Beating a drum and carrying signs reading "RVs Save Lives" and "Terror Is Having No Home," about two dozen homeless people and their advocates marched in Venice on Saturday to protest what they say is an unwarranted crackdown on the homeless in the funky but gentrifying beach town.
"It's just a continuation of the pressure to move the poor of Venice out of town — long-term residents who don't fit the desires of the new population that's moving in," said Pete White of the Los Angeles Community Action Network.
Activists allege that police have been targeting people living in recreational vehicles or on the streets for citation and arrest.
Over the last two months, an additional 21 officers have been stationed in neighborhoods near Venice Beach, tripling the number of officers assigned to combat what Pacific Division Capt. Jon Peters described as "significant increases" in crime.
Peters said that although officers have impounded vehicles because of leaking sewage, expired registrations or other violations, "RVs are such a small part of what we're doing down there."
Last month several RV dwellers whose vehicles bear license plates or placards for the disabled filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court alleging Los Angeles police were targeting their vehicles for selective enforcement in Venice because they are homeless.
The lawsuit said plaintiffs had been subjected to "harassing stops" prompted by "bogus assertions of equipment failures," such as a nonfunctioning taillight.
"I think it's particularly pernicious that the police department and the city would violate the law by discriminating against people with disabilities," who are exempt from many parking restrictions, said Carol A. Sobel, a Santa Monica attorney who helped file the suit.
Venice property owners have for years prodded the city to enforce the law against sleeping overnight in vehicles. They complain that occupants use alleys for bathrooms, party late into the night and dump waste into storm drains.
But other residents and homeless advocates argue that homelessness is being criminalized in Venice.
"It's become a huge, tension-filled issue," said Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the community and has been caught in the cross-fire between opposing factions.
The City Council recently approved an ordinance prohibiting "oversize" vehicles from parking on the street between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. City street crews are expected to begin installing signs in areas where two-thirds of residents have signed petitions favoring the restrictions.
"People should be mad at the city," Sobel said. "They should ask why it is we spend so much money on police when it would be far cheaper to house people."
For two years Rosendahl has promoted a "vehicles-to-homes" plan, modeled on a Santa Barbara program, that would allow RV dwellers to stay overnight in designated lots if they took advantage of programs aimed at getting them into permanent housing.
But critics say the program has been too slow to come to fruition at a time when the city has too few shelter beds to accommodate the need.
A summer survey in Venice and nearby areas identified more than 250 vehicles that appeared to be domiciles, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
But stepped-up enforcement has pushed hundreds of people into adjoining neighborhoods and farther from the social service resources they need, said Steve Clare, executive director of the Venice Community Housing Corp.
"The city has to take up this issue on a citywide level," Clare said.
The death of longtime Venice resident James Hunter, whose body was found Dec. 1 in his Ford van, spurred homeless advocates to meet Thursday with Rosendahl to urge him to impose a holiday moratorium on citations of RV dwellers and homeless individuals.
Rosendahl said he was opposed to such a move.
"There will be no moratorium" on the ordinance forbidding overnight sleeping in vehicles, he said. "The law is the law."
But on the streets, the death of Hunter, who earned money as a sign painter, is being seen as fallout from the recent crackdown.
"It really woke me up," said David Busch, 55, who said he has been homeless in and around Venice for the last dozen years.
Hunter "was a friendly, a quiet, gentle guy," Busch said. "But the man had a heart condition and was terrified that he would be targeted. All these punitive measures — it's just snowballed and gotten out of control."
Busch said he joined the protest Saturday to appeal to residents of Venice who want to address the homeless problem, not kick it out of town.
"Show your love Venice!" Busch shouted. "Stop the homeless kick-out — now!"
The group headed north banging a drum through the theater of the beach boardwalk. Past the medical marijuana hawkers, jugglers and musicians who gave them thumbs up. Past tourists who snapped photos. And past a disheveled man sitting on the ground who seemed oblivious to the police vehicle inching toward him from behind.