It’s somewhat surprising to see Santa Monica held up as model for handling homelessness, given the fractious nature of local discourse these days. But that’s what happened when L.A. City Councilmember Joe Buscaino stood recently before TV cameras and praised our town for keeping beaches free of shantytowns.
“Behind me in Santa Monica is common sense. Here in Venice is nonsense,” Buscaino said at a beachside press conference, gesturing north to our shoreline. Like L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, Buscaino has parachuted into the Boardwalk demanding action. The comments didn’t sit well with colleague Mike Bonin, who represents the Venice area and is risking his political life with a bold proposal to fix its homelessness crisis.
His plan centers on gradually clearing out tent cities on the Boardwalk and relocating the unhoused to some form of residential support. City officials are reportedly mulling “safe camping” areas in nearby beaches and parks. Three parking lots were under consideration — Will Rogers State Beach in the Palisades, Dockweiler Beach in Playa del Rey and a waterfront lot in Marina del Rey. It’s an unwise idea, but I give credit to Bonin for meeting the challenge head on.
Buscaino and Villanueva’s grand-standing seems geared more toward gaining political points than untangling the knotty issue of homelessness. But they have a point: Santa Monica is doing a good job of reducing homeless counts.
It’s not a popular opinion with the Nextdoor crowd, but I believe the city’s multi-disciplinary street teams have made a positive impact. The number of unhoused individuals counted on the beach and in the Downtown Santa Monica area has fallen over the past two years, with a 14% decrease from 2019-20. That follows a 19% dip the prior year. Outreach teams have made 1,400 engagements, often connecting vulnerable people to support.
Lest I be accused of sipping government Kool-Aid, I know firsthand that homelessness on our beaches is still a big problem. Violence and fear persist despite the best efforts of West Coast Care, a nonprofit that patrols the sand in ATVs to counsel people experiencing homelessness.
I’ve been harassed by heckling panhandlers congregated at the Bay Street beach bathrooms. One street-person kicked my best friend in the ass after he politely declined to give him some change. I’ve darted to my car, surfboard under my arm, as a clearly schizophrenic dude chased me with F bombs.
I’ve seen similar violence at Reed Park, a longtime haven for people experiencing homelessness. One twitchy guy walked up to another troubled soul and sucker-punched him, knocking him out cold. He fell to the grass with a sickening thud.
These encounters angered me. They also scared the hell out of me. I can understand why frustrated residents are pushing to “reclaim” their beaches and parks. There’s a move afoot to convert Reed’s lawn area into an off-leash dog park. Many view it as a win-win, but there’s something off-putting about the idea. The optics aren’t great — as if canines take precedence over humans.
Roughly half of those experiencing homelessness in L.A. County are dealing with a serious mental issue, according to the UCLA Law Review. These broken people and others battling drug addictions are the ones most likely to be violent. And most of the unhoused find themselves in desperate straits because of economic dislocation. They have lost jobs or families, often through no fault of their own. I’ve been trying to follow the advice of a colleague who volunteers for the city’s annual homeless count. Focus on the bigger picture, not my moments of discomfort. Lean in, not out. It’s not easy.
But back to turning recreational spaces into homeless way-stations. Bonin’s in the middle of a political firefight that seems unwinnable, as impossible to solve as the Palestinian crisis. The issue defies easy answers. As Communications Director at Heal the Bay, I did ally work in 2017 to get Measure H passed in L.A. County. The measure provides $300 million annually to fund homeless services, rent subsidies and housing projects. We were filled with optimism, but homelessness still haunts our region.
But that doesn’t mean anything goes. We can’t convert our beaches into bivouacs. It might seem like “cheap” available space. But the price is too high. What starts out as temporary, often turns into permanent. As the Arabian proverb goes: “If the camel gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow.”
The therapeutic value of safe, shared open space in park-poor greater L.A. can’t be overstated. Beaches are one of our few natural places. They are a refuge — for a few hours — from the cares of the world. But to be clear: Rejecting the beach parking-lot idea doesn’t mean burying our hand in the sand. We must pursue other paths. Surely other stretches of land can be used as bridge housing: abandoned industrial lots, vacant commercial space in a soft post-COVID market, underused military facilities.
The shoreline belongs to all of us – even the homeless. But beaches need to remain beaches, not refugee settlements.
Note: If you see someone that needs help, the city has a special unit called the Homeless Liaison Program that uses law enforcement and social service strategies to address homeless issues, especially mental illness. Save their number, (310) 458-8953, in your phone or visit online at santamonicapd.org/hlp.
Matthew King grew up on the beaches of Santa Monica, where his father served as a County lifeguard for 30 years. He sneaks away from his communications and marketing consultancy as often as he can to surf Bay Street and other local breaks.