The road to hell is paved with good intentions. In iconic Venice Beach, California, it is also paved with feces, structure fires, knives, needles, tarps, and tents. My guide through this dystopian underworld, my Virgil, is named Soledad Ursua. Ursua is a native Angeleno who spent much of her professional life in New York. When she returned five years ago, she wanted to live in a walkable neighborhood similar to her adopted home of New York. Venice, with its mixture of historic bungalows, pedestrian-friendly walkways between them, and its proximity to the beach and restaurants, seemed like a perfect fit. It wasn’t.
On the start of my walking tour, with an ironic smile (there were many more of those to come) Ursua points me to a sign posted by the City of Los Angeles that says “Special Enforcement and Cleaning Zone.” The sign explains that sidewalks will be cleaned and cleared of encampments, waste will be removed, and unclaimed possessions taken to a storage facility. The irony, of course, is that directly behind the sign sits an unbroken, block-long train of homeless encampments. (Since the start of COVID-19 measures, the city of Los Angeles suspended anti-encampment ordinances; but now that the pandemic has abated, the encampments remain.) Some sanitation workers try, in a struggle of Sisyphean proportions, to sweep and clean the streets. Mobile shower and hand washing stations sit parallel to the encampments. Loaves of bread and other perishable food sit on unattended tables.
“The activists think they’re helping when they drop off food like that. But then the rats come. They spread disease. This whole area is at serious risk for bubonic plague and typhus,” Ursua explains. She is a self-described libertarian who began to advocate on behalf of Venice residents in the Venice Neighborhood Council, an elected body which consults with City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Venice. The council also tries to engage with Mayor Garcetti, who many Venice residents tell me “already has one foot out the door” in anticipation of an appointment as ambassador to India. Bonin and Garcetti are both smart enough to stay away from Venice—no posing on the boardwalk with “mission accomplished signs” for them.
Another resident, who commiserates with Ursua and identifies himself as a lifelong Democrat, tells me that Bonin hasn’t been to Venice in years, even though he lives in nearby Mar Vista with his husband. It’s a shame, because Bonin apparently, like me until today, only sees Venice on YouTube or the local news. Ursua’s tour takes me past not just encampments, but the burned out house of one of her neighbors. The fire was likely caused by the “unhoused” to use the preferred term. Another fire on the boardwalk recently destroyed a $26 million beachfront commercial property. All the parks, playgrounds and even the bike path along the beach have been ceded as public spaces; they are now the private domain of the encampment dwellers. “I don’t jog. I don’t walk my dog. I had to join a gym to exercise because I don’t feel safe. When dusk hits I get that pit in my stomach that I need to get home,” Ursua explains to me.
On the boardwalk I see a man sitting on a bench spreading canned tuna across bread with a hunting knife. “I’m glad you saw that,” Ursua tells me. “Would you take your kids here?” This is such a common refrain that I almost think it should be on a bumper sticker. We walk to where the boardwalk meets the boundary between Santa Monica and Venice, which is part of the City of Los Angeles. “It’s like a Tale of Two Cities,” Soledad explains. In neighboring Santa Monica there are no tents on the beach and the boardwalk comes back to life with people. Liberal Santa Monica, not exactly a bastion of rightwing law and order, is where the No Man’s Land ends. Unlike Los Angeles, Santa Monica enforces the laws requiring overnight encampments to be disassembled during the day.
Ursua walks me back down the boardwalk while a woman inside a tent shouts expletives to herself. Along the way she points out a senior center. In the good old days, five years ago, you would see seniors outside the building enjoying the weather. No more. We end up in front of a L.A. County Sheriff’s “outreach” tent where food and drink are being distributed with the hopes of assessing people’s needs and getting them off the streets.
“This is the battleground between capitalism and socialism,” Ursua explains to me. “The Marxists,” by which she means far left activist groups like Street Watch L.A., which is affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America, “don’t want these people to get off the streets. They want to keep them here so they can keep saying how evil capitalism is.”