On most mornings, there are at least two places where business is bustling on Rose Avenue in Venice. One is a chic cafe near the beach where stylish people buy croissants and gourmet coffee. The other is the sparsely furnished social service center down the street where desperate people get handouts.
The economic gap between the two groups could not be much wider. But though they are socially estranged, they are not strangers.
They are the antagonists in an escalating war over the very future of Rose Avenue. The battle, which started over plans for expanding social services for the homeless on the street, pits angry residents who oppose the influx of transients against those who say the homeless are already part of the community fabric.
The issue has shaken a neighborhood that is already emotionally charged from grappling with the problems caused when hundreds of homeless people converged on the beach last summer. And in the process a community celebrated for its diversity is becoming known for its discord.
"People in this community are being ripped apart," said Harlan Lee, a Venice activist who is building a $16-million development at Rose Avenue and Main Street. "This one question is ripping the whole damn community apart."
The haves and have-nots have historically shared the turf on Rose Avenue. In many ways the wide and well-traveled thoroughfare is a microcosm of Venice: a haphazard collection of houses, apartments, restaurants, businesses and shops where dissimilar people have lived and worked in relative harmony.
All that changed when vast numbers of transients started congregating on Rose Avenue several months ago. Now the homeless issue is an obsession there. Nearly everyone along the one-mile stretch between Lincoln Boulevard and Ocean Front Walk seems swept up by the controversy. The issue dominates discussions at stores, lunch counters and even crosswalks.
On one side are residents, such as Judith Weiss, who blame transients for scaring children, and merchants, such as Pete Mascio, who claim that the rising number of homeless are wrecking his business.
"When customers try to come in, they get panhandled," said Mascio, the owner of a costume jewelry store called Pops 84. "And those who won't give them money are called names. I'm ready to close up because I can't stay in business this way."
On the other side are people such as Guillermina (who asked that her last name not be used), an impoverished mother of four who depends on the Rose Avenue social service centers, and Natalie Carroll, a renter who says the homeless have as much right to Venice as anyone else.
"This has always been a mixed community," Carroll said. "That's what makes it unique and special. And it's a fact of life that there are poor people around."
In the middle of the dispute is Los Angeles Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who also happens to be a Venice resident.
Galanter, who supports the idea of placing more services for the homeless on Rose Avenue, has had little success in calming the frayed nerves of constituents who think they are being forced to bear the brunt of the homeless burden.
The councilwoman said she understands why Rose Avenue-area residents are concerned. But she contends that fears about a second Skid Row taking shape in Venice are unfounded.
"We need to be quite clear that this is not a proposal to service people from all over the country," Galanter said. "This is a very limited program . . . which is all this community can be asked to accommodate."
The additional programs for transients would be located in two places. Galanter is behind plans for a 30-bed shelter and job-training program on the grounds of a storage facility being built at Rose and 3rd Street. And St. Joseph Center, a nonprofit social services group, plans to open a food-service program at the site of the old Bunz restaurant, 663 Rose Ave.
Galanter said the shelter and job program wound up on Rose Avenue and 3rd Street by the luck of the draw since the property owner, Public Storage Corp., agreed to give the city the facility as part of a development agreement.
"You don't always get to pick a site for affordable housing," Galanter said. "You have to look for opportunities. And the opportunity to put services in other places has not arisen. There are no subsidy programs right now . . . so we can't just sail in and acquire a piece of property."
There's a similar story behind the selection of Rose Avenue and 6th Street as the site of the new food program that would serve about 200 transients. St. Joseph Center, which is based on Rose Avenue, was looking for a place to house its beachfront feeding program when Bunz restaurant became available.
Rhonda Meister, St. Joseph's director, said Bunz was picked because the restaurant contains a commercial kitchen, is fairly large and is in walking distance for the homeless.