California’s 40 million residents have now been under house arrest for over a week. But in the homeless haven known as Venice Beach, the party hasn’t skipped a beat.
Law abiding residents have deserted the Los Angeles coast after a crackdown by Mayor Eric Garcetti, who condemned people getting “too close together, too often” the previous weekend. Along the boardwalk in Venice Beach, all the businesses are closed.
But none of these new rules seem to apply to the homeless. Whatever minimal law enforcement still existed in Venice Beach prior to the COVID-19 outbreak has diminished further, with more tents appearing than ever before on the boardwalk and along the streets.
It’s important to recognize that some of California’s homeless are victims of circumstances beyond their control. But not sufficiently acknowledged by agenda driven politicians and compassionate care bureaucrats is the fact that most of these homeless find shelter.
The vast majority of homeless that remain unsheltered, especially in places like Venice Beach, are either drug addicts, alcoholics, mentally ill, or criminals. None of these people belong on the streets, not now, and not ever. Venice Beach has a drug crisis, an alcoholism crisis, and a mental health crisis, which are breaking down law and order.
Stories about what is happening in Venice Beach are endless and chilling. A man swinging an ax in the middle of an ally who cannot be arrested because he isn’t breaking any laws. A gang of youths disassembling literally stacks of high-end bicycles in front of their tents, but this isn’t a chop-shop because there is no proof. Other youths who’ve clambered onto the roof of a church to engage in loud drunken revelry all night long, later willing to vandalize the homes of residents they suspect of calling the police. Women followed and harassed, human and canine feces everywhere, bottles of urine sitting on street curbs, discarded syringes, rats multiplying like, rats, getting fat on garbage and food scraps piling up around tents, men stoned on methamphetamine and frenetically prowling the streets, schizophrenics howling at the voices in their heads.
Nothing that California’s state and local policymakers have done to-date have been effective in combating these crises, because their approach has been what they refer to as “housing first,” a policy that prioritizes providing housing prior to addressing behavioral issues. “Housing first” is a boondoggle that rewards politically connected members of the Homeless Industrial Complex. It will never solve the problem, even if for no other reason because of its astronomical costs.
Venice Beach offers a perfect example of this failed approach, where a “temporary bridge housing” facility opened up in February.
Two blocks from the Pacific Ocean one shelter of the 26 either built or under construction holds 154 beds, supposedly to accommodate a homeless population in Venice Beach that exceeds 1,000. The shelter cost $8 million and maintains an estimated annual budget of about $8 million. This is a preposterous waste of money, especially when considering how it operates. The shelter, which officially opened on February 26, does not require its residents to submit to counseling for substance abuse, much less require sobriety. It is a “wet” shelter, meaning inebriated residents can enter the shelter with no restrictions. Even now, it has no curfew, meaning residents can roam the streets at any hour of the day or night and still return to the shelter. It carries out no background checks on any of the residents.
Worst of all, the shelter was marketed to residents as a way to compel homeless people to get off the streets and become “good neighbors.” Once “supportive housing” was available, the law would permit police to evict the homeless who have set up permanent encampments in front of residents and businesses. A deadline of March 7th to evict the homeless came and went, however, and more homeless than ever are living for free on some of the most expensive real estate on earth.
The uptick in crime since this shelter opened has neighbors feeling like prisoners in their own homes. The COVID-19 pandemic merely made that status official.
Incredibly, the “permanent supportive housing” planned for Venice Beach includes destroying the last public beach parking so a monstrous apartment house can be built on the city owned property. Planned to have only 140 units, the construction costs and land values put the total project cost at over $200 million. By any sane definition, doing this is a crime against the hard working surrounding residents and against all taxpayers.
Meanwhile, the rent-paying, mortgage paying, business lease paying residences and business owners in Venice Beach today are being quarantined into financial ruin. Small businesses that survive on small margins can’t stay open. And landlords who only own one or two properties cannot collect rent because their tenants are out of work.
While politicians talk about interest-free loans from the SBA, one has to wonder if any of these elected officials have ever tried to fast-track an SBA loan, or tried to get relief from a mortgage company. Retailers are small businesses, and these owners cannot just call the SBA and ask for a loan. There is the underwriting process, huge applications to fill out, a requirement for three years of financial statements. These are huge slow moving bureaucracies. Applicants have to go through all kinds of hoops to get funding and a 2-3 month turnaround is a very best case. Nothing is feasible within a month, so as small businesses fail up and down the state, where are the real time solutions?
In an open letter emailed to Mayor Garcetti on 3/26, with copies sent to the LA City Council and an assortment of media outlets, Venice Beach resident Soledad Ursua offered some practical suggestions to bring immediate relief to beleaguered small business owners and landlords. In particular:
“1) Suspend LA County Property Taxes due April 10th. The average homeowner and small business owner is facing a $2,000 to $10,000 property tax bill. Cash is king during an economic crisis. What we need now more than ever, is to hold the cash we would otherwise pay the County of LA, in order to navigate this economic storm. As our business partner, you must take a haircut in revenue, just as you expect all of us to do so. What is the point of the US Government sending out cash checks to individuals if we must only hand that over to LA City?
2) Suspend all Sales Taxes for the next 6 months- Why on earth are we paying 9.5% in LA City sales taxes on essential goods why we try to stay alive – groceries, prescriptions, toilet paper, gas, bottled water, etc. Perhaps you could lift sales taxes only on small businesses to incentivize Los Angeleños to shop local and keep our small businesses solvent during this crisis?”
These are reasonable suggestions but the chances they will be implemented are slim.
Anyone living in Venice Beach or communicating with Venice Beach residents has abundant video and photographic evidence that while residents hunker down inside their homes, right now, their streets remain occupied by a roving army of unaccountable homeless, and it’s getting worse.
For example, ever since COVID-19 came along, the weekly street cleaning has stopped. The consequences are predictable and the shantytowns of Guatemala City have nothing on Rose Avenue in Venice Beach.
There is no doubt that the authorities at all levels of government are dead serious in their efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. This national health emergency has preempted constitutional rights that allow ordinary Americans freedom of movement. Therefore, it ought to have enough teeth to preempt whatever misguided ordinances and court rulings have created the addiction, mental health, and crime crises we face, which masquerade as a homeless and housing crisis.
Mayor Garcetti, if and when COVID-19 spreads in a second wave with unaccountable homeless populations as the vector, do not blame the president. If a national health emergency does not give you the legal tools and funds to clean up the streets of Los Angeles, nothing will.
California’s laws to-date have made it a rational choice for many individuals to live on the streets. They can live in some of the most beautiful places in the world – the California coast – with free food and free shelter, and almost no rules to regulate their conduct.
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Edward Ring is a co-founder of the California Policy Center and served as its first president. This article originally appeared in the California Globe.