Hundreds of tents that lined Venice Beach are gone, but residents say job is far from done

From his home across the street from a homeless shelter in Venice, Shawn Stern sometimes turns on his video camera to document a disturbance that has grabbed his attention.

On Nov. 6, he recorded a gray-haired woman walking down Main Street, screaming and gesturing at passing cars.

Ten days later, another woman sat on the sidewalk, surrounded by three outreach workers, screaming at them that she did not want their help. Later, she too was walking down the middle of the street.

His most poignant video, made on the night of Nov. 30, caught a woman, naked from the waist down and with just one shoe on, mumbling incoherently.

“It’s like this on a regular basis down here,” the 61-year-old punk rock musician and festival promoter said in a text accompanying the videos. “It’s extremely sad. These women are in need of help & they aren’t getting any. They often end up victims of violent assault & rape.”

For tourists, it may appear that the Ocean Front Walk of old has returned — quirky shops, beachfront restaurants, sculpted bodies, funky music and assorted sketchy characters.

Long gone are the tents strung along the concrete promenade that for a painful year turned one of L.A.’s most popular destinations into a social media spectacle. Over six weeks last summer, city park rangers, sanitation crews and police removed the tents and other handmade shelters from the boardwalk and the beach beyond as outreach workers from nearby St. Joseph Center persuaded more than 200 people to accept shelter with the hope of eventually finding permanent housing.

A bicyclist rides past sand bluffs that were cleared of homeless encampments.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

But Venice residents and community activists who worked with Councilman Mike Bonin’s office and other city departments on the encampment-to-housing project view those sketchy characters not as a part of the boardwalk’s offbeat mystique but as evidence of a job that was never completed. Rather than accept the shelter that was offered, dozens of people simply slipped away, taking up residence in alleys near the beach, joining encampments that already existed and starting a new one on the median of Venice Boulevard.

“The crime hasn’t stopped, and the sound of people in need hasn’t stopped,” said longtime Venice resident Cari Bjelajac, whose home a block from the boardwalk has become a byway for people in distress. Her video camera captures them day and night, screaming at themselves or imaginary others, peering over fences and, in one case, wandering on her patio.

In fact, serious crimes — assault, battery, burglary and robbery — were down about 30% around the boardwalk and the shelter in the four months after the cleanup, according to a Times analysis of Los Angeles Police Department crime reports. Still, that area, comprising only a few dozen blocks, had more than one of those crimes per day.

From her bedroom window, Bjelajac hears the cries of a woman she recognizes as a regular on the boardwalk last summer who still hangs out there but sleeps somewhere else.

“She cries all the time, sometimes sad, guttural crying, sometimes shrieking crying,” Bjelajac said. “And you don’t know whether you should call the police because someone needs help.”

The continuing distress on Venice’s streets and alleys stands in stark contrast to the optimism that flowed after last summer’s cleanup.

In an Aug. 2 message still posted on his website, Bonin, who orchestrated the cleanup using $5 million in federal pandemic relief, proclaimed that “211 unhoused people have come indoors, are receiving services, and are on a pathway to permanent housing.”

Since then, Bonin, who survived a recall effort that failed to qualify for the ballot only to abruptly announce last week that he would not seek a third term, had come under increasing criticism for not acknowledging that many people had evaded or rejected the outreach effort.

Workers clear a homeless encampment

City of Los Angeles sanitation workers clear a homeless encampment along Ocean Front Walk in July.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

In a statement to The Times, Bonin said he continues “fighting for more housing options and pushing for more services to help and heal people who are living on the street, who experience trauma, physical disabilities, mental health issues, and substance abuse issues.”

He refuted, however, what he called “a public narrative that opposes housing as a solution, saying we only need more mental health and substance abuse services.”

“As someone who has struggled with drug addiction, with housing insecurity, and with mental health issues, I can say with absolute certainty that people need a roof over their heads to recover and get well and stabilize their lives — and that’s what I’m fighting for every day,” he said.

A report released by St. Joseph in October said outreach workers had engaged with 345 people on the boardwalk and moved 211 into shelter, leaving more than 130 who did not obtain shelter.

St. Joseph issued a statement saying its outreach workers had found that all but two of those “were just passing through” and did not live on the Boardwalk.

“We engaged and did an initial assessment with them and tried to link them to appropriate services and if they return to the area we will continue to work with them, but most were just passing through,” it said.

A January update said St. Joseph had moved 213 into shelter, only two more than in October. Of those, 70 had moved into permanent housing, but 46 had left the shelter to whereabouts unknown.

A similar pattern developed at the city-run shelter near Stern’s home. Opened in February 2020 in the face of intense community opposition, it has struggled to insulate itself from large tent camps on nearby Hampton and 3rd streets and a drug trade reputed to be based in a nearby city parking lot.

Two people speak in front of a tent

Dawan Moises, left, an outreach worker from St. Joseph Center, speaks with a homeless resident in Venice.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Of the 189 adult clients taken in there since its opening, 75 have left, 40 of them discharged for violating the rules, PATH, the shelter operator, told The Times.

In a reflection of the vulnerability of homeless people, seven have died, four in the shelter and three elsewhere. Five succumbed to health conditions and two were presumed drug overdoses.

“The populations we serve often have complex medical needs and co-occurring mental health and substance use challenges,” PATH Chief Executive Jennifer Hark Dietz said in a statement. “We know homelessness has a major impact on an individual’s health and significantly shortens life expectancy.”

Medical needs and mental health challenges were evident on a recent Tuesday on the boardwalk.

Steven Hebrank pushed his shopping cart into the pagoda seating area where Dudley Avenue meets the boardwalk.

Hebrank, 61, said he moved inland from his spot on the boardwalk after city workers took his tent last summer.

Hebrank said he has qualified for housing as a veteran and is only waiting to get his California ID. In the meantime, he said, he has been beaten by thugs at a local coffee shop and assaulted by someone trying to steal his leather jacket.

“Every day is a terroristic attack day for me,” he said.

Nearby, Terry Lyons, almost 62, said he declined the shelter.

“Oh, that routine,” he said. “It’s hurtful. It’s bitter. I can’t do that. I can’t be in a place where they lie about my surgeries I’ve had.”

Without explaining, he changed the subject to being a Vietnam war hero, and still active. Then a young man approached and asked for a cigarette. Rebuffed, the man lowered his voice to a whispering growl and talked inaudibly for several minutes.

The pagoda area is a regular stop for Dr. Coley King, director of homeless healthcare at the nearby Venice Family Clinic. He examined several men there that day.

Deputies speak with a man in front of a tent

Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies with the Homeless Outreach Services Team speak to a homeless man about housing options in June.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

With some bitterness, King said he concurs with the observation that “the problem is still there — people experiencing homelessness with serious mental illness with no place to go and without a really intact, community-based mental health system that they can really count on.”

Also, he said, “there are still a lot of hard drugs floating around out there, and that definitely is disturbing.”

Up and down Ocean Front Walk, the stalls of artists, vendors and a psychic healer or two filled the spaces beside the beach where tents and shanties had taken hold last year.

But on the earth berm around the parking lot at Rose Avenue, and on the beach beyond, several tents were pitched.

Park rangers and sanitation crews clear them away, but they return, and some have managed to become semipermanent.

Seren Hkse (pronounced Akst) lives, temporarily she says, in a small compound of tents and tarps just off the boardwalk beside the Israel Levin Senior Adult Center north of Rose.

She’s an artist, eager to display the paintings she says make her a modest living. She doesn’t sympathize much with people who camp on the beach.

“If you’re not an artist, you’re not supposed to squat,” she said. As a Native American, she said, “I reserve that right to be able to do that.”

But her time may be limited.

The Levin Center, currently being refurbished, will reopen any day now, renamed the BAR Center at the Beach, said its president and CEO, Rabbi Noah Farkas.

Farkas, who also sits on the governing commission of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, told The Times he will do his best to help Hkse when the construction fence that supports her shelter comes down.

Other denizens of the beach, the alleys, the medians and the sidewalks of Venice are unlikely to have anyone looking over them.

Bjelajac, who volunteered with her neighbors last summer to survey people camped on the boardwalk, said all the regulars they got to know took the offer of shelter and are gone.

People walk around tents and other shelters at a homeless encampment

A homeless encampment in Venice in 2020.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

“There is nobody here you can talk to,” she said. “It’s a very different group of people. The folks who are still out here are really unfixable.”

Stern said he has not recently seen the three women he recorded and does not know if they were eventually arrested, detained for psychiatric treatment, returned to a shelter or simply disappeared.

He said he called the police about the half-naked woman, but she was gone when they arrived.

La Tina Jackson, who heads the L.A. County Department of Mental Health’s Homeless Outreach and Mobile Engagement, or HOME, teams, said she could not comment on any individuals for privacy reasons.

“You have to be aware that someone might look like they have mental illness, but that may not be, in fact, what is causing what those residents are looking at or filming,” Jackson said.

She said the health department coordinates with the St. Joseph Center, whose mental health teams work with those needing a lower level of care, and that the county engages those who need more intensive care.

Those who need mental health services are receiving them, either from county or St. Joseph teams, she said.

Connie Brooks, who is affiliated with a loose resident group calling itself Friends of Venice Boardwalk, said she was encouraged after touring the boardwalk with Jackson and staff of St. Joseph Center to see the need firsthand.

Brooks said she thought the meeting had strengthened the relationship between the department and St. Joseph. But any concrete results “would be invisible to me,” she said.

“They are not allowed to give us information about specific people,” she said. “Understandable; they have a right to privacy. As a result, we cannot tell you who has been helped.

“I can’t say enough how painful it is for one human being to walk down the street and see other human beings in distress every day,” Brooks said. “These are people who are not getting better on the streets. We all know it. It just needs to change.”

Sanitation workers clear a homeless encampment on the beach

City of Los Angeles sanitation workers clear a homeless encampment in July.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

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