by Pat Raphael
Yes, there’s something in the air. No, not the whiff of pee whenever leaning on a tree — that’s from all the street people with no access to restrooms ten hours a day -there’s also change in the air. Long-time residents roll their eyes at a newcomer like myself declaring a change ‘a coming. Since this February only marks my first year in Venice, it is legit to wonder if so short a period is enough to see, without the benefit of knowing what came before. Venice originals also remind me that change is always stirring in the air. And that change after change after change, Venice always remains Venice. The people’s beach, the ghetto by the sea, the OFW museum (curated by the hustle and sharp first-come-first-serve elbows) — the cultural wetlands here are as fertile as ever.
It is my friend David ‘The Love Guy’ Busch that likes to describe Venice as a cultural wetland. In his view of Venice, the value of our community is that the millionaire tech whiz is shoulder to shoulder with the starving artist, who is hanging out with the performers and beach bums, all working for a piece of the big bucks that tourists from all over the globe are bringing to our fair beach. Sometimes the coexistence is tense, but one way or another rich and poor manage to live together as cordial neighbors here in Venice and a balance is maintained.
This cultural wetland is a rich legacy entrusted to all who choose to make Venice their home. Now that I too have this legacy to maintain, I am beginning to appreciate the delicate balance that keeps it all from quickly turning into either Disneyland or Skid Row. Take f walk along the Ocean Front Walk, and the fear is that our community is showing more shades of Skid Row than we care to present. From Navy to Washington, every available spot where a street person can set up an encampment is filled. Venice Originals tell me that the number of street people on the beach is now at all-time highs. Part of the culture here in Venice is that the community is open and welcoming to their population of street people. But as we take in the latest wintertime wave of the nation’s population of homeless escaping cold and seeking community, our little piece of paradise is feeling the strain of so high a population of street people. The delicate balance that maintains this cultural wetland is tipping too high in its population of street people.
As one of the street people here in Venice, I welcome the state of emergency declared in the January issue of the Beachhhead. The heart of care that this call exposes stirs me to offer my own voice among those calling for city leaders to present a positive solution to meet the need for low-income housing in our community. But too often issues of homelessness are discussed without considering the vantage of a person actually living on the streets. Too often we covet a view from the penthouse; today we offer the view from the sidewalk — a look from the bottom.
How did we get here? True it began with the reputation that Venice spent years to create: we are a community that welcomes and value the contributions of our population of street people. And word gets around among the circle of travelers … suddenly Venice is a must-see destination for all the kids who have asserted their geographical independence and travel all over the country. But reputation is just one of the many draws. Another major factor that must be considered in clearly seeing the present state of Venice is the impact of the great recession and real estate crash of 2009.
This greater national trend is not Venice’s doing, but Venice will never fully bring its cultural wetland back into balance until an honest accounting acknowledges the sheer magnitude of the crash and its long-term consequences in adding to the rolls of the homeless.
Consider a household that goes into foreclosure during the peak of foreclosures in October 2010 (peak according to RealtyTrac’s numbers) — depending on which state, the process can take up to two years. Then that evicted family may downgrade their housing, move into co-habitation, and then go through friends and family after depleting all their savings. All this might take a few years before this family, down on their luck, finally end up on the streets. As we see the exploding population of street people here in Venice, we should see this as part of a bigger national trend.
The crash of 2009 did not only affect the masses, it was also felt in the penthouse too. With over a trillion dollars wiped from the economy, many billionaires endured sleepless nights at the thought of only having hundreds of millions of dollars after the devaluation of their real estate holdings. But the advantage of the penthouse is that after massive losses, when opportunities present, there is always initial investment available to turn everyone else’s losses quickly into gains. Those who are tracking the numbers reveal that all the losses suffered in the economy since the crash of 2009 have been recovered. Let them tell it, Wall Street is at record highs, unemployment is low, and the dollar is the strongest global currency.
But in reality, all that was lost from the economy in 2009 was recovered as a transfer of wealth from the middle class to the investor class. So here in Venice where there are more members of the investor class than in most communities, at the same time we are experiencing record numbers of street people, there is also record amounts of money in the hands of millionaires and billionaires to buy influence and throw their weight around trying to disneyfy Venice. Our delicate cultural wetlands here in Venice need a thriving population of millionaires and billionaires … only their influence can not overshadow other people’s legitimate right to life in Venice.
Last February I show up in Venice with an awe that made me quickly realize that I too belong here. I’m here in Venice in pursuit of my dream to break into the national media. I spent many of my former lives (prior to my arrival in Venice) cooped up in house cages, and bound tightly by scheduling into cubicles to perform jobs that left my soul unfulfilled. It is Venice that gave me the courage to fully go cage-free, and join the ranks of free-range humans (also known as ‘homeless’ street people). It is the kindness of strangers, the more permissive enforcement environment (in spite of how much we gripe at the cops), the mild winters, and of course the show — casted by some of the coolest people in America -· that never seems to stop, that is why we’re here. Venice taught me to value the whole by appreciating all the pieces.
It is here at the ground level that I am gaining the perspective to be a more effective advocate for the Street People whose voice I seek to amplify. My experience on the ground has taught me that here (for more apparent reasons than anywhere else), it is even more important to heed the good advice of not being prejudicial nor to judge the book by its cover. It is here in Venice, amongst the street people, that I’ve found a love and generosity not seen in the other more affluent circles in which I previously ran. As the population of street people comes into clearer focus, I am beginning to see that the streets are not populated by a homogeneous group. Here in Venice, the street people may fall into one or more of these distinct categories: 1) those who are homeless due to economics, 2) those who are homeless due to mental issues (including addiction and ptsd), 3) those who do not have houses, but have found a home in the outdoors.
As we seek to bring the cultural ecosystem of the Venice wetlands back into balance, there needs to be a deliberate community response to reducing our high number of street people. While there is no short-term intervention that can markedly reduce the number of street people in Venice, the community must recognize that even if we somehow got all our homeless housed, the rolls would quickly regrow, as long as there continues to be a national trend of growing homelessness. The true solution is to support national policy that effectively addresses low-income housing so that not so many poor people are priced out of housing. Only then can we truly start making progress to reduce the high number of street people on our beach.
Imagine a bright future_ when the first two categories of homeless Venetians are significantly dealt with … a future when whole developments are created to house the mentally ill and to offer treatment to those addicted people who are ready to take steps to build their lives. Imagine a significant community response to the need for low-income housing. Imagine if we learned from the example of Utah, and improved their ‘housing-first’ program to apply in our high-population urban setting. If we make these difficult (and expensive) choices, what we would be left with as street people are those who choose to live outside. It may be difficult for a housed person to make the distinction, but a person who chooses to live outside has a different respect for the environment… this person who sees your yard as part of the great outdoors to be enjoyed, will recognize that your tree is not a toilet. Yes Venice has to be the place where tweakers run the alley for a week without sleep … but as soon as they get tired of losing their teeth to meth and breakfast in the county, there has to be a loving community with open arms ready to take that tweaker through to the next phase.
I write because I believe that Venice is up to the challenge. There is a heart on this beach that recognizes street people are worthy of human dignity. Opening our community to free-range humans offer us the exposure to see the full spectrum of this population. As such, we understand that you can’t ‘law-enforcement’ street people into fitting your artificial niceties. It is also futile to act like basic and inescapable biological functions cease to be so simply because there’s a sign on the wall. When we’ve taken the time to talk to and get to know a street person, we’ve too often been pleasantly surprised by the depth of understanding and the breadth of academic accomplishment waist-deep in the dumpster, feet flailing, ‘bout to score some brand-new yuppie throw-away. That is when it becomes clear that the street person who chooses this lifestyle pays the cost of sleeping with the elements, for the benefit of total freedom. All of the sudden that bum’s battered cardboard sign made sense: quit your job / stop paying your mortgage / move to the beach / hold a cardboard sign.