The Brewing Battle Over Venice Beach’s Homeless Crisis

Narratively [link]

At ten o’clock on a chilly Tuesday morning, the Venice boardwalk is beginning to stir. A blanket of rich mid-morning sunlight coats the horizon, and the glittery silhouette of the Santa Monica pier twinkles like a kaleidoscope in the distance. Souvenir shops and tattoo studios emerge, one by one, from behind their rusty metal barricades while artists and street performers unload their respective paraphernalia along the boardwalk’s opposite periphery. They are the eclectic fringe that counters Venice’s commercial establishments in a quiet, mostly cordial, face-off between craft and corporate interest.

Catty-corner to Snapchat’s former headquarters at the upscale beach-bungalow-inspired Blu House, 34-year-old Reed Segovia stands barefoot behind a wooden table not much larger than a high school classroom desk. Behind him, slabs of wood repurposed as makeshift canvases flaunt a medley of geometric neon portraits, stacked in a semi-circle formation like a psychedelic Tetris game. There’s a canvas centered amid the boxy configuration; it’s the largest, arguably most ostentatious of all of them. The wood is slathered in a vibrant shade of yellow, with the words “Hack Snapchat Out of Venice” scrawled across its surface in block letters.

A man passes by the table wearing a deep, electric-blue pullover hoodie with the NASA logo printed across the chest. Segovia’s smile stretches across his face like leather.

“Hello, Mr. Astronaut!” he calls out. “Nice sweatshirt.”

The man turns to Segovia, surprised, and slows down. He nods before continuing on his way, “Thank you.”

Segovia, visibly pleased, pulls a thick notebook out of the rickety desk drawer and begins to flip through it. Comic book-style sketches of planes, tanks and battle scenes parade triumphantly, albeit chaotically, over the pages.

“For a while, I was like, all my art has this sci-fi space theme,” he says, then looks up, wild-eyed. “Maybe I just need to dress like an astronaut.”

Segovia, who originally hails from a small town in the San Fernando Valley, has been living in Los Angeles since 2005, with a few brief six-month stints in North Dakota, Texas and New Orleans – trailing a different girlfriend in each city (retrospectively faulty attempts to, as he puts it, “start my life all over again;” Segovia is somewhat of a hopeless romantic).

Now, Segovia is one of approximately two thousand homeless individuals living on and around the Venice boardwalk, a noticeable spike that parallels a steadily climbing rise in homelessness throughout Los Angeles. And while the City of L.A. is in the process of pooling a $1.2 billion bond to construct ten thousand units of permanent supportive housing for its chronically homeless over the next decade, people like Segovia are – at least, for the time being – largely left to their own devices.

* * *

Three blocks inland, a burgeoning tent city takes shape beneath the looming shadow of a public storage facility that spans an entire block. At the opposite sidewalk, Will Hawkins, Chair of the Venice Neighborhood Council’s Homeless Committee – one branch of a community organization devised to grapple with the prescribed “homeless problem” – evaluates the scene from beneath the rim of a purple-grey fabric baseball cap with the words “Hecho en Venice” sewn into the crown.

A hulking, six-foot-something New York native with a penchant for old-school rock music, Hawkins has been a Venice resident and small-business owner since 2011. Though Hawkins’ plaid, flannel button-up and dark-wash jeans flaunts an L.A.-bred air of ease, the muted remains of what sounds like a once-gruff New York accent belie his East Coast roots. Several minutes earlier, he’d proposed an impromptu, self-guided “tour” of the neighborhood’s homeless “encampments.”

“It’s a light day,” he says, and adds that the site usually serves as a temporary home to a recent influx of about 150 people.

Pressed tightly against the storage facility’s ten-foot-tall fence, a sea of overflowing shopping carts is crammed atop a dizzying mess of tents and blankets, the likes of which house a dense conglomeration of people – men and women, ranging from what looks like late-twenties to early-sixties – sitting, sleeping, milling around.

In 2016, Los Angeles County’s homeless count skyrocketed to 47,000, a number that the city fears has only grown during the past year. That, coupled with the city’s gaping lack of resources, catapulted Los Angeles to number one on the country’s list of regions containing the highest density of “unsheltered” individuals – people who are quite literally living on the streets, in cars, in stopgap refuges –, at nearly 75 percent of its total homeless population. With about two thousand unsheltered people lining its streets, Venice has certainly seen the brunt of this upsurge.

And, according to Hawkins, Venice residents (its property-owning residents, anyway) are “pissed.”

Hawkins ushers his “tour” into the street gutter, using left hand to loosely guide the reroute. “Trying to keep you safe from getting mugged,” he says.

* * *

The Venice community’s resounding tenor of disgust, fear or frustration – or some combination of the three – regarding its homeless neighbors does not go unnoticed by Segovia. He feels the alienation like an invisible electric fence sequestering him to a somewhat isolated world on the sidelines of the boardwalk. For Segovia, this kind of isolation cuts deeper than standard disrespect; it’s a persistent, demoralizing trigger.

In 2005, Segovia was living in L.A., struggling to pursue his art in a way that felt satisfying to him. He cites a numbing inability to connect with the people around him as the primary reason for this sense of stagnation.

“I felt exhausted from this place and L.A.,” Segovia says, and picks up a half-smoked cigarette. He places the cigarette between his teeth, swiftly lights a match and exhales. The smoke smells stale, but he takes several more ravenous puffs before speaking again. “I think I was drinking more then. Whatever the circumstances, I was fried.”

He pauses; the cigarette has already almost burned down to its filter. His silence seems to wrestle with the logic of his story. “And, you know,” he stops, takes a final drag of the cigarette, then, “the financial issues.”

But, while Segovia longs for some shred of correspondence with his surrounding community, Hawkins believes that Venice is already doing too much to facilitate the continued spread of homelessness throughout the neighborhood.

Hawkins leans against the fence separating Rose and Third Street’s encampment from the public storage facility. A set of mobile showers is stationed against the sidewalk – it’s a temporary initiative sponsored by Lava Mae, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that serves homeless communities.

One woman, Maria, emerges from the makeshift trailer setup with wet hair and a voracious smile. She hasn’t had a proper shower in eight years, she says. Instead, she usually showers in the ocean, in car washes or in the boardwalk’s public showers – when she can. Hawkins scrutinizes the trailer, squinting his eyes.

“All this does is create a community,” Hawkins reasons. “People now have a place to come. You’re enabling the situation.”

Proceeding one block down Third Street to a less congested segment, Hawkins approaches another, smaller food truck look-a-like with a line of people standing adjacent to the main window. A sign on the truck’s bumper reads “Free HIV Testing” in decorated bold lettering.

The homeless population has a median rate of HIV prevalence at least three times higher than the general population. This is heavily compounded by the fact that people living with HIV/AIDS are at higher risk of losing their residences – a Los Angeles study found that fifty percent of people living with HIV/AIDS felt they were at risk of becoming homeless.

Hawkins laughs dryly.

“So you take a shower, get a condom,” he jokes. “Just work your way down the street.”

But Venice, like the city of L.A., is scrambling for more permanent remedies. Shelters are flooded with people and deficient in adequate funds to meet the astronomical need. Frustrated, Hawkins struggles to grapple with a proverbial “solution” to eradicating homelessness.

“There’s so many layers to this. It gets a little overwhelming,” he says, weaving through a particularly unkempt patch of sidewalk. Boxes and carts are stuffed to their breaking points, and overflowing plastic bags leak an unidentifiable brown liquid onto the pavement. “You start talking about one thing, and you say, how do we find a solution to this? It’s like, you need a key to one door to get a key into another door to get a key into another door, and if you don’t have all four keys, you can’t solve any of the problems.”

But, at least for the time being, he says, services must focus on the segment of the homeless population that Hawkins calls the “true unhoused.”

“The people that were one paycheck away from being homeless, and they lost their job. Their families are living in a van,” he explains, and his crystalline eyes soften for the first time. “Those are the people who we truly need to help. Those are the people who truly need services.”

In order to do that, Hawkins echoes the need for “enforcement,” to weed out those whose predicaments might be less overtly dire.

“You have what we call the millennial hobos, or the professional homeless,” Hawkins says, “that have made the choice to live on the street. This is a lifestyle choice for them.” 

“They’re the ones who are stealing services,” he continues. “They’re the ones who are the real criminals here. They’re the ones who are on the beach and on the streets that LAPD needs to crack down on. That’s the drug dealers, the drug buyers…” He trails off. The skin beneath the fabric collar of his flannel flushes a watered-down shade of pink. “It’s not a homeless situation, it’s a gang situation. It’s a drug dealing situation that the city is completely ignoring.”

* * *

On the boardwalk, Segovia’s eyes are hazy; fixated on an image that he’s dredged up from his memory. As per Hawkins’ criterion, Segovia would likely fit squarely into the “professional hobo” subcategory of Venice’s homeless demographic.

“Even in high school, I wanted to make art,” he says, absently thumbing the pages of his sketchbook. “But then, after college, I was stuck with this thought of, ‘What am I going to do?’”

For many years, Segovia battled a debilitating and persistent series of mental health obstacles, most of which seem to directly link back to a chronic – though entirely undiagnosed – depression. His Band-Aid solutions spiraled into a destructive cycle of alcohol abuse, which only further launched him into a blurry state of disillusionment with his passion for art, his desire for financial stability and his longing for meaningful relationships – romantic or otherwise.

He doesn’t finish, and the canvas of his cheekbones contort with the incursion of an entirely new idea. “But what I realized after all of that,” he says, “is that creativity and making art is the anti-depressant. As long as you’re like, ‘Hey, let me run with this idea.’ Or, ‘Let me draw this out.’ You don’t have time to linger with, ‘Oh, I wish I did this,’ or ‘This person doesn’t love me.’”

At the base of a neighboring palm tree, a group of Segovia’s friends sit cross-legged in the sand, huddled around a tent the size of a dog house. One of them, a spindly man nearing his late-twenties, sports a matted beard that clings to the framework of his jawline like a tousled veneer. Wearing only overalls with more holes in them than fabric, he plucks the strings on a banjo. His high-pitched laugh squeaks along to the clanky tune.

Beside him, a younger man springs up. His shoulder-length dreadlocks hang like a tangled canopy coming undone at its ends. As he makes his way over to Segovia, the trim of his jeans sloughs off a dusty trail of sand behind him. He’s headed to a clothing drive several blocks inland.

“You need anything?” he asks.

“Socks!” Segovia wiggles his toes. “Bring the socks!”

The man nods, then sets off down the channel of the boardwalk.

“Like these guys,” Segovia says, gesturing to his friends. “Each one has this kind of light that they shine. We all just enhance each other’s experience by just being like, ‘Hey.’ We’re not just artists, we’re appreciators. And I think that appreciation really takes on a new meaning when you’re meeting people like this and making art. You know, everybody needs to be acknowledged and seen and felt and understood.’”

* * *

Hawkins heads west toward the boardwalk, several blocks south of Segovia’s post. Hordes of tourists weave through a chaotic web of vendors and skateboarders. Locals on roller skates zoom past, tethered to respectively feverish dogs trotting to the reverberating beat of a boombox resting on the shoulder of a nearby street performer.

Last year, Venice’s commercial establishments – boardwalk restaurants, t-shirt shops, tattoo parlors – opted to organize themselves into a Business Improvement District (BID), which essentially imposes a higher tax on their properties and pools the funds to subsidize the neighborhood “clean up” effort – and, in this case, “cleaning up” the streets applies not only to garbage, but also to the homeless.

“I’m a thousand percent for the BID,” Hawkins says. “I don’t see a single bad aspect of it.”

One of the BID’s primary pillars calls for the implementation of a private security force, one that will likely disproportionately target the homeless, as it has in other L.A. neighborhoods. “The homeless have got it made right now,” Hawkins says, nodding at a bristly, grey-haired man on a bench several paces to his left. The man rocks back and forth, clinging to a rickety cart that he’s cradled between his legs. “They can go wherever they want.”

“Security’s going to tell them, ‘No, you can’t be here,’” Hawkins speaks defiantly. “They’re going to push people along.”

When confronted with the million-dollar question, where exactly should these two thousand people theoretically be “moving along” to?, Hawkins expertly dodges it with a verbal dexterity that likely helped him earn his leadership seat on the Neighborhood Council.

Segovia with a collection of his art on Venice Beach.

Segovia and his friends haven’t yet felt the brunt of Venice’s impending private security regime. But Segovia knows it’s coming. “It’ll be just like Hollywood or Downtown,” he says. His solemn tone reflects a drained familiarity with the seizes, frisks and displacement procedures that have accompanied BIDs that have cropped up in other neighborhoods. “And they’ll be on bicycles and they’ll have walkie talkies. And they’ll be like, ‘Oh, you can’t do this. You can’t do that.’ It’s because of that corporate interest that they want to do that. Weird.”

Segovia says “corporate interest” the way an eight-year-old boy might say “cooties” – with a gaudy overtone of repugnance, perhaps masking a deeper-seated fear, or a lack of familiarity.

A tall, brawny man wearing only rubber flip flops and a pair of paint-splattered, coral swimsuit shorts places a gentle hand on Segovia’s shoulder – a quiet, but firm, beckon. Segovia looks up.

“Hey man, we’re gonna get started over there,” he says, pointing toward a quilt-sized tarp laid out in the sand. “Come on over when you’re ready.”

Segovia begins rummaging through his desk drawer for supplies. Today, he’s planned to collaborate with a few artists from down the boardwalk. He’s not sure exactly what they’ll create, but, he says, that’s the beauty of it. It is this kind of comradeship and creative verve that has helped Segovia combat corporate Venice’s encroaching aura of alienation.

“Maybe I just want to say ‘hello’ and make sure you’re doing all right. Like, ‘Hey, what’s your name? How’s it going? Having a good time? Did you get a coffee? Let me get you a coffee.’”

Segovia gathers a few stray paint brushes and smiles – warmly, politely, as one might smile at an old friend. He glances at his friends, setting up their temporary office space of the afternoon.

“I think it’s important for me, being here, to slowly help rebuild the community together with other people. And it’s a lot of pressure,” he says, without a hint of jest in his voice. “But a lot of people look at me and are like, ‘Well, what’s he doing?’ And so I try to lead by example, the best I can.”

Emily Mae Czachor