Venaissance is a Venice-based community group spearheaded by local activist Sultan Sharrief, who said the organization is working to improve the relationship between housed and unhoused neighbors. Photo by Clara Harter.

Month after month, government strategies have been unable to tackle the rise in homelessness on the Westside, but Venice-based community group, the “Venaissance,” is trying a new approach by working with unhoused community members to brainstorm solutions.

The organization was spearheaded by local activist Sultan Sharrief who is developing a new methodology for designing solutions to community issues as part of his Ph. D. in Media Arts and Practice at USC.

The goal of the organization is twofold: to improve the relationship between housed and unhoused neighbors and to create solutions from people whom have lived through neighborhood issues, instead of relying on the interventions of outside organizations.

“No one is coming together asking people: how can we design something that serves all of the interests?” said Sharrief. “You have the boardwalk business owners, you have unhoused people themselves, you have neighbors that live in the area, you have real estate entities trying to sell properties and there is no presented community vision of where we want to go.”

According to Sharrief, community conversations around homelessness mainly occur in town hall meetings where people fight over specific projects, such as new shelters. The Venaissance group strives to create a space for productive neighborhood dialogue outside of those forums.

Part of this work involves building relationships with homeless individuals. Sharrief believes that gaining the trust and learning about the background of unhoused people is an essential step in connecting them to long-term solutions.

“Most of the non-profit or government outreach groups don’t really have the infrastructure or take the time to get to know someone. They are usually trying to hit numbers that they have to submit to their funders or their boss and people don’t respond well to being treated like numbers,” said Sharrief. “Our philosophy is you have to get to know people, be a neighbor.”

One idea brainstormed by the Venaissance group is a reimagining of how planter boxes are utilized on the Westside. Instead of putting them on the pavement to prevent people from sleeping there, as is a common practice, the group is building boxes with organic produce on top and storage in the bottom.

The storage compartments provide a place for homeless individuals to put their belongings. This decreases clutter on the sidewalk and pleases residents. The lockable bins also reduce fights and crime around homeless encampments, which often stems from people stealing belongings, according to Sharrief. Additionally, the plants on top can serve as a food source.

Sharrief acknowledges that this is a short-term solution and wants the group to build out more long-term sustainable solutions. However, he also believes that it is essential to start with small steps and build up momentum.

Last Thursday, the Venaissance hosted an outdoor thanksgiving meal and community planning session to work on some of these broader goals. Volunteers made sure everyone had access to appropriate PPE and housed and unhoused neighbors broke bread together.

In Sharrief’s perspective, this is one step toward building a better relationship and he looks forward to seeing the organization grow in the coming months.