Homeless Versus Venice

A parking-lot encampment near Venice Beach
Ted Soqui

The ratty campers are so far removed from the glory of Chevy Chase’s giant station wagon in the film National Lampoon’s Vacation as to seem a different species. They signify not the American Dream but the end of the line. Tattered, sad affairs, they line the streets in one of Los Angeles’ trendiest communities — Venice.

Residents sick of it all say the unsightliness is only part of their problem. They say that people who live in the vehicles dump urine and worse, and though some of the R.V.s are homes for the unfortunate and the mentally ill, others are being used primarily for drug dealing and prostitution.

June 11, at a California Coastal Commission meeting in Marina del Rey, City Councilman Bill Rosendahl and some residents hope to get the powerful commission’s nod to begin the process of creating districts in which only residents with special permits can leave their cars on the streets between 2 and 6 a.m.

The so-called “preferential-parking districts” would cost affected Venice residents at least $15 per car each year, as well as charges for residents’ car-driving visitors. The districts would range from just west of Lincoln Boulevard to the beach, and from Washington Boulevard at the north boundary of Marina del Rey, to Rose Avenue at the Santa Monica city limit. “I don’t love the idea of paying for parking,” says Colette Bailey, “[but] I’m tired of every other liberal in the Westside dumping all their problems on us. ... Put them in Brentwood for all I care.”

Local media have framed the move to get rid of the camper dwellers as the death of liberal Venice. In fact, the story is one of a much more fractured, thoughtful — and troubled — community.

Few are more symbolic of the conflicts than Benjamin Schonbrun, founding partner of Schonbrun DeSimone Seplow Harris & Hoffman LLP, a respected civil rights firm. A particularly virulent group of alcoholic and drug-abusing homeless hang out adjacent to Schonbrun’s office on Venice’s Boardwalk. While one of his partners is against the Overnight Parking Districts (OPDs), Schonbrun has a different perspective.

“If the homeless merely cleaned up after themselves and did not urinate, defecate and leave their booze bottles, crack pipes and garbage at our front entrance and in our parking area each and every morning, perhaps I could empathize,” Schonbrun told L.A. Weekly in an e-mail. “The reality is that I clean up [their refuse] every single day.”

Local resident Bailey echoes this, saying, “I think there are people out there who genuinely need help — the mentally ill or people who are handicapped. I feel bad that they get lumped in with those people who think it’s just their right to live in a camper on the street, or drug dealers or drug users. No community should have to tolerate it.”

Rosendahl’s support of preferential parking as a tactic to force out the campers is a reversal for him. During his first campaign for office five years ago, he hoisted a poster of Bobby Kennedy over his desk and styled himself a fighter for the needy. But lately, some have seen him as an inveterate name-dropper who lacks the courage of his convictions.

“He loves to use inflammatory language to show that he’s the man of the people,” says Venice resident and television producer Chris Plourde, “then turns around and does exactly the opposite.” Plourde says Rosendahl is “just another politician.”

During his first term, Rosendahl stunned local residents when he circumvented public input and placed a controversial St. Joseph’s homeless center amidst Lincoln Boulevard businesses. Things got so heated that angry opponents warned residents to guard their daughters.

Chastened after getting slammed for his heavy-handed tactics on the homeless center, Rosendahl, when the campers became an issue, asked residents of Venice to help him. He suggested that residents aid City Hall in locating more appropriate “off-street” parking, where camper dwellers could congregate. His move badly backfired, prompting recall rumors. Rosendahl soon did a political pirouette, supporting preferential parking on a block-by-block basis — if 66 percent of those residents agree to what amounts to a neighborhood parking tax.

In his re-election campaign this year, Rosendahl equated the right to have special-permit parking with “civil rights.” He noted that because Venice residents live in the highly protected Coastal Zone of California, they must get approval for preferential parking zones not just from the Los Angeles City Council but from the California Coastal Commission — which has repeatedly denied preferential parking sought by other cities and communities in the Coastal Zone.

Preferential parking has “nothing to do with civil rights,” scoffs black third-generation Venice resident Laddie Williams, who recalls how the local Thrifty manager wouldn’t let her family eat at the counter when she was a child. Williams has enjoyed strong ties with Rosen-dahl but was “dumbfounded” at his attitude.

Neil Stratton, a local homeowner who launched a successful skateboard company from his house, opposes Rosendahl’s view that making residents pay to park on their own streets is the cost of getting rid of the campers. “Isn’t it part of civil rights to be able to park your car on the street?”

Stratton is bothered that under the Rosendahl plan, Venice residents must appear at City Hall’s Department of Transportation in person and hand over extensive ID to the bureaucracy: proof of residency, and registration for all cars the household might park on the street. For any friends or relatives who might drive over to visit them, residents would have to pay extra.

It gets far more complicated than that. Thousands of Venice residents live on picturesque “walk streets” with sidewalks only — no roads, and nowhere to park. They instead park in three nearby city lots. But under Rosendahl’s preferential-permit plan, the Coastal Commission is worried that tourists, surfers and other beachgoers will lose parking and thus access. So Rosendahl is proposing to take away the three lots used by “walk street” residents, making them open to beach visitors. Thanks to a technical loophole, although they may lose their longtime parking, the walk street residents can’t even vote on the preferential-parking idea.

The truth is, none of this drama and deal-making is necessary to banish the Winnebagos. An existing city code is tailor-made for preventing R.V. parking on Los Angeles streets. It allows Rosendahl and the City Council to bar the campers — without special permits or horse-trading with the Coastal Commission.

Jim Bickhart, a 40-year resident of the area who filed an appeal against the parking-district plan with the Coastal Commission, notes, “The city has an existing law that allows the control of oversized vehicles.”

And in fact, Section 80.69.4 (a) of the city code prohibits oversize vehicles from parking between 2 and 6 a.m. All the city has to do is post signs where R.V.s are being parked.

Alan Willis, a city transportation engineer, says the signs won’t affect those using handicapped stickers, or stop anyone from sleeping in a regular car. But as resident Jason Saville notes, “Sleeping in a car is already illegal.”

Saville had been a big supporter of the proposed parking zones — until he heard that Rosendahl could merely have anti-R.V. signs posted. The same goes for Schonbrun, the attorney, once he finally heard about the anti-R.V. code from L.A. Weekly.

“What I would like to avoid is the unsanitary conditions,” Schonbrun says, but a preferential-parking district “creates an exclusivity” that is an anathema to Venice.

Bailey believes that Rosendahl and city bureaucrats are pushing the tough decisions onto Venice residents. “We could have easily just enforced what was on the books — why go through all this?” she asks. “[Politicians] are making the residents come up with another way, so they’re not the bad guys. We’re the ones who are the bad guys, and unsympathetic.”

Like others, skateboard-company founder Stratton has had a lot of negative interactions with the Venice homeless. But he also thinks about an elderly woman parked in front of his home in early May. Her camper seemed like “an old woman’s retirement home, but you could see that she was clearly destitute and homeless” — if neat and clean. “She was old and infirm and my heart went out to her.” She spent one night in front of Stratton’s home. The next day she was gone.

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