By Enyaj Pitchford
It was an honor to spend time talking to Becky Dennison , who has worked at VCH, the Venice Community Housing Corporation for the past 5 ½ years. She is sharp with a quick intelligence and is fully committed to her cause, her job. She plays a crucial role in the Herculean task of providing shelter to those in need. Yet, Venice continues to lose local apartments to AirBnB and condominium conversions, as well as the loss of many rent stabilized units. All the while facing growing animosity against the homeless and blatant criminalization of the impoverished.
Some of the false narrative comes from misconceptions, but most comes from deliberate lies spread to fit their false narrative. People have lost the gift of communication. They don’t set out with the intention of getting to know anyone who lives on the street, only to judge them and repeat what they’ve heard about them. And a lot of the reactionary behavior of the homeless, wouldn’t happen “if you treat people kindly” says Becky. We both lamented about how we’ve heard the same story said at the anti homeless meetings. Some well dressed housewife will pretend to cry while she talks about how a homeless man exposed himself in front of her little girl when they went out for a walk outside their home. You can press them for facts, but you won’t get any. Just a narrative you’ve heard many times, given by a particular group of property owners. What’s interesting is that I’ve lived here more than half my life and have never heard of anyone having that experience except at these meetings. I saw a woman, who was homeless for over thirty years, pull down her pants and poop in the street on Rose in broad daylight over ten years ago. Not easy to forget for sure. But what’s amazing, is that I saw this woman all cleaned up with makeup on while buying a few food items at Cooportunity lately. The difference in that woman is simply “shelter.” And what a world of difference it makes.
More units are being built in the past six years than were created during the past two decades, thanks to the work of the VCH and another non affiliate Tom Safrah Associates. Homelessness has grown so rapidly , that the situation has become glaring to most and it created a momentous demand to get things done. Yet the need keeps growing, as closing of businesses left many out of work, factories continually going overseas, displacing many low skilled workers without any higher education, and the ever increasing rents, left many with no place to go. People make false reports about Venice taking the brunt of the homeless but that’s not true. I spoke to a Skid Row Preacher who told me skid row was once one square block and now consists of fourteen square blocks. That’s a huge leap in size! Besides, this is a national issue, and even a global problem that has been building up since the eighties. So big, that the once invisible problem has reached a tipping point where it is now clearly visible for all to see, spread across the horizon of the Venice Beach Ocean Front Walk.
The need for change is inevitable , but what kind of change is the issue. False narratives are very popular and complicate the situation. The criminalization of the poor is always the first go. Remember that is how our stats ran up to 1 in 3 young black men in California spend some time in jail? This is the kind of stats that follow criminalization of a group of people. This narrative is pushed by those who own homes here and are “inconvenienced” and “bothered” by having to witness the reality of those who didn’t climb their golden ladder of “buying in at the right time”, or inheriting the family home or luck out in divorce or simply take the job that paid the most, regardless of its effects on their psyche or the planet and some just lucked out. Yet somehow, with all that blessing and abundance, they cannot find compassion, and refuse to share the boardwalk with the “undesirables” and feel they have the right to weaponize the police against those less fortunate than themselves. It’s a pathetic state of affairs, because, as Becky has witnessed “ these same people who complain about the problems of the homeless also complain about the solution to the homeless problem, that is, building more affordable apartments”. They welcome the political circus of the bully opportunists like Sheriff Villanueva “rolling into town and pushing people around because he can,” decries Becky. “His tactics are cruel and against all civil and human rights.” Simply unconscionable! Besides, it’s just a big show of arrests of people who will be out in a day or so. Only their problems will worsen. There was a court case headed by the Civil Liberties Union that showed how the costs of the police, their gear, the judicial system , the jails, the ambulances were wasting millions of dollars of taxpayers money and could have put each homeless person at the Hilton Hotel for that same amount of expenditure. The case was thrown out by a judge before it could be tried, but then , what happened when COVID rolled into town? Those hotels were full of homeless people!. How ironic, indeed!
Yet hotels are just temporary solutions to a problem of pandemic proportions. We need more shelters and until we get them it is crucial, especially in the time of COVID,” to keep the areas clean, provide showers and access to clean , supplied bathrooms until the needs for homes are met”, says Becky.. People just need to share the public space with the whole public, not just those of their choosing. Just because one owns a home, they don’t own the beach; it’s public land. Who chose them to be judges and executioners, I wonder?
The VCH, despite all the work they do to create permanent solutions, also takes time to keep an eye on what is happening in the streets around them. VCH has hosted the “Venice Citation Clinic” run by the Venice Justice Committee to help combat some of the expensive criminalization tactics used by the police. They hope for a better relationship with the VNC, Venice Neighborhood Council, which has only represented the wealthy homeowners and hasn’t done anything in years to represent the long-time residents, the low income and diversity which is essentially what Venice is known for. We both are rooting for Mike Bravo, long time resident, Indigenous, and newly elected council member, to be able to exert his very intelligent and inside experience and open the conversation to be more inclusive at their meetings.
This year, in December, they hope to house people in the 35 units they are building on Rose Ave. They owned the land and had their office there. Now they will have an office within the new structure they are building. They had to work with the state and coastal commissions to strike a deal to help alleviate some issues to allow the project to go forward. In August, they will begin a restoration project they’ve been approved for and add two additional units (accessory dwelling units, ADU) to a seven unit complex on Venice Blvd, off Marion. This project of one and two bedroom bungalows will be set aside for families experiencing homelessness .And they plan on preserving the courtyard. Kudos to the VCH for their hard work and best of luck in all their future endeavors for being Way Showers for the solution to this troubling state of affairs!