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Homeless Flock to Beach, Angering Venice Residents

Times Staff Writer

Angry Venice Beach residents and merchants, alarmed at an influx of homeless--some drawn by free food and more tolerant law enforcement, others rousted by the crackdown on downtown’s Skid Row--are demanding tougher policing and accusing City Hall of official neglect.

A group of neighbors who charge that the police have adopted a “hands-off” policy toward the homeless--a charge the police deny--gathered 1,000 signatures on a three-page open letter in less than a month.

“The local police . . . have been told not to do anything,” the letter says. " . . . These people know that the police have a ‘hands-off’ policy . . . and are taking full advantage of it. Problems in Venice have been neglected by the City of Los Angeles for years.”

Spurred by community outrage, an emergency task force of officials, residents and homeless has been meeting since July 9 and will make recommendations Thursday. City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, whose district includes Venice, refused to discuss the problems caused by the homeless in the Venice area. However, an aide said Friday that the councilwoman will set up her own study group within two weeks.

The chairwoman of the Venice Homeless Task Force, Mary Ann Hutchison, said the three-mile stretch of Venice Beach is inhabit ed by 5,000 homeless, making it the second-highest concentration of homeless in the county.

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“The situation on Venice Beach is the worst I have ever seen it,” said Mary Clare Molidor, the supervising Los Angeles deputy city attorney for the Westside and chairman of the criminal law enforcement subcommittee of the Venice task force.

“The problem has reached the point where something has to be done,” she said. “You cannot look the other way.”

Homeless people have lived on Venice Beach for several years, but the crisis atmosphere stems from the arrival within the last six months of hundreds of homeless who have been flocking to the more tolerant atmosphere on the strand, according to officials and residents.

Susan Chevalier, an organizer of the petition campaign, said some vagrants are coming from the downtown area “to a more inviting place. The recognition that this is an inviting place is attracting them from other parts of the city also. Tent City has rules and regulations and there are none here.”

Doc, a retired physician who gives away food on the beach on weekends in tandem with the St. Joseph’s Center, which provides meals during the week, estimated that the number of homeless people on Venice Beach has doubled in the last 3 1/2 months.

“We have had an increase because they are chased out of downtown,” he said. “That is what they tell us.”

Sandwiches for 150

Saturday morning he made sandwiches with 15 pounds of donated bologna. The 150 people who showed up in the Rose Avenue parking lot ate every scrap and asked for more.

On the beach and adjacent streets, tents, cardboard shelters, sleeping bags and sacks of clothing--the same sort of shantytown atmosphere that plagued downtown before Mayor Tom Bradley’s June crackdown--have injected an scruffiness into a tourism-oriented beach district and fitfully gentrifying residential neighborhood.

On a walking tour of the beach Friday night, Bo Taylor, an unofficial spokesman for the homeless, pointed out the “sandominiums” where the homeless live, each with its own particular character.

His own encampment, a blue tent, is guarded faithfully by his pet pit bull, Lady. Near another tent, a watchful dog guarded the stash of a well-known beachfront drug dealer, Taylor said. Another group of blankets was where drug users had bedded down; alcoholics were in another area; a certain set of benches was inhabited by the handicapped.

One West Dudley--so-called because its position on the sand is in line with Dudley Avenue--is the most organized of the encampments, complete with a “garage” for disassembled bikes, an alcohol lamp, a gas range, a bouquet of flowers, chairs, coolers, tables, storage boxes and its own code of conduct: Drinking and using drugs are prohibited.

Along with the campsites comes behavior that residents and merchants find objectionable.

Horror Stories

With mounting anger, they tell horror stories of aggressive panhandling that borders on shakedowns, of the frightening behavior of mentally deranged vagrants, of open drug dealing and drinking, of the stench emanating from public places soiled with body wastes, of seniors and children menaced time and again.

- Michael Chevalier, a free-lance cameraman and 17-year Venice resident, said he frequently finds homeless people urinating on buildings near his house when he goes to work in the morning.

- Mansour Alai, who owns the Carousel sandwich shop on Rose Avenue and Ocean Front, said he was burglarized last week by vagrants who broke a window. “This is not the first time,” Mansour said. “The police say they cannot do anything.”

- Just this week, Jack Susser said, his 8-year-old daughter, Melissa, was playing with a friend in her fenced yard about half a block from the beach. Two men walked into the yard, unfastened a lawn sprinkler and began drinking from the hose. Then they turned their attention to Melissa.

“Hey, little girl! Come here, little girl. I want to talk to you, little girl,” one said. The two left hurriedly after a neighbor ordered them to leave.

- The influx of homeless has driven away the senior citizens who used to sit on benches outside the Israel Levin Senior Adult Center, according to assistant director Sharon Stone. Vagrants taunted them with anti-Semitic invectives, she said.

About three months ago, Stone said, she was sitting in her office on Ocean Front when she noticed a man swinging an ax at another. “He hit the guy he was mad at, and his hand was bleeding. It happened right in front of my office,” she said. “I called the police three times. They didn’t show up.”

- Barbara Joseph, owner of a sidewalk cafe and restaurant named On the Waterfront, said the homeless are constantly bothering patrons.

One lady known only as Jeanie once walked in, calmly took drinks off customers’ tables, drained what was left and then tossed glass after glass on the floor. When the management objected, Joseph said, Jeanie kicked over a $65 potted plant, pulled her dress over her head and threw a tantrum, kicking and screaming on the ground. Jeanie has since been institutionalized, Joseph said.

Many residents blame the free food distributed in the Rose Avenue parking lot for attracting the homeless. “I agree to some extent with that,” Doc conceded. "(The food program) has created a little bit of the problem.”

Police Criticized

Many residents complain that the police have gone beyond the city attorney’s policy of not making arrests for being homeless and have adopted a hands-off policy toward criminal behavior that contrasts with tougher attitudes of police in Santa Monica, Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach and Malibu.

Los Angeles Police Capt. Vance Proctor of the Pacific Division denied that police are not making arrests. “We probably average 1,500 arrests a month down at the beach,” he said.

But, he asserted, the homeless are more of a “social problem” than a law enforcement issue. “Some people (who) through no fault of their own find themselves without the necessities of life should not be arrested. . . . We can’t use our jails to solve social problems. . . . “

Venice residents also accuse City Hall of tacitly sanctioning Venice as a dumping ground for the homeless in an effort to get rid of them downtown, frequently citing a widely circulated remark made by Deputy Mayor Grace Davis, who backs the use of the Venice Pavilion as a homeless shelter.

“I don’t see us having any problems there. The homeless street people are really part of the (Venice) population,” she was quoted as saying in the Evening Outlook newspaper.

Task force chairwoman Hutchison said part of the Venice homeless problem is that “the eyes of the city were on the Skid Row.”

The result is lopsided attention to the downtown Skid Row area that has not provided Venice with its fair share of government resources, Hutchison said. She cited official statistics showing that although 14% of the county’s homeless live in Venice and Santa Monica, the two areas receive only 3% of the shelter space and 2% of the county funds earmarked for the homeless.

Deputy City Atty. Molidor agreed that officials need to focus on Venice.

“All of the attention has been given to the Skid Row area because it is the most egregious area,” she said.

The neighborhood ferment has produced the realization among officials that more has to be done.

“The area needs to be cleaned up,” Molidor said. “I share that get-tough attitude and, yes, something has to be done about the homeless. I don’t think Venice Beach should be turned into a campground.”

While Galanter declined to discuss the issue, aide Rick Ruiz explained her position: “She wants to look for solutions, not just shoo these people away into other districts.”

In the meantime, the Venice Homeless Task Force has itself become controversial.

Several dozen homeless people came to a July 22 meeting at the On the Waterfront restaurant, grabbed handfuls of cookies and sugar packets, drank up the coffee, and then voiced hostility to plans to increase law enforcement.

After the meeting, restaurant owner Joseph said, she received several threats:

If you have any more meetings of the task force at your restaurant, it will be “torched.”


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