Anger Boils in Venice Over Homeless : Transient Shot Near Beach; Social Service Center Threatened

Times Staff Writer

The shooting of a transient and threats of further violence shocked Venice this week as residents of the fractious beach community continued to square off over the emotional issue of the homeless.

Los Angeles police said that Thomas J. Wasserberg, 33, who lives at a beach encampment at the foot of Rose Avenue, was shot in the spleen on Monday afternoon while foraging for food in an alley at Sunset Court near the beach. Wasserberg is in fair condition at UCLA Medical Center.

Police have no leads and are investigating the shooting as an attempted murder, according to Capt. Vance Proctor.


At the St. Joseph Center on Rose Avenue, meanwhile, an anonymous caller has twice threatened to destroy a building that the charity group hopes to use as a food-service center for the homeless.

Rhonda Meister, St. Joseph’s director, said the messages were left on an answering machine.

“The caller said if we proceeded with the acquisition of the (building), it wouldn’t be standing when we moved into it,” she said.

Meister added that St. Joseph Center takes the threat “very seriously,” since an unidentified person firebombed another building owned by the group two years ago. More recently, Meister had to be escorted out of a meeting sponsored by the Venice Action Committee when the crowd became unruly.

“I was surrounded by 15 to 20 people, mainly men, who were all yelling and screaming at once,” said Meister. “The feeling I had was that the whole thing was close to being out of control.”

Police do not know if there is a link between the Wasserberg shooting and the threats of violence directed at the St. Joseph Center.

Wasserberg had been interviewed by The Times for a story on the homeless that was published earlier this year. “The term homelessness is vicious propaganda,” the tan and extremely gaunt Wasserberg said at the time. “America is everybody’s home.”

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who represents Venice, said she was “deeply disturbed” by the Wasserberg incident. She said it is clear that tension in the community is running “unacceptably high” over the homeless.

Galanter will announce the formation of a Venice community task force on the homeless Thursday morning. The group’s goal will be to raise money to support homeless people who are participating in jobs programs.

Galanter spokesman Rick Ruiz said that the money raised by the group will help pay for rent, utilities deposits and other expenses incurred by homeless people who are trying to reestablish themselves.

Although the number of transients on the beach has dropped from about 250 to 50, the communitywide homeless population of about 2,000 is still among the county’s largest. As the beach problem has subsided, the focal point of the controversy has shifted to Rose Avenue, intended to be the delivery site for a host of social services.

The St. Joseph’s food-service center is slated for a vacant restaurant located at 663 Rose Ave. Galanter has also announced plans for placing a homeless shelter and job center in a storage building in the 300 block of Rose Avenue.

A group of Rose Avenue residents, who are protesting the proposals, charge that the centers will act as a magnet for homeless people and ruin the quality of life in the residential section located at the northern edge of Venice.

Jeffrey Miles of the Venice/Santa Monica Neighborhood Assn. said Rose Avenue is in danger of becoming “Skid Rose.”

He said that officials are trying to dump the homeless on Rose Avenue and claims to have already collected several hundred signatures on a petition protesting the plans.

“We are prepared to file a lawsuit against the city and St. Joseph Center and we will stop them,” Miles said. “If we don’t, we will have hundreds of criminals and vagrants and mentally ill people wandering up and down Rose Avenue. . . . There will be another Skid Row right here on the beach.”

Others, however, charge that residents such as Miles are more concerned about property values than people. A group called Venice Neighbor to Neighbor condemned the anti-homeless forces and announced its support for a full range of additional services on Rose Avenue at a press conference on Tuesday.

Tora Bikson, an 18-year Venice resident, called the report that the St. Joseph Center is receiving threats “appalling”. Bikson said that the Venice community, which has a reputation for cultural diversity, should do everything it can to help the homeless get back on their feet.

“Tolerance and acceptance of human diversity is unique to Venice,” Bikson said. “We’re not saying we have all of the answers. But we are saying that we want to put a stop now to all of the punitive procedures.”

Help Is Needed

Chuck Sladky, who was homeless until recently, said other transients will never make it off the streets without the help of a group such as St. Joseph Center, which provides food, medical care, training and shelter referrals.

“I deplore the threats that have gone out against the people . . . helping this community,” Sladky said. “It is not time for the community to become violent. It’s time for us to come together and work out our problems.”

Peter Kastner, one of the organizers of the press conference, said those speaking loudest against the homeless are those who want to gentrify Venice into another Marina del Rey. “But Venice is not an investment opportunity,” he said.

Meister said that police have stepped up patrols of the area around the St. Joseph Center.

Despite the threat, she said that the nonprofit group will proceed with plans for using the former Bunn’s restaurant as a center for a food-service program. Meister will not reveal the planned opening date, but said she still hopes to meet with residents and work out their differences before then.

“There has to be a way to work this out,” Meister said. “No one wants a concentration of anything in this area. But the services have to be provided someplace. And we are one of the few organizations meeting the need.”