Patience at braking point
The pleasant climate and quirky vibe of Venice have long attracted the wealthy and destitute alike. Poets, painters and movie stars mingle with itinerant surfers and scruffy street dwellers in one big colorful tableau.
But in recent years the coastal enclave’s laissez-faire attitude has faded, in large part because many Venetians who once prided themselves on their unflappability have gotten fed up with the dozens of dilapidated cars, recreational vehicles and campers that line their narrow residential streets, providing shelter for people who have lost their jobs, want to break into show business or simply enjoy living near the beach.
In addition to tying up much of the neighborhood parking, residents say, some RVs are hotbeds of drug use and prostitution. Residents report that occupants defecate in alleys, party into the wee hours and dump waste into gutters and storm drains. For a time, a man named Butch was leasing four parked RVs, none of which he owned, to a succession of occupants.
Some residents are pressuring the city of Los Angeles to restrict overnight parking on neighborhood streets in the hope of recapturing the curbs and reducing visual blight.
In a further sign of a shift in attitudes, the Venice Neighborhood Council recently declared that sleeping on the streets in vehicles of any kind was inappropriate. The council established a committee whose stated task is “to end vehicular living on city streets.” Such thinking represents a marked departure for the council, which four years ago was dominated by a “progressive slate” whose agenda included stopping gentrification, building more low-income housing and helping the homeless.
The change is long overdue, said one Venice activist. “This particular community has not stood up the way others have and said, ‘Sorry, you can’t poach here. It’s unacceptable to live on our streets and defecate in our gardens,’ ” said Mark Ryavec, co-chairman of the new committee. “What’s going on is that a new majority in Venice is saying we really do not accept this.”
For months, he and other activists have been pushing Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the area, to find a solution to what has seemed an intractable problem. Rosendahl said he has been studying programs in Santa Barbara and Portland, Ore., that provide overnight parking spaces and services for RV residents.
In Los Angeles, it is illegal to live in vehicles on public streets, but police say the law is difficult to enforce. Officers must be able to peer inside vehicles for evidence that people are cooking and sleeping in them, but savvy occupants simply refuse to open the door.
The larger issue, Rosendahl said, is how to ease the situation for residents without stepping on the rights of individuals who choose or feel forced by circumstances to live in cars or RVs.
“Where do these campers go?” he said. “Society has to find ways to put them in places that don’t criminalize them. It’s challenging not just for me, but for other cities and regions.”
Nikoletta Skarlatos, a Hollywood makeup artist, considers herself a dedicated Venice denizen willing to endure a variety of urban ills to live in the funky community. Increasingly, however, she views her eclectic pocket around 4th and Rose avenues as squalid and unlivable.
Some days, rusty RVs and campers line both sides of her block. Noisy transients gather at the corner dry cleaner, and inebriated indigents harass her. Topping all that is the daily ritual of cleaning up human feces by her garage door.
In April, Skarlatos led Rosendahl and two dozen neighbors on a tour of the streets and the H-shaped alley that many of them share. Residents pointed out signs on nearby commercial blocks that prohibited overnight parking. “Why do they get them and we don’t?” they asked. (Rosendahl later ascertained that they were counterfeit and had them removed.)
When Rosendahl began listing his accomplishments on homelessness, residents shouted him down. “These people are not homeless,” Skarlatos said. “They are here because they want to live near the beach and not pay taxes.
“They have plants and dogs and cats and beds and curtains and bicycles attached and TVs and radio and music,” she added. “That to me is not a homeless person.”
Many RV dwellers say they subsist on Social Security or disability checks and view mobile living as better than being in a shelter. Some have jobs, cellphones and e-mail accounts.
Frank August, 57, who works occasionally as a salesman, was standing outside his motor home on 4th Avenue one recent evening. Years ago, he paid $1,500 a month for a Venice apartment, but he has lived in the vehicle since he adopted an ailing pit bull and could not find a landlord who would rent to him.
“It’s got everything, from wood floors to solar panels,” he said of the motor home, which August said he parks on commercial blocks to avoid offending neighbors.
Under prodding from residents, the city of Los Angeles is considering whether to impose “overnight parking districts” throughout much of Venice. Critics say the program, which allows permit-only parking from 2 to 6 a.m., merely tends to move the problem to someone else’s community.
At a contentious hearing last month held by the city’s Bureau of Engineering, activists spoke on both sides of the issue. Critics said restricted parking proposed for five zones in Venice, including Skarlatos’ area, would limit public beach access.
In a letter to the bureau, Steve Clare, executive director of the Venice Community Housing Corp., contended that restricted parking would deny access for late-night fishing on Venice Pier, late-night grunion observation and “the simple pleasure of walking along the Ocean Front Walk and the Venice canals.”
He also called the proposed limits “a not very thinly veiled scheme to eliminate homeless people with vehicles from our community -- not by providing alternative places for them to park their vehicles, or housing that they so desperately need, but by denying them any public space to park overnight.”
“They are members of this community, too, and we can’t just pretend they’re trash to be disposed of or to be run out and made somebody else’s problem,” Clare said in an interview.
Rosendahl said the overnight parking districts were being “fast-tracked” and should be in place by late August, unless they are appealed to the California Coastal Commission.