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Editorial: Cleaning up the Venice boardwalk is good; shooing off the homeless is not

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Many commercial and industrial property owners in the city of Los Angeles take civic betterment into their own hands, banding together into business improvement districts and taxing themselves to provide services beyond what the city government offers. There are now 42 such districts across the city, all voted into existence locally and then approved by the Los Angeles City Council.

The latest group to seek a BID (as they are shorthanded) are commercial and industrial property owners around the famed Venice boardwalk. But the Venice Beach BID faces challenges that few of the others do — its district includes store owners, restaurateurs, street performers, legions of tourists and one of the largest concentrations of homeless people in the city. More than 1,000 homeless people live in Venice, many of them near the beach.

While some BIDS focus solely on cleaning, trash removal and stringing holiday lights (and do it for a modest annual budget of less than $100,000), the Venice Beach BID, according to the management plan it submitted to the City Council, will also hire so-called ambassadors to provide information to tourists, control crowds and engage in “crime prevention” activities. The budget for the first year of operation is about $1.8 million. The BID plan acknowledges that “homeless outreach and social service referrals” will probably be a big component of its plan and that it may partner with social service providers to accomplish that.

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We’re glad that property owners around Venice Beach care about their community and that they’re willing to pay extra to improve the neighborhood. But when it comes to the homeless, they must decide whether they want to be part of the solution or part of the problem. If the ambassadors are going to constitute a de facto private security force, their job should not be to hassle the homeless in an effort to move them pointlessly from corner to corner or to push them out of the neighborhood so that they become another jurisdiction’s problem. There are laws against aggressive panhandling and blocking doorways that can legitimately be enforced, but neither police nor private security is allowed to roust homeless people sleeping on sidewalks at night, under the terms of a court settlement. Even during the day, when the municipal code against sitting, lying or sleeping on a sidewalk or street is enforceable, the BID ambassadors would be required to call the police or city employees to enforce it, according to the city attorney’s office. The Downtown Industrial District BID was sued two years ago over its seizure of homeless people’s belongings on skid row.

The long-term answer to homelessness lies in creating more affordable supportive housing. In the shorter-term, there needs to be more storage facilities for homeless people and more public bathrooms. Communities need to provide more outreach to homeless people to connect them with the housing and services they need. Mike Bonin, the City Council member in whose district the proposed BID sits (and who supports the proposal), has already secured a city property in Venice that would accommodate storage and plans to have the city keep one of the restroom kiosks at the beach in Venice open 24 hours. That’s a smart start.

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