Tents: The Venice Boardwalk has become the center of the local homelessness crisis. Clara Harter

Fed up by what they call months of finger pointing and inaction from Councilman Mike Bonin’s office and the City of LA, Venice locals are leading the charge to address the rapidly deteriorating state of the Boardwalk.

These community members are not trained activists or service providers, but they are getting things done.

Organizing under groups called Friends of the Venice Boardwalk, Team Venice, and the Boardwalk Action Committee, fed up residents have successfully pressured government officials to take several concrete actions. Their efforts contributed to the clearing out and reopening of the Boardwalk handball courts in April and the removal of encampments in the artist vendor spaces in May.

The groups vary in membership and specific objectives, but share an ultimate goal of restoring the Boardwalk to a public space that is safe and accessible for all.

Currently, it is in a state of crisis. According to LAPD from 2019 to 2020 robberies have increased by 46 percent, aggravated assaults by 43 percent, and homicides by 100 percent in Venice area 14A11, which encompasses the Boardwalk. Encampment fires have become so frequent that LAFD assigned a new rapid response vehicle to patrol Venice.

Regular tent counts conducted by Friends of the Venice Boardwalk now routinely surpass 200. Members say that while campers come and go, there has been a net increase of at least 80 tents since January.

“It’s just evolved into this sort of non-stop party. The crime is ridiculous and there are fights literally every day and night,” said Brian Averill, who serves on the Venice Neighborhood Council and is a member of its Boardwalk Action Committee. “Understandably our community is up in arms.”

The Boardwalk’s homeless population skyrocketed during the pandemic when no camping ordinances were suspended to allow homeless individuals to shelter in place. As the County approaches the June 15 full reopening date, residents wonder why outreach and clean-up efforts at encampments aren’t being discussed.

Part of the problem stems from the confusing web of agencies with authority around the Venice Boardwalk. This includes L.A. City Council District 11, LA Homeless Services Authority, LA County Department of Parks and Recreation, LAPD and the California Coastal Commission.

“This was a crisis of leadership,’’ said Cari Bjelajac, founding member of Friends of the Venice Boardwalk. “I wasn’t seeing a plan. I was seeing a lot of heads nod and people saying ‘yeah it is a shame’, but no action.”

Resident activists tackled this issue by collectively meeting with these agencies over Zoom, which resulted in the clean-ups of encampments from specific Boardwalk amenities. The handball court clean-up was spearheaded by Team Venice, a coalition of sports groups and individuals who utilize the Venice Beach Recreation Center.

“I think a lot of the success we had was getting the City and the County to sit at the table together,” said Averill. “It’s really cut down on the finger pointing, because now everyone is in the same room.”

With these accomplishments under their belt, residents are working to keep the momentum up before hordes of tourists descend on the Boardwalk this summer and the situation worsens.

Founding member of Team Venice and Friends of the Venice Boardwalk Alex Stowell said that LAPD and Parks and Recreation are open to providing more enforcement. In his experience the City of L.A. and CD-11 representatives have been the biggest foot draggers.

“The City seems to want to stall and CD-11 specifically has their own political idea that they have to offer housing to every single person on the Boardwalk before any enforcement is done,” said Stowell. “The reality is that most of these people don’t want housing. They don’t want to live inside because they have to follow rules.”

Bjelajac has had a similar experience. She has personally gone tent to tent getting to know her unhoused neighbors and asking if anyone would like assistance finding housing. She’s had many friendly conversations but ultimately no one has taken her up on her offer.

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is also reaching a breaking point with the City’s response to homelessness. After visiting the Boardwalk on Tuesday, he condemned the action of “phony politicians and idiot activists” who he said are enabling the crisis.

“For those that think they are going to make a lifestyle of being homeless and destroying communities, no that’s not going to happen,” said Villanueva in an interview with KFI radio following his visit. “Here’s a clue for all our elected officials, we are not going to build our way out of the homeless crisis.”

Stowell said that in a recent meeting with CD-11, representatives revealed that their plan is to request $3 million in July to fund housing. With each unit of permanent supportive housing in LA costing roughly $500,000 to construct, residents have little faith in the speed or efficacy of this response.

Moving forward, local organizers seek to gather data on the homeless individuals living on the Boardwalk and see what they need to safely vacate the space — whether it’s a bus ticket home, connection to mental health or substance abuse treatment, or a shelter bed. They will present this information to the relevant agencies and continue to call for more enforced cleans-up of the Boardwalk.

“We’re trying to impress upon agencies the urgency of what is going to happen when there are millions of tourists here, because it’s already unmanageable now,” said Averill. “We’re trying to make it very clear that if this isn’t handled by the summer bad things are going to happen.”

Clara@smdp.com