Surprise homeless sweeps aren’t just disruptive, say activists—they aren’t working

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David Busch has lived in Venice Beach on and off since the 1980s. He started out with a $350 monthly rental on the boardwalk and continues to live nearby. Only now, he sleeps in a tent and must contend with the city’s periodic sweeps of homeless encampments.

“They chase you from spot to spot to spot,” says Busch, 63. “They make you move your stuff constantly.”

A former bus mechanic, Busch says during sweeps he’s seen police confiscate items homeless people depend, from sleeping bags to bicycles. That’s why he supports “Services Not Sweeps,” a campaign launched this month by a coalition of local groups, including the Los Angeles Community Action Network, Democratic Socialists of America, and Venice Community Housing.

The campaign is calling on Mayor Eric Garcetti to post notifications of all sweeps two to three days in advance rather than randomly and to use outreach workers during the process instead of police officers. Organizers also want the city to provide waste bins and sharps disposal containers during sweeps as well as other health resources.

They say the concerns they’ve raised about sweeps stem from the mayor’s “Clean Streets LA” initiative, a citywide cleanup effort he launched in 2015.

“The main problem is that homeless residents, for a long time, have been asking for street services and just some general care,” says Becky Dennison, a campaign spokesperson and executive director of Venice Community Housing. “Once the city finally invested the resources, it’s all about policing and moving people and taking their things. It’s using street cleaning as a means of harassment and criminalization, when we could be improving the health and safety of people who live on the streets—and the entire community.”

Venice has the the largest concentration of homeless residents on the Westside, with nearly 1,000 residents. More than 85 percent of those residents live outside of shelters and on streets and sidewalks, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

The neighborhood stands out as one where tensions between the wealthy and the homeless have intensified. The Venice Stakeholders Association, a group of property owners, has raised more than $200,000 to fight the city’s plans for an emergency shelter on a former bus yard owned by Metro at Sunset and Pacific avenues.

Venice property owners have raised more than $200,000 to fight the city’s plans for an emergency shelter in the neighborhood.
By Simone Hogan/Shutterstock

Alex Comisar, a spokesperson for Garcetti, says the mayor’s officehas already discussed many of the issues outlined by the Services Not Sweeps campaign with “stakeholders.” He declined to say whether city officials have agreed to implement any of the organizer’s demands and, if so, which ones.

“We will keep working together toward the goal of ensuring that our policies keep streets clean and sidewalks passable, while protecting the rights of all Angelenos,” Comisar says.

A remark Garcetti made during his state of the city address earlier this month has rankled some Services Not Sweeps advocates. The mayor suggested that “lawsuits focused more on keeping people’s stuff on the streets than how quickly we can move them indoors” has slowed down the city’s efforts to curb homelessness.

Pete White, founder and executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, called the mayor’s comment a “political cheap shot.”

“No one in the coalition or no one doing this work is opposed to street cleaning,” he says. Rather, they want the unhoused population to have “water, soap, hygiene products, and all of the things necessary while forced to live in informal setups.”

White says he’s not opposed to sweeps as long as they’re done effectively, but asserted the way the operations are handled now serve to banish homeless people from politically influential communities.

“The department of sanitation and the police department don’t get to selectively choose what a person can and cannot have to live on the streets,” he says. “The city of LA has been sued time and time again from the ’80s on for that.”

In March, the Los Angeles City Council settled a 2016 lawsuit, Mitchell vs. city of Los Angeles, that accused police of seizing and destroying the property of four homeless people. Their belongings included blankets, tents, and medication.

Some business leaders criticized the city’s decision to settle the case, citing health concerns, such as a typhus outbreak in Downtown. But White and other Services Not Sweeps organizers argue that very little cleaning takes place during sweeps of homeless encampments.

“Often, they won’t power wash,” says Jed Parriott, a campaign organizer. “They’ll say, ‘We’re here to do a clean up,’ but they’ll leave urine and feces behind on the sidewalk.” Piles of trash have also been found after sweeps, he says.

More than 85 percent of Venice’s homeless residents live outside of shelters and on streets and sidewalks, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
The Washington Post/Getty Images

Sweeps are used to push out the homeless—albeit briefly, Parriott says. City workers clear the area out, only for them to return a short while later. In Venice, however, homeless residents simply resettle at a different location after a sweep, according to Busch. Then, the police turn up there and clear them out of the newly formed encampments.

“The constant sweeping has had a tremendous effect,” Busch said. “It’s sending us the message that, ‘If you come to Venice, we’ll chase you out.’ It’s a battle for the right of poor people to have access to the coast.”

He has coined the process the “LAPD shuffle,” though sometimes he solely encounters sanitation workers who haphazardly discard homeless people’s belongings during sweeps, he says. That presents a problem, because while he knows how to file a complaint with law enforcement when such incidents happen, the sanitation department doesn’t have a similar accountability system.

“With LAPD, at least, we could go to the police commission and raise holy hell, but with the sanitation department, we’ve been cut off entirely,” he says. “They don’t have public hearings.”

Unplanned sweeps are not only disruptive, says Dennis Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, they can also have more serious consequences for homeless residents, especially if they’re fined or arrested.

“It can set people back, and make it more difficult for them to work their way out of homelessness,” he said. “It could be counterproductive. The guidance is very clear that there should be 72 hours notices before street cleaning. It’s an adequate amount of time for people to throw their things away. It’s a very clear moral voice.”

Gary Painter, a University of Southern California public policy professor, called the sweeps a human rights issue.

“We need to be able to do more,” he says. “There’s no research that the tactics described improve housing outcomes for people who are homeless or improves safety in neighborhoods. We need more productive solutions.”

The ideal sweep would include a multidisciplinary outreach team with mental healthcare personnel and workers with the resources to actually clean, Dennison says.

She would also like to see portable showers and bathrooms during sweeps and for these procedures to be highly publicized ahead of time. Just as the housed population knows which days of the week to expect their yard waste, garbage, or recycling to be collected, their unhoused counterparts should have a schedule to follow for street sweeps, Dennison says.

“Obviously, it works better when people know what to expect and are cleaning up and preparing themselves,” she says. “Surprise sweeps are always the worst. They’re really disruptive, and people aren’t treated fairly.”

Busch says that last week he saw a notice in Venice announcing that a sweep would take place in three days. Seeing the announcement gave him the chance to help his neighbors collect their belongings, but he said he very rarely sees such alerts posted.

Busch says it would also be helpful to give the unhoused population storage space for their belongings. In 2016, Venice planned to allow homeless people to use a senior center for storage, but a community group blocked the plan.

Busch still resents the decision and that Venice has become unlivable for not only the homeless population but for middle-class professionals such as teachers and police officers too.

He wants the community to focus on solutions to the housing crisis rather than thwarting such efforts. That some Angelenos would rather drive out homeless people than stand up for their rights upsets him.

“I can’t say what I want to say,” he says. “So, I’ll say we’re outraged and disgusted.”

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