‘Like Hell Went to Hell’: The Tragic Demise of Venice Beach
LOS ANGELES—World-renowned Venice Beach has long been a place where visitors, residents, and business owners have commingled with artists, musicians, and entertainers from all over the country. Over 10 million tourists visit the California beach’s famous boardwalk each year, drawn in by the ocean view and the unconventional lifestyle of the neighborhood’s eccentric community.
But the famed destination no longer circulates in headlines for its wacky tourist attractions or local eateries. Instead, the beach town has become known worldwide for its flourishing homeless encampments, burgeoning filth, skyrocketing crime rate, and increasingly violent transients.
As officials dawdle, the beachside area is falling to ruin, residents say, overwhelmed by the homeless, who are making their lives a living hell.
Their cries for help have gone largely unheeded—until now. Last week, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced a July 4th sweep that aims to clean up the mess.
For residents who have been trying to get local officials to act for months, the action can’t come soon enough.
During a recent trip to Venice, Villanueva said the tents need to be cleared by Independence Day, after reports of crime, arson, and filth went unaddressed for months. He blames elected leaders for not handling the issue.
“When I was out there in Venice, I talked to a shop owner, and he was fit to be tied,” Villanueva told The Epoch Times.
“He’s tired of politicians, tired of people in the city doing nothing. And it’s impacting his ability for customers to come in, [added to] the cost of people trying to break into his business and people causing scenes, fights, [and] outside fires. It’s like a third-world country.”
But not all locals approve of the sweep. Some activists quickly criticized the move on social media.
“Why is this @LASDHQ dressed like this to do outreach? Why do they have guns?” the People’s City Council asked on Twitter.
For some residents, the uptick in recent violent attacks by the homeless on workers, residents, and the elderly are justification enough.
Cleaning Up the Mess
Within the last two weeks alone, there have been three reports of alleged attacks by the homeless.
A 70-year-old man, a small business manager, and a security guard were all victims of random attacks, according to local reports. It was the final straw that caught the attention of law enforcement—even though residents say the problem has been bubbling to the surface for months.
Butch Say, a traveling transient who sings rock and roll on the boardwalk, has called Venice home for the past two years. He said people like him are attracted to the neighborhood by its welcoming culture and the weather—but even he’s noticed that things are getting worse.
“It’s nutty, but they like it. And that’s part of the reason a lot of people come here,” Say told The Epoch Times.
Say watched on June 8 as 18 officers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Housing Outreach and Services Team (HOST) descended on the boardwalk, cleaning up trash and alerting the homeless of the upcoming action.
“The trash is going to fill right back up in a few days,” Say said with a chuckle.
HOST stepped in to mitigate the chaos that’s been ensuing in the area and tried to connect homeless individuals with housing and other stabilization resources ahead of the July 4th sweep.
Say says this was the first time he’d seen the Sheriff’s Department in force.
“You never see them. It’s usually LAPD [the Los Angeles Police Department], and they’re cool. They roll by and they just keep the peace—which is not much more you can ask from them, because this is on nonstop, 24-hours-a-day going, this lifestyle, and it gets crazy,” he told The Epoch Times.
“Some people, you know, [do] too much drugs. They’re up for days—weeks—and they’re just psychotic, running around screaming at … invisible trees and whatever.”
Deputy Lewis, one of the officers on duty that day, told The Epoch Times, “To be honest, I didn’t know about Venice Beach until 6 a.m. this morning.”
But Lt. Jeff Deedrick, who led the HOST team, was bothered by the recent attacks.
“Our mission is humanitarian; this is a crisis, and this is bad. And the acts of violence here have been significant,” Deedrick told The Epoch Times.
“It was heartbreaking to see the gentleman the other day get punched in the face in broad daylight. That can’t happen. We have to have a civil society. And it needs to be to where everybody can enjoy this place.”
The conditions in Venice Beach have been deteriorating for over a year. City codes prohibiting encampments on the beach and sidewalks were rolled back per new COVID-19 regulations when the pandemic hit, and normal street sweeping crews were cut to limit contact.
Then Venice was declared a sanctuary zone by Los Angeles Councilman Mike Bonin, whose district includes the beach. Tents were no longer violating city policy.
Bonin, who is facing a recall effort over his policies, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also championed temporary bridge housing units in Venice to help with the problem.
But residents have told The Epoch Times that the facility has only served to attract more homeless to the nearby streets since its development. Tents and trailers parked on the side of the street are present outside the complex. Many of those same people living in bridge housing are “dual residents,” with some still dwelling in their tents outside, according to locals.
Soledad Ursua, chairwoman of the Venice Neighborhood Council (VNC), told The Epoch Times that the issue is one of “lack of enforcement” due to COVID-19.
“That’s really how a lot of these crime problems have really spiraled out of control,” she said. “And it’s sad that we have to ask the city to resume enforcing our laws, you know, laws that we have on the books. So, Venice residents, we have to basically beg for our laws to be enforced again.”
The Los Angeles Fire Department announced last month that more than 54 percent of fires in the county this year had been started in homeless encampments. In Venice, a number of fires sparked in encampments have been reported, with one corporate building burning to the ground earlier this year.
Say said he recently witnessed a homeless person start a fire on the beach.
“It was somebody’s little wagon with batteries, and they wired it up wrong to play their musical instruments, and it blew up, caught on fire, [and] burned itself out,” Say recalled.
The neighborhood is also experiencing a sharp uptick in crime, according to statistics provided to the Venice Neighborhood Council by LAPD Capt. Steve Embrich.
Year-to-date numbers show that robberies have nearly tripled since the same period last year. Homeless-related robberies are up 260 percent, homeless-related assaults with a deadly weapon are up 118 percent, property crimes and area burglaries are up 85 percent, and grand theft auto is up 74 percent.
According to Embrich, felony arrests are up 68 percent, while misdemeanor arrests have grown by 355 percent. But arrests aren’t enough; suspects are often released back onto the streets within hours.
“So, arrests are way up—the officers arrested a lot more people—but you may not see a difference because most of those arrests, like 99 percent, are we arrest them, and they’re coronavirus released—they’re released back into the community shortly after we book them,” Embrich told the VNC during a recent meeting.
Grand theft auto (GTA) incidents in Venice are “much higher than the rest of the area,” Embrich said.
“And with our GTA, what we see is that we have a very short recovery window. So, most of the cars that are stolen are recovered within Pacific area, very close, or they’re recovered in Culver City or whatever adjacent cities, and the recovery period is short—that means your cars are being stolen out of Venice, for the purpose of sleeping or for the purpose of transportation.”
‘Tearing the Community Apart From Within’
How to solve the problem is tearing the community apart, according to Venice Neighborhood Councilman Brian Averill.
“The city of LA has dropped the ball on the crime in Venice. … It’s not being addressed. So people on different sides of the issues in our community are sort of turning on each other. Not only is it unsafe, but it’s really tearing the community apart from within,” Averill told The Epoch Times.
“Because people pay taxes to feel safe and to feel protected, and it is chaotic out there, so that’s the city’s sort of ineptitude.”
Say said he understands the residents’ frustrations.
“It’s crazy about the fighting stuff. I’ve seen neighbors and houses fight, and it goes on for years down here. They’re in the morning ready to chop each other’s heads off, and at night they’re sharing dinner,” Say said.
Averill said the push for “housing first,” a theory the city has embraced that believes more housing units are needed as the first step to help the homeless, does not treat the complexities of each individual case, as people may need other resources to rehabilitate them.
He said that “a triage situation” would be the best option right now.
“It’s a disaster out there, frankly,” he said. “Why we’re not seeing some sort of triage is beyond me. … You should be getting people into the triage, figuring out what they need. Some people just need $1,000 so they can get a bus ticket or a plane ticket home, some people need addiction help, some people need detox. Some people need serious, you know, mental illness help.”
On June 7, Averill was present at a press conference on the boardwalk when a knife-wielding homeless woman was subdued steps away from LA Councilman Joe Buscaino. At the time, Buscaino was in the middle of a news conference addressing homelessness on the boardwalk as part of his mayoral campaign.
Bystander Nico Ruderman yelled “Knife!” and LAPD’s Embrich subdued the woman, suffering minor cuts while arresting her. It’s unclear if the woman intended to attack Buscaino. Some witnesses say she was arrested because the knife fell out of her pocket.
Within hours, however, the suspect was released back onto the boardwalk, charged only with a misdemeanor.
VNC’s Ursua said: “Our concerns are valid. We were afraid to go out. … If a councilmember can almost get stabbed, it means that it could happen to us.”
A few days after the incident, Buscaino requested that the city restore its ban on sidewalk encampments.
‘Inept and Corrupt Politicians’
Since the pandemic began, the boardwalk has become “like hell went to hell,” according to Say. “It was bad [before], but it wasn’t like this.”
For years, the colorful history of homeless dwellers has been an integral part of Venice Beach, with locals referring to them as “street people.” Business owners told The Epoch Times they used to know most of them by name. They were part of the community—until the pandemic brought a massive influx of new transients.
“It was with COVID, people getting tossed and all that. This place filled up quick: all women, men, middle-aged, you know, everybody here, little kids sometimes,” Say said. “A lot of new people, they try to blend in. They say, ‘I’ve been here 20 years,’ and it’s like, ‘I’ve only been here two and I haven’t seen you.’”
If parents have little children, “they get hooked up quick” with help, Say said. “And if you’re part of it—they call it ‘the family,’ you know—if you’re part of the family, they know you down here, you’re OK.”
But they still get into fights with each other, he added.
“I’ve seen people fighting, screaming, threatening [each other] with pipes and poles in the morning, and bringing them a pair of shoes at night and sharing their dinner,” he said.
Venice Beach Bar manager Luis Perez told The Epoch Times previously that when the stay-at-home orders were declared last year, homeless people were bused in from other cities and dropped off on the boardwalk. It was clear they didn’t fit in with the culture, he said. Most of them were addicts.
Now, attacks against visitors and other homeless people are regularly documented on social media by a local watchdog group, with new videos uploaded nearly every day.
In the meantime, the encampments are still growing—and impacting local businesses. Recently, another tent community appeared behind the Rose Café restaurant on nearby Rose Avenue, a few blocks from the beach. The encampment has barbecue pits, dressers, and motorbikes parked inside the tents.
Right outside businesses on the boardwalk, trash, needles, and tents can be seen piled up in plain sight.
Klaus Moeller, who owns the Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream shop on the boardwalk, has been dealing with problems caused by the homeless for over a year. On June 5, he filed a police report against a homeless person who attacked his manager.
“Woman hit a Hare Krishna monk, then threatened our customer. When our manager asked her to leave, she hit the manager in the face,” Moeller told The Epoch Times in an email.
The police did nothing.
“Police refused to make an arrest and told us that an assault apparently now is considered a misdemeanor,” he said.
Moeller said he doesn’t blame the police, as current “catch and release” policies “make any arrest a waste of time for them.”
“I blame the inept and corrupt politicians,” he said.
Moeller said that only a day earlier, a beloved local security guard at a nearby skate shop “was hit over the head with a bottle and then repeatedly stabbed by a homeless guy in their parking lot.”
He says he’s reached out repeatedly to Bonin, the local representative. But his attempts at communication have failed.
“I have tried for a year now to have Mr. Bonin speak with me but emails are not answered. Our very own councilman, whose salary is paid with our taxes; refuses to even talk to us or acknowledge that there is a problem,” Moeller said.
Bonin’s office didn’t respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment. However, he released a series of tweets defending his housing policies.
“There is loud and growing criticism of homeless housing from people saying homelessness is about addiction and mental health, not housing. We absolutely need more mental health & drug rehab services—and we can’t address these issues among the unhoused without housing,” Bonin said in a June 3 tweet.
On June 10, Bonin asked the Los Angeles Homeless and Poverty Committee to shift $5 million in budgeted aid to fund housing programs in his district.
But Say warned that not every homeless person wants the help. He said most of the people living in Venice get government support.
He pointed to a homeless man in a wheelchair wearing pajamas. The man gets $1,400 a month from the government, Say said, “and he loves it out here.”
Say said that government Section 8 housing vouchers are available to many people, providing “a nice place to live,” and if you’re older, you get priority. But many people, like the man in the wheelchair, prefer to live on the street.
“They go, ‘No, I love it out here. Nobody tells me what to do, and I run around in my underwear,’” Say said. “You know, whatever. They’re crazy. What can I say? It’s Venice.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described Averill as an eyewitness to the actions of the knife-wielding woman on the boardwalk. Averill was present at the press conference but didn’t see the woman’s actions prior to the arrest. The Epoch Times regrets the error.