Four years ago, after a long and desperate search for housing in San Francisco, I moved my daughter into a studio apartment on a seedy stretch of Market Street, between a tavern and what police described to me as a "parolee hotel."
For a few years, things went well. My college-student daughter learned to coexist with the derelicts who hung out on street corners, bedded down in doorways and treated sidewalks like toilets. At least they didn't panhandle or raise a ruckus. Some made a point of looking after her, and she respected the rhythm and rituals of their community.
But lately she's been feeling uneasy — as if some unspoken pact has begun to fray in a city that, like Los Angeles, is being remade by gentrification that is pushing rents up and people out.
I visited her last week and I could feel it too. The vibe in mid-Market is changing as new faces, squeezed out of other neighborhoods, crowd familiar spots. The men congregating on the sidewalk now seem louder, rougher, more belligerent and less respectful of rules.
The jocular fellow we'd both bonded with over a shared love of dogs now behaves like a bully and a brawler. The elderly alcoholic, who'd never done anything more menacing than mumble to himself, had his head bashed in one night. And the crude remarks and catcalls from bold young transients have my daughter dreading her walk to and from the bus stop.
This must be what it feels like to live in Venice, I thought, as I crossed the street to avoid a shouting match between a coffee shop employee and a bedraggled man who'd been soliciting money from customers seated outside.
Then I came home to this headline in our newspaper: Man shot by LAPD outside Venice coffee shop dies.
The man who died was Jason Davis, a 41-year-old transient from Michigan. Someone had called 911 to report a man brandishing a knife inside the coffee shop.
It was the second time in two months that a homeless person causing problems in Venice was shot to death by LAPD officers summoned to restore order.
The confrontations reflect growing tensions in a community bombarded by transients and frustrated by the city's hands-off approach to homelessness.
The so-called urban travelers who sleep on the beach, camp on the sidewalks, party on residential blocks and panhandle outside businesses are not looking for a roof over their head, said Mark Ryavec, a community activist. They "are drawn from all over the nation to live a druggie lifestyle on Venice Beach."
Ryavec is president of the Venice Stakeholders Assn., which is suing the city and county for allowing transients to create a "public nuisance" in beachfront neighborhoods.
Transients have become the outliers in a paradigm of homelessness that accommodates the broke, the addicted, the mentally ill. Blamed for sullying middle-class neighborhoods, their outsized profile muddies the debate over whether to treat homeless people with compassion or crackdowns.
"I doubt that you … would tolerate the on-going harassment, loss of sleep, the use of your yard as a latrine, risk to life and limb and harm to your daily life which is now visited every day on residents living close to Venice Beach," Ryavec wrote in response to a column of mine that he thought soft-pedaled the issues.
He gave me a list of residents and business owners who've been attacked, burglarized, threatened, harassed. They want transients treated like criminals, not victims of social ills.
That approach seems hard-hearted to me. Many are young and on the run from troubled homes; most are addicts, alcoholics or have signs of mental illness. Shouldn't we offer a hand instead of handcuffs?
But after a few days on Market Street — stepping around human waste, looking down to avoid angry stares and rambling diatribes, crisscrossing streets to steer clear of men bold enough to pass around a crack pipe in public — I realize the dividing line isn't nearly as clear as I'd like it to be.
Urban travelers, transients, homeless people, bums. Choose a label and you're taking a side on an issue that doesn't lend itself to easy fixes.
In fact, our attachment to ideology may be part of the problem.
That's what Hollywood lawyer Jeffrey C. Briggs has discovered. He helped organize a coalition of business owners, residents, service providers and government officials that's provided permanent housing for 200 chronically homeless people in Hollywood.
The group stopped relying on politicians and raised its own funds. Business owners contributed; so did wealthy benefactors. They worked with social service groups to fashion programs for people who are mentally ill but can live alone as long as someone monitors their medication. They learned to practice patience.
"The one thing that people underestimate is the time it takes to convince a person to accept help," Briggs said. "A lot of times they're on the street because they're not thinking straight. You do actually have to talk people into coming into the apartments.... It requires a lot of one-on-one contact over many months to get that person to trust you."
And it requires that people who want to help put aside their politics and preconceived ideas.
"A community has to come together on this issue without ideology," he said. "Our mantra was 'We don't care why you want to do this.' There are people who are cold-hearted and just want them done away with. And there are people who think we should put them up at the Ritz."
But they were all able to rally around one central belief: People shouldn't be living on the streets.