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California's Venice Beach Has Become A Flashpoint In The State's Homelessness Crisis


In Los Angeles, the world famous Venice Beach is now the latest flashpoint in the city's homelessness crisis. Hundreds of unhoused people camp along the boardwalk there. Now it's summer. Tourists are returning. And as member station KCRW's Anna Scott reports, politicians have plans to clear the area.

ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: The Venice boardwalk is an oceanfront promenade lined on one side by shops and restaurants and on the other side by street performers, art vendors and hundreds of people living in tents on the sand.

LEVI WALLS: Well, I was on a road trip with my family. And we lost our home after we left 'cause we couldn't get back.

SCOTT: Levi Walls got here five months ago from a small town in Washington state.

WALLS: It's a long story. Yeah, just everything kind of fell apart, you know?

SCOTT: Venice Beach has long had one of the city's largest homeless populations even as it's become one of LA's most expensive neighborhoods. But during the pandemic, the number of people camped by the boardwalk surged partly because the city stopped enforcing rules around camping in public spaces in line with CDC advice. The city also reduced shelter capacity to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks.

MARK VAN GESSEL: Before it used to be a part of Venice that you could live with, not one that has overtaken all of Venice.

SCOTT: Mark Van Gessel owns a bar near the south tip of the boardwalk.

VAN GESSEL: So on a daily basis, we'll have homeless people walk into the bar trying to use our restrooms, cause problems in the bar until such point that the customers feel so uncomfortable they decide to leave, and they go somewhere else.

SCOTT: This past week, city officials started implementing a plan they say will improve the situation for everyone. They've sent outreach workers to the boardwalk to offer unhoused people services and hotel rooms. The plan is to move an estimated 200 people indoors by mid-August and then to permanent homes.

ERIC GARCETTI: Checking things out, here to help with Operation House People.

SCOTT: On Tuesday, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti toured the area.

GARCETTI: I will be co-leading this operation personally with our city departments and anybody else who wants to help. We will make progress here.

SCOTT: But the city's plan isn't just about housing people. It's also about making Venice Beach more welcoming to visitors. On Friday morning, sanitation workers moved in with trucks and hoses.

DIXIE LYNNMOORE: I'm actually taking this one tent that I was using as apartment space, and I'm going to break it down and put it in the storage.

SCOTT: Dixie Lynnmoore will spend tonight in a nearby hotel.

LYNNMOORE: We're there for four weeks.

SCOTT: And no word yet on something permanent, but what would you like from them?

LYNNMOORE: I want Section 8. I want my own place. So we'll find out in four weeks what happens.

SCOTT: This strip of beach will be a test for LA officials of whether they can transform hundreds of lives and the beloved beachfront boardwalk or will end up simply pushing unhoused people to less visible areas.

JEREMY WASHINGTON: I'm a grown man. I'm 31.

WASHINGTON: One person hoping for a turning point is Jeremy Washington.

WASHINGTON: I look for work every day. I have 13 years, 14 years of restaurant experience, you know? My grind don't stop just 'cause I'm homeless.

SCOTT: He's been homeless in South LA but came to Venice because he heard the city is offering housing to people here.

WASHINGTON: You know, I - you know, got to take advantage of it if you need the help.

SCOTT: Even if the city houses the 200 people currently camped on the boardwalk, it's still lacks shelter for tens of thousands of other homeless people who live someplace other than a tourist attraction. For NPR News, I'm Anna Scott in Venice Beach.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anna Scott