Venice’s Ocean Front Walk is empty except for a scattering of waking homeless people and the occasional jogger, who’d materialize once every 15 minutes and be gone, their neon-colored gear a blur in the morning fog.
Just after dawn a convoy of vehicles begin to slowly make its way down the tourist stretch.
At the front and rear of the convoy are two white SUVs with “Watershed Protection” stamped along the door panels. Sandwiched in the middle are two trucks, each one carrying people outfitted in white Hazmat jump suits, and one trash truck. The 15 or so workers pick up trash, but most just lean up against their trucks and talk.
A worker in all white picks up a bag of Doritos and some paper cups and places them in a plastic trash bag. Once filled, he tosses the plastic bag in the trash truck.
Someone operating a leaf blower on wheels blows the sand off the pavement and back onto the beach as a power washer follows closely behind, spraying anything leftover back onto the sand.
Watching the entire convoy from the beach about 20 feet away like some savanna predator is a LAPD SUV.
The convoy makes its way up the Boardwalk, occasionally stopping to tell homeless people to move, confiscating their property for them to retrieve at a later date in a storage facility near Skid Row.
Once a monthly cleanup, the Ocean Front Walk cleaning convoy is now a weekly occurrence called “Operation Healthy Streets” that began at the direction of Los Angeles City Council, according to the Los Angeles Department of Public Affairs. The cleanings began more than a year ago and recently were extended to the waterline.
Out one recent Friday morning, a few yards down from the convoy, is a group of protesters. The group – led by David Busch and made up of homeless people and local activists – is protesting the City’s now weekly cleanups.
These cleanups have been labeled by the homeless community and local activists as “sanitation sweeps” and, they say, are being used to muscle and intimidate the homeless population off the beach.
“Our group is not opposed to the cleanup,” said Busch, who can’t cross Ocean Front Walk after he was recently arrested for sitting on top of a sanitation truck in protest of the cleanings. “We want Venice Beach to be cleaned up. What we are opposed to is what they are doing. What they are doing is using the cleanup as a charade and a cover for an attempt to force more and more poor people, street travelers, and young kids out of Venice Beach…and we are the people who made Venice.”
“Venice is a residential neighborhood, a business district, a city park, and a world-renowned tourist destination all at the same time and it is very important that we keep it clean and safe for everyone who lives, works, and visits Venice,” said Los Angeles Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Venice. “These cleanups balance the needs of the neighborhood with a careful process to protect the rights of people living on the street.”
Under a 2012 court injunction, the city can confiscate personal property that has been abandoned, and must store it for 90 days. The confiscations have become as commonplace as the morning joggers, with most of homeless people never making it to Skid Row to claim their items.
The Venice Stakeholders Association, a group led by President Mark Ryavec and made up of Venice residents, is in support of the new law. The group is currently suing the City and County of Los Angeles for “maintaining a dangerous public nuisance along the Venice Beach recreation Area, which resulted form the City and County’s failure to enforce the Beach Curfew and the existing ban on camping in City parks,” according to a statement released by their President.
The group is also lobbying for the reinstatement of enforcement of the City’s ordinance that bans lying, sitting, and sleeping on public right-of-ways.
A renewed focus on curfew enforcement resulted in closures of public restrooms at night, something that has lead to more public urination and defecation.
Busch, who has long grey hair with streaks of white and frequently wears cardboard signs around his neck that say things like “More Love,” a self-described hippie, is no stranger to protests and helping out from within the homeless community.
In 2013, the City began closing public restrooms at night. The result was more and more feces and urine in Venice’s streets and back alleys.
In response to the restroom closures and the increase in human waste on the streets, Busch erected a Porta Potty for the community of homeless people, artists, and travelers that lived on Third Street that “was in line with procedures outlined in Red Cross emergency manuals,” said Busch, who spent time researching their protocol.
The makeshift Porta Potty was a tent that housed four five-gallon buckets with toilet seat lids. The tent was covered with peace signs and a sign with a smiley face that read “Hi, I’m your Porta Potty” hung on the outside – the hippie iteration of the Red Crosses’ emergency toilet instructions.
Each morning when the public restrooms would open, Busch would take the four five-gallon buckets there to be emptied. He’d place lids on each of the buckets, bungee cord them to a cart he found in a dumpster, and pull the cart alongside his bike for four city blocks to the Rose-area public restrooms.
Once there, he’d empty the contents in a toilet, a little at a time so as not to over flow the toilet, and then clean each bucket out scrupulously with soap and water before returning them to the Porta Potty. Sometimes Busch would do this three times a day, lugging the buckets back and forth.
This went on for about four or five months until the City intervened after receiving complaints from residents about the Porta Potty
“It is a human right to have access to restrooms, so I was supplying what the City was taking away from the homeless community,” Busch said.
Busch was taken to court and was not charged for operating the Porta Potty, but was charged for his foldable cart that was briefly left on a street.
The City still has not responded to the restroom closures and the homeless and activist communities’ request for night access to the restrooms or Porta Potties.
Bonin said restrooms in public parks have limited hours because the City does not have not had the budget needed to operate the facilities 24-hours a day.
He said he is currently working to find a way to expand the hours for the restrooms in Venice and earlier this month, he partnered with his L.A. councilman colleague Gil Cedillo to ask the City to develop a program that would provide storage, showers, and restrooms for people living on the streets throughout Los Angeles.
“Offering these basic necessities for people living on the streets is the right thing to do – for them and for our neighborhoods,” Bonin said. “Not only does it help keep neighborhoods cleaner, but it provides the dignity and opportunities for people to get off the street and become functioning members of society.”
A set of rules allowing the city to more quickly dismantle homeless encampments won final approval this week from the Los Angeles City Council over the objections by a vocal group of protesters.
About a dozen protesters disrupted the council meeting, calling the rules “criminal” and jangling keys as they shouted “House keys, not storage!” while being escorted out of the council chamber by security officers.
It has been a point of tension for sometime, with this outburst at City Hall being just another installment in this ongoing dispute between City Officials on one side and the homeless, who feel unrepresented by elected officials, on the other.
Despite the outbursts, the council went ahead and adopted a faster process for removing personal property left on sidewalks and in city parks. Thecouncil had tentatively adopted the rules last week, but the decision was not unanimous and required a second vote.
City leaders who support the new rules, which includes Los Angeles Councilmember Mike Bonin who represents Venice, say they will replace existing ones that are too broad and had rendered anything left on the ground vulnerable to seizure.
“The City needs to have the ability to keep sidewalks and parks clean, safe and accessible, and these new ordinances will help the city do so in a way that treats the people living on the sidewalk humanely and with respect,” Bonin said. “Though the ordinances are a step in the right direction and better than what we had before, they are not perfect. That is why I have offered two amendments – one that will remove the misdemeanor penalties for not complying with the law called for in the ordinance, and one that will allow the city to keep sidewalks passable for disabled members of the community.”
Under the two ordinances passed on Tuesday, the noticing period before removing personal items from parks and sidewalks will be shortened from 72 hours to 24 hours and no notice will be needed for the removal of bulky items from sidewalks and parks.
“They’re not trying to build more housing,’’ said Pete White, who founded the Los Angeles Community Action Network – which targets issues affecting impoverished Angelenos – citing a city report that found that “we’re spending $100 million across everything that we do, and $87 million of that goes to the Police Department.”
This comment is an echo of the homeless community and Venice Beach activists who claim that too much is being done to criminalize the homeless, rather than spending money on more housing.
Currently Venice doesn’t have any homeless shelters, said Busch, and if you do want to find one, weary travelers must make their way to Culver City, where the nearest homeless shelter is located.
Opponents of the ordinance, including Los Angeles Councilman Gil Cedillo, who cast the lone dissenting vote Tuesday night, said the law will continue to criminalize the homeless while doing nothing to help people off the streets.
“We should have a war on poverty, not on the poor,” Cedillo said, addressing Council.
Back in Venice, David Busch stands on a street corner a few blocks away from the Boardwalk cleaning protests, abiding the warnings of LAPD officers not to cross Ocean Front Walk.
From the corner he’s making phone calls to the protesters, asking how everything was going and giving advice.
An occasional friend would come over to say “hi.” Busch would greet them with smiles, some coffee, and breakfast that he’d picked up on his way to the beach that morning for the protesters. The money came from a lawsuit he won against the City of Los Angeles and that he now uses to help his community, offering a helping hand to those who need it.
“If they were serious about cleaning the beach,” said Busch, pouring a cup of coffee for someone who had just showed up at the corner, “they should open the toilets at night. Until they do that, the show of them cleaning the Boardwalk is just that, a show. The only storage facility for people is on Skid Row, so come to Skid Row to get your stuff and while you’re down there don’t come back,” he said ironically.
Protesters would come back and forth from the Boardwalk to where Busch stood, handing out coffee and food. He’d chat with everyone who came by, knowing most of them already and introducing those people who didn’t know each other.
“It is a cultural treasure,” he continued, talking about Venice, “and our group is here to preserve the best things about our democracy and that, really, is the challenge of us all: to live together with equal rights, with equal respect for each other, to learn from one another, and to ultimately do this,” holding up the card board sign that hung around his neck. “Ain’t that the goal of it all?”
The sign that hung around his neck read “More Love!”