Earlier this week, the New York Times reported on plans in the Venice Beach section of Los Angeles to “crack down” on homeless people who live in R.V.s and vans, parking them either on the street or in beach lots at night.
Every day, Diane Butler and her husband park their two hand-painted R.V.’s in a lot at the edge of Venice Beach here, alongside dozens of other rickety, rusted campers from the 1970s and ’80s. During the day, she sells her artwork on the boardwalk. When the parking lot closes at sunset, she and the other R.V.-dwellers drive a quarter-mile inland to find somewhere on the street to park for the night.
Their nomadic existence might be ending, though. The Venice section of Los Angeles has become the latest California community to enact strict new regulations limiting street parking and banning R.V.’s from beach lots — regulations that could soon force Ms. Butler, 58, to leave the community where she has lived for four decades.
“They’re making it hard for people in vehicles to remain in Venice,” she said.
Southern California, with its forgiving weather, has long been a popular destination for those living in vehicles and other homeless people. And for decades, people living in R.V.’s, vans and cars have settled in Venice, the beachfront Los Angeles community once known as the “Slum by the Sea” and famous for its offbeat, artistic culture.
Yet even as the economic downturn has forced more people out of their homes and into their cars, vehicle-dwellers are facing fewer options, with more communities trying to push them out.
As nearby neighborhoods and municipalities passed laws restricting overnight parking in recent years, Venice became the center of vehicle dwelling in the region. More than 250 vehicles now serve as shelter on Venice streets, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
“The only place between Santa Barbara and San Diego where campers can park seven blocks from the beach is this little piece of land,” said City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes Venice. “Over the years, it’s only gotten worse, as every other community along the coast has adopted restrictions.”
And for all of the Venice Beach residents with homes’ allegations of “bad behavior” by those living in vehicles, the issue is really about gentrification and wealthier home owners wanting the neighborhoods they’ve moved into to stop welcoming those members of the community who have been there the longest.
In the past, bohemian Venice was tolerant of vehicle-dwellers, but, increasingly, the proliferation of R.V.’s in this gentrifying neighborhood has prompted efforts to remove them.
“The status quo is unacceptable,” said Mark Ryavec, president of the Venice Stakeholders Association, a group of residents devoted to removing R.V.’s from the area. “It’s time to give us some relief from R.V.’s parking on our doorsteps.”
It’s an issue that’s been going on for some time; the alt text on the header image will reveal that while I was unable to find a legally usable image that was taken for this most recent story, I could find one from a very similar report on Venice Beach in 2004. It’s also an issue that has played out over and over again across the U.S., if not in the form of battles over people living in vehicles, then in the form of battles over homeless people living in tents or using sleeping bags. Anything that makes homeless people more comfortable, safer, and less likely to be exposed to the elements, it seems, is up for scrutiny and fodder for potential legislation.
because the best way to deal with homelessness is always to punish or make it more difficult for the actual people who are homeless. do we think if we make homelessness illegal it will cease to exist?
Time and time again, we see evidence of the fact that most people care more about how “unsightly” homeless people in their neighborhoods are than about the fact that said people don’t have homes. That they may be hungry, don’t have a warm, safe place to sleep, or lack access to health care. Those of us who are privileged enough to have homes tend to care more about maintaining the illusion that our cities are happy places that take care of their citizens than addressing the fact that an illusion is exactly what it is.
A big part of this reaction to homelessness is based in the Western, capitalist “bootstrap” myth, that those of us who have economic privilege got there purely through hard work with no luck or social privilege thrown in. The corollary to this belief is that people with homes deserve to have them — and those without homes must have done something to make them undeserving of such a basic right as housing. And when mental illness and addiction are so regularly falsely understood as personal failings, this view becomes all the more pervasive, powerful, and harmful.
Another part is plain old prejudice — the above mentioned biases against people with mental illnesses and/or addiction, for a start, as well as other forms of ableism, classism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. Social oppression often plays a huge part in homelessness, whether we’re talking about queer and trans* youth being kicked out of their homes, someone being unable to find a job after an arrest for doing sex work, or a person with a disability being unable to access benefits and services needed to stay in their home. Stigma against marginalized group and their over-representation in homeless populations also plays a role in the revulsion that middle-class people tend to express towards them. People “like them” — whatever “like them” might mean in a certain context on a certain day — aren’t perceived as quite as human as the rest of us.
And another factor is that really addressing the issue of homelessness just straight up takes work. It means digging deep and making big changes. It means seeing homeless people as deserving of housing that is more than just temporary, not because they’ve done something to “earn” or “deserve” it, but because their being human is just enough. It means making access to health care a right and not a privilege, and that includes access to mental health care and substance abuse treatment programs. It means addressing the causes of domestic violence, the effect that war has on veterans, the impact that hatred has on LGBT people. It means, frankly, rethinking the exalted place that private ownership and property rights hold in our society, when those rights put other human beings out on the street. It means welfare that actually works and gives people enough to live on. It means addressing economic racism. It means talking about the lack of worker’s rights. It means a critical reconsideration and restructuring of how we live and how we treat others, including a lot more than I’ve listed here.
Facing up to the fact that we’ve built a society that actively harms people is a lot tougher than building a couple of shelters or writing up some tickets. Starting to think of human beings as people again after being so used to treating them like cockroaches (unless, of course, there’s a feel-good lesson involved) is a radical shift.
So instead, over and over again, we as a society just keep pushing the people we don’t see as human out. Do we think they’ll cease to exist? No, but if we don’t have to see them, we don’t have to think about them. And for too many people, that’s apparently close enough.