VENICE, Calif. — Neighbors look with disbelief when they peer from their windows across Rose Avenue in Venice and see a silver chain-link fence lining the Penmar Golf Course in Venice. More than a mile away from the beach, an encampment sprouted with a few tents on a roadside jogging trail in early 2020.
It grew into a full-blown tent city during the pandemic.
Now, it is gone.
“We’re all still pinching ourselves because for eight months, we felt like we were in this nightmare that was never going to end and one day I drove down Rose and there was nobody there,” said neighbor Jenny Cooney.
Cooney and her neighbors have been organizing to clear the encampment, sharing photos of illegal activity, installing cameras and pleading with city officials. They even hired an advocate to try and move people into shelter beds or permanent housing.
“We hired our own outreach person for two months and then we couldn’t afford him anymore, but we wanted somebody to be trying to get our people into shelters,” Cooney said.
Nothing worked, until the fires.
“There were maybe two or three fires a week that were big enough that the fire department had to come,” Cooney said.
Fires among the homeless are a disturbing trend on the west side, according to Captain Brian Morrison with the Los Angeles Police Department. He’s tracked more than a hundred since the LAPD’s Pacific Division began keeping track on Aug. 1. While some fires have been accidental, others have been arson – intentionally set by other homeless neighbors as a form of retaliation.
“We had one woman in the Venice area who was inside her tent when it was set on fire and thankfully she got out unhurt,” Morrison said.
Outside Penmar, neighbors became concerned the fires could spread to the canopy of trees over the encampment. On Sept. 18, representatives from nine city departments, including LAPD, the City Attorney’s Office, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and Councilman Mike Bonin’s office, convened on a conference call to discuss how to trim the trees.
There was no avoiding the fact the encampment would have to move to get it done.
“Los Angeles certainly does not have enough urgency, in this case we had a sense of urgency,” Bonin said, who represents L.A.’s Council District 11. Bonin worked with LAHSA and St. Joseph Center to launch an “encampment to home” program that housed everyone living along the street.
“When we can house 70 people within three weeks, I consider that a tremendous win and I hope it’s the kind of progress we can replicate and move on throughout the city,” Bonin said.
Some of the shelter beds were provided by Project Roomkey, an effort by the state to secure hotel and motel rooms for temporary housing during the Covid-19 pandemic. Outreach workers are still trying to find permanent housing for many of those relocated.
During a contentious city council meeting Wednesday, Bonin opposed changes to the city’s code that would have limited where the homeless can sleep. The rule would have prohibited camping near shelters, schools, parks, and day care centers. Proponents say they would allow areas cleared through housing programs to stay clear.
Bonin said the proposal would likely lead to more lawsuits against the city.
“We always focus on the ‘how do we manage the fact that all these people are living on the street?' How about we focus on how the hell do we get people off the street?” Bonin said in an interview with Spectrum News 1 following the meeting.
While the Penmar encampment is now clear, another tent fire caught Thursday, just a 10-minute drive away on Venice Boulevard underneath the 405 freeway. Morrison said as temperatures drop and the homeless use generators and fire to keep warm, the risk for more fires will rise.
“It’s just a recipe for disaster,” Morrison said.