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Column: Sheriff Villanueva’s self-serving attempt to tap into anger about homelessness

People in T-shirts that say "St. Joseph Center" walk along a street.
Workers with the St. Joseph Center seek out homeless people along Ocean Front Walk in hopes of connecting them with housing and social services.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The town hall meeting was organized by a group of Westside residents passionate about keeping public spaces free of homeless encampments. They were outraged over Councilman Mike Bonin’s proposal to study the feasibility of allowing camping or tiny-home villages in beach parking lots and parks, and they had been sharing their anger for months on the social media platform Next Door and later through a nonprofit group called Beaches and Parks 4 All.

A lot of them have supported Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who has muscled his way into the homelessness issue by threatening to forcibly remove illegal campers from our beaches and parks, and the virtual town hall was an opportunity to hear from him directly.

For the record:

9:44 a.m. July 14, 2021An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin did not seek funds to move homeless people off the Venice Boardwalk until after the sheriff announced he would clear the encampments by July 4. Bonin asked the City Council for the money in May. The Council approved the request in July.

I’ve never supported the scandal-plagued sheriff, believing he has little moral authority on this or any other issue. But when things were at their most dysfunctional on the Venice boardwalk, I did wonder if his intervention might provide a spark needed to ignite more effective action. The verdict is still out on that, as far as I’m concerned, but some of the Westsiders who joined Villanueva’s virtual event on Monday were positively fawning.

“You are like a doctor and we are kind of ailing in [Council District 11] right now,” said Krishna Thangavelu, a Pacific Palisades resident and co-founder of the new anti-beach-camping nonprofit.

“Right now,” she told Villanueva, “you are the only guy we are confident in.”

I cringed at the flattery, but I understood where it was coming from; it was not until Villanueva’s show of bravado early last month on the Venice boardwalk, proclaiming he would clear away the homeless encampments by July 4 that the City Council finally approved $5 million in funding Bonin had asked for in May.

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Sadly, Bonin, who has long been committed to getting people off the streets and finding long-term solutions to homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness, gave Villanueva his opening.

The councilman had failed to adequately demonstrate to his housed constituents that he also understood their pain, which led to a growing rage that has culminated in a misguided movement to recall him. (He is up for reelection next year, as is the sheriff.)

As a result, he has become a scapegoat for a crisis with no easy solution.

As it happens, Bonin’s plan has brought some significant progress, even if it was slow in coming. The Venice boardwalk, which has been blighted by tents, jury-rigged shelters and all kinds of human misery, has been mostly cleared in the last several weeks. Outreach workers from Venice’s St. Joseph Center have been out every day, offering shelter and services to all who are willing to take them.

On Monday, Ocean Front Walk almost looked normal — or as normal as possible for Venice Beach, whose funky vibe has made it the county’s No. 1 tourist destination. Where clutter dominated the landscape just weeks ago, there are now long stretches of open sand and sidewalk. This is progress.

::

Villanueva, who won office in 2018 posing as a progressive lawman, is now presenting himself as a “tough, no-nonsense sheriff,” wrote my colleague Alene Tchekmedyian, in a story exploring the sheriff’s rightward lurch, though I’m not convinced it’s a shift as much as an unveiling.

His taste of success in Venice has emboldened him; starting this week, he told the town hall, two teams of deputies would work exclusively at Los Angeles County beaches, roaming the sand from Marina del Rey to Malibu to make sure no one is camping illegally.

“We are going to be out in force and make the place livable and safe for everyone,” he said. (Well, not everyone, obviously.)

He said he had ordered an assessment of all county public land to identify locations being infringed on by homeless people, part of what he described as his “robust plan to break up encampments.”

The sheriff said he’d like to put people in empty buildings, like St. Vincent Medical Center, the sprawling downtown L.A. campus that closed last year. But an awful lot of people who are homeless don’t want to be in institutional settings like that, and such a simplistic proposal makes me wonder just how much he cares about civil liberties and the right to move about freely.

I literally cringed when he said he wanted to find ways to send homeless people from other states back home.

“We are going to be overrun by the entire nation’s homeless, unless we start addressing the crisis,” he said. “I am sorry, but my charity is for people born and raised in L.A., and everyone who shows up from out of state only diminishes my ability to help people.”

The idea that people from other places don’t belong here, or that homeless people should be exported to their home states, is ugly on a number of levels.

Obviously, people flock to Los Angeles from other places, but to suggest that they don’t have a right to be here because they are struggling with homelessness, addiction or mental illness is, well, crazy.

You’d like to think our elected officials would enthusiastically work together on this most pressing problem, but as Villanueva amply demonstrated during Monday’s virtual town hall, his modus operandi is lobbing insults.

“Right now,” he said, “reality is butting up against the political establishment,” which he accused of having “sold their souls to the devil.”

When Thangavelu suggested that we need “intelligent solutions” to homelessness, the sheriff sniped, “You know when you say ‘intelligent,’ you are automatically shelving the city and county government.”

And, he declared, anyone who thinks public spaces should be commandeered to house people, “that’s lunacy right there. Lunacy. Idiocy.”

Maybe it’s lunacy, or maybe it’s visionary. Let’s see what Bonin’s study finds, and take it from there.

@AbcarianLAT


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