Sheriff Villanueva deploys deputies to Venice encampments, but is he overstepping his authority?
Sheriff Alex Villanueva waded into the morass of homelessness in Los Angeles this week by deploying a team of deputies to the Venice boardwalk, a tinderbox in the city’s struggle to deal with the mounting crisis.
The move, which drew the ire of the city councilman for Venice, came after Villanueva has railed in recent weeks against city officials for their handling of homelessness issues. Being careful not to malign the Los Angeles Police Department, which patrols Venice, the sheriff said city leaders have hamstrung the LAPD from taking a more aggressive posture when dealing with homeless people.
“Public space belongs to the entire public, not to one individual. And that is the fundamental responsibility of government. That’s the fundamental failure of the Board of Supervisors, L.A. City Council and the mayor of L.A. — they have refused to regulate public space,” Villanueva said Monday. “And that is why the problem is growing exponentially year after year.”
For a few weeks at least, sheriff’s deputies will not be making arrests or taking other enforcement measures on the boardwalk, one of the city’s iconic tourist attractions.
Deputies and mental health clinicians will spend the next few weeks assessing the needs of people living in sprawling encampments along the beachfront promenade and helping to get them services, said Lt. Geoffrey Deedrick, who heads the Sheriff’s Homeless Outreach Services Team. On Tuesday, the deployment included 18 deputies and five clinicians.
During a walk along one stretch of sand this week, Deedrick said he counted 47 tents.
“There’s a lot of human suffering, there’s a lot of needs. We can’t come in blindly and think we can solve things if we don’t know the needs,” Deedrick said. “It’s just a comprehensive beginning to an extremely thorough assessment, which, as you saw, means we listen.”
He said his team’s assessment would take two to three weeks, with deputies planning to spend about three days a week in Venice.
Deputies on Tuesday had some early successes, connecting several people with nonprofit groups that provide housing and other services. They were small but significant wins that were both celebrated by community members and dwarfed by the massive scale of the problem.
“It’s just outreach, but it’s more than LAHSA has done,” said Vicki Halliday, a member of the Venice Neighborhood Council, referring to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
The effort raised questions about whether Villanueva is overstepping his authority. Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School, said the Sheriff’s Department has jurisdiction across L.A. County, but that city officials and the LAPD typically take the lead on handling issues within the city of L.A.
“It is problematic if the sheriff is unilaterally taking the lead on issues just because the city is within the county,” Levenson said. “If he’s critical of their efforts, he should work with them ... It should not be a turf fight.”
LAPD Chief Michel Moore said Villanueva told him two weeks ago he was planning to send his department’s homeless outreach team to Venice and that after a few weeks deputies would begin arresting those who refused to leave encampments.
Villanueva said Monday that he’d like the boardwalk to be cleared of homeless people by July 4. When told of this, Moore said that LAPD officers would not assist sheriff’s deputies in clearing encampments unless the City Council or Mayor Eric Garcetti gave him a directive to do so.
Moore added that he hopes the council will lift a pandemic-related moratorium on moving people out of tents and other structures during daytime hours. Doing so, Moore said, would allow LAPD officers to enforce existing laws that ban such camping.
Saying he did not wish “to get embroiled in a dispute,” Moore nonetheless said he would have preferred for Villanueva to have gone about boardwalk deployment with “less fanfare” and less of a “visual display” of deputies.
“I’m going to avoid the politics and theater that is going on between our elected officials, and I am going to stay focused on what is most important, and that is the safety of Los Angeles,” he said.
Citing a recent survey that found a reduction in tents along the beachfront from 240 to 130, Moore said he believes outreach efforts by Councilman Mike Bonin, whose district includes Venice, and nonprofit service providers are helping.
Garcetti was at Banc of California Stadium Wednesday to talk about a soccer all-star game when he was asked about the sheriff’s foray into Venice.
“I hope he will step back about blame and actually participate with all of us in solving homelessness. This is not about political theater. This is not about politics and elections. This is about human beings,” he said. “We welcome the Sheriff’s office if they’re serious about helping people get off the streets.”
Linda Lucks, a local activist who served on the Venice Neighborhood Council and lived near the boardwalk for 45 years, echoed the criticisms of the sheriff. She said Villanueva, who is up for reelection next year, and Joe Buscaino, a former LAPD officer who launched his mayoral campaign in Venice this week, aren’t actually offering solutions.
“What’s happening now is who’s going to ride in on the biggest white horse with the biggest white hat to save the day for political expediency,” she said, calling their rhetoric hypocritical and election-oriented. “Two cops shooting blanks.”
Bonin said Villanueva’s effort amounted to a publicity stunt.
“In Venice, we’re working to marshal resources to offer housing and services to hundreds of people living on the streets. Villanueva hasn’t offered actual help,” Bonin said in a series of tweets critical of Villanueva. “This is a serious crisis. We need people interested in solving it, not exploiting it.”
Others along the boardwalk welcomed the deputies’ presence.
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” said Brian Ulf, president of SHARE!, a nonprofit organization that provides permanent supportive housing for disabled people. He said two people who had been referred to him by deputies agreed to move into his group’s housing.
Deputies also convinced Robert Sadowski, a 76-year-old veteran in a wheelchair who has lived on the beach for two years, to leave with Veterans Affairs workers to get medical treatment.
Deedrick, the sheriff’s lieutenant who heads the homeless outreach team, said he first spoke with Sadowski a week ago, and a second time on Monday. Deedrick said when he found Sadowski again on Tuesday, the man agreed to accept the help, thanking Deedrick for keeping a promise he made to return.
“This is big,” said Connie Brooks, a member of Friends of Venice Boardwalk. Others had tried to get Sadowski help for months.
As the Veterans Affairs sedan drove off with Sadowski, a handful of deputies and community members applauded.
Times staff writer Benjamin Oreskes contributed to this report.
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