Supervisors urging them to declare a local state of emergency to address the spiraling homelessness crisis in the county, citing an increase in crime, lack of sanitation, and struggling businesses.
“We’ve been inundated with calls, with concerns, with images from the news, from people picking up the phone, emailing, sending us letters, about what’s going on in Venice,” Villanueva told reporters during a press conference inside the Hall of Justice on June 23. “And that is a microcosm of what’s going on throughout the entire county of Los Angeles.
“Enough is enough. We need to kick this into high gear.”
There are an estimated 200 homeless people on the Venice Beach Boardwalk and 2,000 throughout the neighborhood, making it the second-largest concentration of homeless people in downtown Los Angeles, after Skid Row. The boardwalk has been getting significant attention recently from Villanueva and the sheriffs’ Homeless Outreach and Services Team (HOST).
With the state of emergency, the county would be eligible for FEMA funds, since county resources are limited, according to Villanueva.
“With the homeless, you have two choices if you’re an elected official: You can get busy helping [or] you get busy hindering. It’s your choice,” he said.
A few Venice community residents who have been sounding the alarm for months were also part of the press conference. Chie Lunn, a teacher and member of the Venice Public Health & Safety Committee, told The Epoch Times, “There was a huge problem that was growing around us.” She said her “children were becoming more and more enclosed.”
“And it wasn’t just because of COVID. I felt like I needed to do something for not only them, but for other children in the neighborhood, as I witnessed more people going inward within their safety and feeling like they couldn’t just walk outside their front doors,” she said.
She said the Venice Beach Park was labeled by 11th District Councilman Mike Bonin, whose district includes Venice, “as a place for kids to go during COVID to feel safe and to get internet access.”
“Yet at that very park, we had three RVs exploding. We had drug use. We had RVs staying on the streets. So when we talk about sanitation, our police have been doing an amazing job, our sanitation has been doing a great job. But they cannot keep up with the amount of things and people dropping off stuff and using our streets as a dumping ground for their trash,” Lunn said.
Billions in Funding Spent
“It is a national disgrace,” Villanueva said. “All those 501 C-3 organizations … we’re going to talk about money. There is a homeless industrial complex, and they’re raking in money, not by the millions, not by the hundreds of millions, by the billions.”
Villanueva shared salary data equating to more than $2.8 million of the top-earning employees compensated by the Venice Family Clinic, a nonprofit organization that provides comprehensive health care services to low-income residents in Venice.
“But what actually gets out to the actual service provided by individuals is just not there,” he said.
Villanueva slammed the state’s “housing first” policy, a theory officials have adopted that building permanent and supportive housing units immediately will solve the homelessness crisis. However, Measure HHH, a $1.2 billion bond obligation passed in 2016 by Angeleno voters to build 10,000 supportive housing units, has only constructed a total of three buildings.
“You cannot build your way out of homelessness,” Villanueva said. “It was the Los Angeles Homeless Authority themselves that said for every 100 that we house, they’re replaced by 120 on the street—that math seems to elude these people … our elected officials.”
On average, Los Angeles spends close to $1 billion annually on homeless services, according to data the sheriff provided.
“In fact, we’re way past $2 billion this year, because this is just half of one year, so the true numbers are way up here, as the problem grows, like clockwork, year after year. So, you tell me, you think it’s time to regulate public space?” he said.
In response to the press conference, Councilman Bonin released a statement: “Sheriff Villanueva and I are very different. I believe in treating people humanely and with dignity, whether they are housed or unhoused. I believe everyone has a right to housing, food, and health care, and I applaud those who provide it. And I believe (and evidence shows) that the best, most effective, least expensive way to end homelessness is with housing, not with handcuffs.”
Enforcing the Law
The famed beach town of Venice has been inundated with tents, trash, needles, drugs, and an increased number of homeless people since the pandemic rolled back city codes that previously prohibited encampments on the beach.
Bob Carlson, the owner of a local skate shop called Arbor Venice, has been victimized several times by homeless people outside his shop. Two weeks ago, his beloved security guard “T” was brutally attacked by a homeless person who was high on drugs.
“He stabbed him multiple times in the head tearing up pieces of his scalp,” Carlson told reporters, before pausing.
“Sorry, this is tough … these are people who work for me, and I feel responsible for. He tore open his wrist and sliced his finger to the bone and cut him in several other places across his arms and torso.”
Carlson, who has lived in Venice Beach for the last 25 years, said that, as a skateboarder, he’s had multiple interactions with police officers in his life that were less than perfect.
“It takes a lot for me to stand up here, and give that man my thanks very publicly, but that’s what I’m here to do,” Carlson said, pointing to Villanueva.
“The people of Venice are scared and walk around in fear of being attacked. Our tourists are gone. Our restaurants and businesses are struggling. And one of the cultural hearts, the arts community of Los Angeles is being decimated, and something has to be done about it.”
Bonin was granted $5 million by the Budget & Finance Committee to ramp up the efforts to combat homelessness, specifically in Venice. The councilman has been staunchly opposed to law enforcement’s involvement in the effort.
“The ‘Venice Beach Encampment to Home’ program will not be led by law enforcement, nor driven by threats of arrest or incarceration. We will offer what works: housing, with counseling or mental health services, substance abuse recovery services, and anything else needed to successfully transition people into housing,” Bonin wrote in a June 22 email.
Bonin plans to reach every person on the boardwalk by deploying outreach workers from St. Joseph Center for six weeks under the new plan. Residents are thankful for the help, but say it comes on the heels of ignored cries for help.
A month before the pandemic, Bonin championed A Bridge Home just a few blocks away from the boardwalk. It’s unclear how many homeless people on the boardwalk are being connected to that supportive housing unit. Encampments, trash, and RVs line the sidewalks surrounding the unit, and neighbors say they fear for their safety.
LAPD Capt. Steve Embrich told the Venice Neighborhood Council earlier this month that felony arrests are up 68 percent and misdemeanor arrests are up 355 percent, but it doesn’t make much of a difference when they’re released on the same day.
According to the Sheriff’s Department, there have been zero arrests made during the HOST efforts.
Lt. Geff Deedrick, who leads the HOST team, told The Epoch Times: “We do what we do regardless of the other issues surrounding this topic, in a political effort, in a sense that politics doesn’t factor into the human condition.”
He said that so far, they’ve done seven outreaches and connected 15 people to housing, and four people have been reunified with their families through West Coast Care.
“We’ve talked to roughly 140, we’re at 10 percent right there, but it’s a preliminary conversation,” Deedrick said.
As Independence Day draws near, Villanueva and his team have been in Venice for the last two weeks talking to business owners and homeless individuals to better understand their concerns. The goal is to have all the encampments cleared by that date, with every homeless person connected to housing or rehabilitation resources.
And for the “nomadic travelers” who don’t want to move? Villanueva said they will once again enforce the “laws that exist already.”
“You don’t have a right to negatively impact the community and claim public space as your own,” he said.
Villanueva cited California Gov. Code 26.600 as reason for the department’s authority to act. The code says that the sheriff “shall preserve peace, and to accomplish this object may sponsor, supervise, or participate in any project of crime prevention, rehabilitation of persons previously convicted of crime, or the suppression of delinquency.”
“The assumption is that every single subdivision of LA County has a police force, and they’re doing their job. Or better yet, they’re permitted to do their job by the political oversight,” he said.
“In this case, we have an absolute failure of political oversight, who has handcuffed the LAPD, [which] was more than capable to get the job done and regulate public space.”