Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter enjoys a lot of good will in Venice. She has lived there for several years and has a reputation for being a tough fighter when it comes to community causes. She is also widely admired for the way she battled back from a brutal knife attack this year.
But now, just four months after she was elected with the overwhelming support of Venice residents, the bond of friendship between Galanter and the small beach community is being tested by the thorny issue of homelessness.
Some residents are appalled by the influx of homeless, especially along the beachfront where a mini-tent city on the sand has taken shape, and are demanding that Galanter get tough on transients. Others are calling for more overnight shelters and job training programs.
Yet Galanter contends that there is little she can do without the support of county, state and federal officials. In appearances before large, emotional and sometimes unruly crowds in Venice, such as the business-oriented Venice Action Committee last week, she has issued a weary plea for patience.
"There's no question that everyone's frustrations are legitimate and honest frustrations," Galanter said. "But it is clear to me that this is something that cannot be solved by Venice or by the City of Los Angeles. The White House and the governor's office should be getting some of the calls."
Annoying Pleas for Patience
People who understand the complex inner workings of governmental social-service networks may understand Galanter's point. But for many others, such as Venice restaurateur Pierre Denerome, pleas for patience are annoying.
Denerome owns the Lands End Restaurant at 323 Ocean Front Walk, which faces on the beach area where the largest concentration of homeless people are found. In the months since the homeless appeared, blocking his ocean view with their tents and shacks, Denerome claims that his business has dropped by 50%.
He has canceled his weekend brunches and dropped plans for opening a second-floor area that recently received $60,000 worth of renovations. He has also laid off some of his staff and started waiting on tables himself.
"My regular customers still come," said Denerome, who has recently hired a private security guard to stand at his door at night. "But nobody just drops by anymore. The tourists just make a U-turn and go somewhere else."
Venice has always been a contentious community, deeply divided over such issues as development and the character of the colorful area known as Ocean Front Walk. But the homeless issue has overshadowed those concerns, at least for the time being.
Jo Giese, a resident who has been extremely vocal about transients, called the homelessness situation in Venice "nightmarish."
"Venice has become an encampment city," Giese said. "I believe in compassion, but Galanter's ideas aren't working. Initially the homeless lived day-by-day. But now they are living on the beach brazenly. They have set up housekeeping because they know nothing is going to happen to them."
Susan Chevalier, who owns a house near the beach, is one of the organizers of neighborhood efforts to rid the beach of the homeless. Chevalier said that Venice is gaining a reputation as a place where homeless people are welcome and claimed people frequently pass her house with shopping carts filled with plywood and other materials used to build beach shanties.
This past summer, as the homeless problem was becoming more severe, some residents circulated flyers that sarcastically branded Venice as a homeless retreat. "Venice Welcomes Transients!" said one flyer. "Many Ocean Views Available. Free Meals. Cocktails on the Sand. Few Enforceable Laws."
Chevalier said she sympathizes with Galanter, but thinks that the councilwoman should be doing more to discourage the homeless influx.
"I haven't seen any improvements," Chevalier said. "The laws should be enforced. But we have been told so many different things. First we hear that there are going to be police sweeps. Then we hear that there is a problem with sweeps. . . . I would like to hear exactly what she (Galanter) plans to do."
Galanter is not without ideas. The problem is that those ideas often generate as much controversy as the homeless issue itself.
At a recent press conference, Galanter called on churches to adopt homeless people and asked property owners to make low-income housing available. Galanter said that the response was favorable, yet many residents privately scoffed at her plea.
The councilwoman, with the help of the county, also opened a homeless processing station on the beach. Galanter's office claims that 250 people have received counseling on employment and social service opportunities and that the number of homeless on the beach has recently dropped to about 100.