Ten old RVs line one block of Third Avenue in Venice. Most are stuffed to the windshields with hoarded junk. Few look roadworthy. Tires are bare. Cobwebs have formed. A man sporting dreadlocks walks up and says three of the campers, all painted in the same '60s rainbow theme, belong to him.
Asked if he would ever participate in Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl's program that would take rig dwellers like him away from residential neighborhoods and place them in special parking lots overnight, he has a few choice words for the city denizens:
"This is not residential," Rasta man says. "Tell them residents, this is a beach. Fuck that shit. We don't give a fuck what people up in them hills think about us."
People are emotional, and sometimes irrational, about their mobile homesteads, which seem to have multiplied in Venice's still-funky Oakwood area during two years of economic malaise. A spring "Vehicle Needs Assessment" survey conducted by the St. Joseph Center, the nonprofit that assists the indigent, found 84 people living in cars, trucks and RVs in Venice. The respondents' average age was 49. Most of the residents say they suffer from mental illness.
The issue has exposed a fault line in Venice, a once uniformly liberal, if not terminally contentious, community.
The tectonic plates run mainly along the lines of liberal and left-of-liberal, the former including homeowners who are fed up with sharing the view with folks who live out of their vehicles and treat sidewalks as their restrooms; the latter includes RV sympathizers who believe being homeless shouldn't be a crime.
Some think efforts to corral or eject the vehicle-based transients are contrary to Venice's bohemian, laissez-faire heritage. Homeless advocates are concerned that the "Safe Parking" program is simply a way to shift and shuffle a problem, from Venice to somewhere else, which can only be solved with permanent, affordable housing.
In the middle is the self-professed progressive Councilman Rosendahl, who has tried to appease both factions only to quickly learn he's damned if he does, damned if he doesn't.
His latest solution tiptoes along the fault line like a burglar at midnight. His three-year Safe Parking program was launched on paper this spring with $750,000 of his discretionary money — essentially a legal slush fund of public money he can spend as he likes. He's seeking parking lots in which he can open nightly campgrounds of sorts, where RV dwellers can stay overnight.
Sounds reasonable. But Rosendahl has stolen few hearts on either side. It's a classic battle that pits the will of the downtrodden to dwell and thrive in the public commons — an agrarian right to survival recognized since 15th-century England — against the property rights of the more fortunate, who would rather not see their lawns used as toilets.
"For most of the time I've lived in Venice it has been a very open, welcoming community where all kinds of people were able to at least tolerate one another," says 40-year resident Steve Claire, executive director of the Venice Community Housing Corp. "Only recently there's been this enormous pressure to eliminate homeless people from the community."
RV defenders say transients were part of Venice long before a newer wave of homeowners — actor Robert Downey Jr. included — spiked residential prices beyond the million-dollar mark in many quarters. They paint the debate as the gentry against the funky.
"It's just the whole gentrification thing," says homeless advocate Peggy Lee Kennedy, a trustee at the United Methodist Church and a third-generation Venetian. "At one time it was just poor people living in Venice, and property values were a lot lower."
She distrusts the Safe Parking program, viewing it as a tool to sweep the RVs under the rug at night.
"I think Safe Parking is an inadequate answer," Kennedy says. "It's still an elimination of the RVs in Venice. They're human beings, not garbage."
Some fear Safe Parking is a ploy to push the campers to the parking-rich wasteland around LAX. The RV dwellers need to be where service agencies such as the St. Joseph Center and Venice Family Clinic are located, advocates say.
"I think the vision for the Safe Parking program is that you meet people where they are to provide resources and support so they will be able to survive a little better," Claire says. "Just because they're living in vehicles doesn't mean they're not part of our community. Some of them have lived in Venice for decades. Some have kids in school here."
Karen Wolfe of the Venice Action Alliance agrees: "The goal is to keep people in the community to the degree it's possible. We see them as people from the community."
Spend some time with those who gripe about RVs, however, and they don't sound unreasonable. Even Rosendahl, the sole council member who tried, unsuccessfully, to overturn an L.A. ordinance that outlaws sleeping in cars, says: "I'm a very progressive guy. But if I was pulling out of my driveway in Mar Vista, would I want three or four campers outside my house every day? No, I wouldn't."
Georganne Abraham, a Venice Neighborhood Council parking-committee co-chair, is one of those Venetians who says she has compassion yet believes that curbside camping is a scourge.
Some of the mobile residents, opponents complain, get stoned and deal drugs, sometimes lash out violently, scare children and use public gutters to empty septic tanks.
"I'm not heartless," says Abraham, who has lived in Venice for 21 years. "If I had a huge packet of my excrement and threw it on your front door, what could be worse than that? I don't get where that's okay. If someone decides to pull up to your house and have a party, you can't do anything about it because they know where you live."
Mark Ryavec, who lobbied hard for permit-parking zones that would have locked out many RV dwellers, says his opponents romanticize a population that brings down the quality of life.
"The left here in Venice doesn't want to see any rules," he says. " 'Keep Venice free' and all this crap. They think there's something romantic about people living in RVs. This is a marginal existence."
Kennedy says the Safe Parking idea first arose in 2003 at the Venice Neighborhood Council. Rosendahl's office picked up the idea later, as part of a three-pronged approach to RV-parking complaints. His strategy included resident-only "overnight-parking districts," since shot down by the California Coastal Commission, and limits on overnight parking for oversize vehicles.
Safe Parking is modeled after programs in Santa Barbara and Eugene, Oregon. In Santa Barbara, people who initially opposed the idea have warmed to it. It provides 103 spaces nightly, some at businesses where owners now appreciate the temporary residents serving as night watchmen, and RV dwellers relish the newfound responsibility. More than 30 in the last year were placed in permanent housing. "A lot of people were opposed" at first, says program coordinator Nancy Kapp.
After traveling to Santa Barbara and Eugene, Rosendahl hired Sophia Heller to identify potential lots and draw up a "request for proposal" — essentially a Help Wanted ad for a nonprofit to run the L.A. program. The locations could be anywhere in Rosendahl's sprawling Westside City Council District 11, but Venice is the focus.
However, Venice isn't Santa Barbara. Many RVs here don't seem to be running, and most dwellers seem too marginal to keep a schedule, DMV registration and other rules of behavior. It's hard to envision success.
On a recent afternoon, a young woman with a black eye skateboards outside her old Pace Arrow on Fourth and Vernon avenues. Arms in the air, fast-talking and animated with stories of being robbed and beaten, she's clearly high. Confronted with the prospect of having to drive to a special lot at night, she blows a gasket, grabbing a reporter's notebook, walking away and attempting to tear it in half.
"I need that," the reporter says. "That's my work."
"This," she says, waving the notebook at her RV, "this is my life."