Venice Beach, a three-and-a-half-mile-long seaside community in Los Angeles, now counts more than 2,000 homeless people living on its streets. With a homeless population second in size only to that of Skid Row, the town is now dubbed Venice-zuela by locals.
Over the weekend, Venice logged yet another RV fire, this time outside Whole Foods. Dark plumes of smoke were visible from miles around. I was surprised to find on my last shopping trip that, three days after the blaze, the charred RV had not been removed. Now burned down to its metal frame, the RV remained in the same place where it had been parked for over a year. Soot covers the surrounding sidewalks and retail stores, and particles of ash and debris rustle in the wind. The windows of a nearby store were blown out and are boarded with plywood, and nearby vegetation is burned to a crisp. Someone scrawled “Boninville” on the RV, a reference to Los Angeles city councilmember Mike Bonin, whose inaction has frustrated residents living in deteriorating conditions alongside the homeless.
I noted six other RVs parked near the wreckage, each equipped with generators, propane tanks, and grills—all combustible items. A friend who works at Whole Foods told me that so much trash had accumulated around the RV that it was only a matter of time before it ignited.
I received text notifications on my trip home about another RV fire along the Pacific Coast Highway in the Pacific Palisades, about a half mile south of Temescal Canyon and near Will Rogers State Beach. The fire shut down traffic and took out cable and Internet service.
Fires have become a major problem in Venice. In January, a fire in a homeless encampment destroyed a 7,000-square-foot commercial building on Ocean Front Walk. Officials determined that it was caused by a cooking accident and made no arrests. In April, my neighbor’s dog burned alive when her home was destroyed by a fire. Neighbors point to increasing tension and hostility in a nearby encampment, but the fire’s cause remains under investigation. A recent Los Angeles Times article revealed that more than 54 percent of all fires that the Los Angeles Fire Department responds to are homeless-related, amounting to more than 24 fires a day.
The homelessness problem was overwhelming before Covid hit and has since metastasized. In March 2020, in an attempt to slow the spread of Covid, the Los Angeles City Council voted to suspend, partially or fully, many municipal codes, including one that prohibits the use of vehicles as habitations. The city council cited CDC guidance discouraging the removal of homeless encampments because doing so might deprive the homeless of the ability to shelter in place. Few homeless people sheltered in place, though, and elected officials have used CDC guidance to absolve themselves of responsibility for rampant disorder. Until the Covid crisis is deemed to be over and officials’ emergency powers are dissolved, many laws will go unenforced. Until then, cars and RV used as domiciles will continue to clog our streets.
On my drive home, I noted about 60 RVs parked on residential streets throughout Venice Beach—about 80 percent of them with out-of-state license plates or no plates at all. I live near Venice’s temporary housing center, where about 20 RVs are parked along the street. Before Covid, RV owners had to move their vehicles to allow for weekly street sweeping. Street sweeping stopped in March 2020, though, and the RVs have since sat idle.
Rarely acknowledged is the environmental degradation RVs inflict on this beachside community. Oil and chemicals from the motor homes leak onto the streets, and many RVs dump sewage into storm drains. City officials have done nothing about this.
Unlike neighboring Santa Monica, Los Angeles has no urban-runoff recycling program, so everything that lands in our streets—feces, needles, trash, and debris—ends up in our storm drains and is pumped into the Pacific Ocean. The notorious Rose Avenue storm drain, located a block from an encampment, empties directly onto our sand. Locals avoid the spot, but the city does little to warn the public about it.
Bonin, L.A.’s most progressive city council member and self-proclaimed social and environmental justice warrior, tells us that climate change is an existential threat, but you wouldn’t know it from his inattention to local trouble spots. The nearby Ballona Wetlands, an ecological gem and state-protected park, has become a locus for shootings and other crime and is now home to a makeshift RV camp, with more than 45 RVs illegally parked there. A recent brush fire at the wetlands required nearly two hours and 54 firefighters to extinguish, destroying more than five acres. It’s doubtful that any fires in Bonin’s district can be attributed to climate change.
Fires, pollution, and disarray are increasingly common not only in Venice but also around Los Angeles. The city’s 15 councilmembers act as demi-mayors, directing policy and policing in their districts. Mayor Eric Garcetti has seemed missing in action in the two years since his failed presidential attempt, leaving a vacuum to be filled by anarchy and lawlessness.
Garcetti’s legacy of inaction and incompetence has led to blighted living conditions in Los Angeles that are starting to rival those of the Third World. It’s somehow fitting that the city’s failed mayor aspires to be named ambassador of India: he has created conditions in Venice Beach that evoke some of the suffering in that country, along with a modern-day caste of homeless untouchables, exempt from laws and accountability.
Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images