Venice: While homelessness persists on the Boardwalk, there are signs of improvement. Clara Harter

While the media firestorm around the Boardwalk’s homeless crisis raged loudly for months, a much quieter phenomenon is now underway — unhoused individuals are leaving the area.

No, encampments have not been cleared from the entire Boardwalk and, no there isn’t a guarantee that people won’t return once the intervention programs wrap up. But, a significant portion of Ocean Front Walk, from roughly 20th Ave to Brooks Ave, is currently devoid of tents and awash with vendors and street performers.

This movement can be chalked up to the highly publicized, and at times oppositional, interventions by L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, with the latter’s program having a significantly larger quantifiable impact.

Bonin’s “Encampment to Home” program launched on June 27 and has secured $5 million from L.A. City Council to house 200 individuals living on Ocean Front Walk. On July 12, Bonin reported that 110 people had been moved indoors as a result of the program and estimated that there were around 100 individuals still sleeping on Ocean Front Walk.

After months of residents railing about the spiraling rates of crime, trash, and homelessness on the Boardwalk—and seeing little direct response from the City of LA—the movement of 110 people in two weeks is a shockingly rapid success.

Responding to the tidal wave of complaints, L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva cruised into town two weeks prior to the launch of Bonin’s program and announced his intent to perform homeless outreach and clean-up the Boardwalk. He said the crisis on the Boardwalk was a direct result of public officials’, including Bonin and Mayor Garcetti’s, refusal to regulate public space.

Villanueva’s appearance has been polarizing.

Many residents and business owners lauded his presence, not necessarily because they are personal fans of his platform or prior actions, but because he appeared to be listening to their cries and taking action.

Many service providers and several elected officials have been highly critical of Villanueva’s intervention. From their perspective, the presence of armed sheriffs deputies is disruptive to other ongoing outreach efforts. Villanueva’s authority to intervene in Venice and his motivation for doing so have both been questioned.

Alison Hurst, the Executive Director of local service provider Safe Place For Youth, rejects the notion voiced by Villanueva that action was not being taken on the Boardwalk prior to his arrival.

“The plan (Encampment to Home program) is being made the focus now, but the work has been happening continuously all throughout the pandemic and before,” said Hurst, adding that service providers have been moving people into the local Bridge Housing shelter and Project Roomkey beds for months.

Like many of Villanueva’s critics, Hurst believes that homeless intervention is not the domain of law enforcement.

“I think that the difference in approach is really challenging,” said Hurst, comparing Villanueva’s action to Bonin’s plan. “I do think that whatever services are available should all be working together, but I don’t believe that that’s what this is about, as the sheriff’s deputies have not been historically working in this area and are not working collaboratively with different organizations.”

The key criticism Bonin levied against Villanueva is that the homeless crisis must be solved with “housing not handcuffs”.

However, Villanueva’s deputies have not taken any enforcement action nor made any arrests. And, from a conversation with Lieutenant Geoffrey Deedrick, it does not appear that they have any intention to do so.

Deedrick heads LASD’s Homeless Outreach Service Team, which Villanueva has deployed to the Boardwalk. HOST tackles encampments with a five step protocol: identification, assessment, outreach, posting, and clean up.

Identification and assessment has been complete and contact has been made with approximately 220 individuals, according to Deedrick. Outreach is ongoing, but due to the limited partnerships with local service providers, HOST is restricted in the range of services it can connect people to.

HOST has been working with the Salvation Bell Shelter in Bell Gardens and the Union Rescue Mission Downtown. There is no current plan for entering the posting and clean-up stages.

“The homeless encampment resolution protocol does not conclude until we can show that there is a bed for every single person,” said Deedrick. “We have never said that we would sweep. Our whole thing here is basically intervention, not incarceration.”

Villanueva vowed to clear the Boardwalk by July 4 and public officials raised the alarm that he would make arrests. Neither of these things have happened.

The HOST team has been working from the north end of Ocean Front Walk and connected several individuals to services. Bonin’s outreach teams, lead by the Saint Joseph’s Center, have been working from the South end and completed the brunt of the housing placements.

Saint Joseph’s progress has not been without setbacks. The Boardwalk was divided into zones for cleaning up and Bonin’s teams pushed back the date to clear Zone 5, between Navy St and Rose Ave, from July 9 to July 16.

Zone 4, between Rose and Dudley avenues is also scheduled to be cleared by July 16. Zone 3, between Dudley and Sunset avenues, will be cleared by July 23, while Zone 2, between Sunset and Park avenues, will be cleared by July 30.

Collectively the early efforts show promise. Previously cleared zones have been cleaned by LA Sanitation and Parks and Rec is now upholding no camping ordinances in these areas. Time will tell how lasting these changes will be.

“What I imagine is going to be happening is there will be a tremendous amount of folks housed with new resources, but there will still be a fair number of folks that are experiencing homelessness in our community,” said Hurst. “And, like what always happens when they are moved around, they’ll be in another area.”