Commentary: How Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva Made Houselessness About Himself

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Los Angeles County Alex Sheriff Villanueva

By Jessica Pishko

In early June, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva arrived in Venice Beach. With promises to “clean up the beach,” he posed for press photos alongside members of the Homeless Outreach Services Team (HOST), a specific division of the LASD tasked with outreach to the houseless population. Villanueva was not only muscling in where he wasn’t wanted, there were news reports of people who did not receive promised services and complaints that the HOST deputies carried weapons and used excessive force (or at least the promise of excessive force). News sources also discovered that the LASD had reserved some 200 jail beds for people who refused to move. Without question, Villanueva’s rhetoric – promising to “clean up” Venice Beach and exhorting that people were going to “destroy our community” – belied any kind intent he may have had.

Even though Venice Beach is under Los Angeles Police Department jurisdiction, Villanueva used the uniquely broad powers of the elected county sheriff to police the area his own way, a way which he says the LAPD cannot execute because of restrictions in place by supervisors and other bureaucrats. (In saying this, Villanueva calls upon a long history of sheriffs who claim to have broad, unchecked authority that is derived from their unique position as the only popularly-elected law enforcement official.) This week, Villanueva was electronically scooting around the boardwalk, in apparent violation of local ordinances. While Villanueva is right that he technically does have the power to police anywhere in Los Angeles County, there have historically been conventions and agreements between sheriffs and local authorities that frown upon intruding into local problems.

During the July Civilian Oversight Commission virtual meeting, dozens of callers dialed in during public comment to praise the sheriff. (One June news story said that people “cheered” as the sheriff marched down the boardwalk in his outback hat, a look widely mocked online.) Many of them were members of various “concerned citizens’ groups” that Villanueva had been meeting with to garner support and assure them that their fears and anxieties over the houseless population on Venice Beach were legitimate. (Villanueva describes these people as “business owners” and regular citizens even though the average price of a home in Venice is nearly $2 million.)

In an excellent article for The Guardian, Sam Levin writes about the actual issues of houselessness on Venice Beach – never once name-checking law enforcement, allowing their positions and policies to fade into the background. In Levin’s piece, the real story was about the people being talked about by so many. After I read his story, I thought to myself, how did houselessness in Los Angeles suddenly become about one man?

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is undoubtedly being battered from the left not just because of his behavior and Trump-like attitude but also because of legitimate and long-standing problems within the LASD that Villanueva has refused to recognize – decades of warehousing people in the unsafe Central Jail, deputy gangs who terrorize neighborhoods, excessive violence and the shooting deaths of multiple unarmed civilians – with coverups, lies, and victim-blaming added in the mix.

Villanueva didn’t invent the many problems that predate his tenure as sheriff, sure, but he has refused to address them and, more to the point, has thrown his hat in with the right-wing factions of Southern California in what looks like a desperate political ploy to retain his seat. The latest example is his outspoken refusal to enforce the latest Los Angeles mask mandate, adding that it was because his department was “underfunded/defunded.” (Villanueva did not receive all the funding he wanted for fiscal year 2020-21, but whether this amounts to underfunding is subject to debate.)

Houselessness is not only a triggering issue for people in California, it is also, in many ways, the kind of lifestyle complaint that suits Villanueva’s style of macho man politics. The base of his argument is that people living on Venice Beach aren’t “poor,” but rather have a questionable lifestyle and made bad choices that are being encouraged by California lawmakers who are giving people “free stuff,” in Villanueva’s words.

“[People from out of town] are descending …for the free services.,” he claimed. “Something has to be done.”

Almost as soon as California became a state, it became a place where Anglo settlers obsessed about invasion and preservation. Early on, the southern California real estate industry wanted people to buy into the idea of Los Angeles as an “Anglo-Saxon paradise.” Yet, “hobos” and “tramps” – single men, usually white – were coming to Los Angeles, most in search of work and some, yes, living a transient lifestyle whose lack of family values and rootedness bothered the establishment. Laws were passed to outlaw “vagrancy,” and LASD deputies rounded up the people living in campsites around the city. After World War II, there were deep concerns that there would be a “stampede” of people eager to move to California, and the cycle repeated.

Villanueva’s “common sense” approach probably appeals to people who, like many Californians before them, fret about the changing landscape. In so many ways, houselessness intersects with fears about climate change and wildfires, shrinking economic opportunities, and soaring housing prices. The Los Angeles sheriff is seizing on this moment to make political hay by juxtaposing himself against the Board of Supervisors, the District Attorney, and all other local elected leaders. The same sheriff has been disowned by the Democratic party and is facing multiple investigations into his department. And, so, houselessness becomes an issue where he can insert himself and take the spotlight – largely because too little media attention is paid to the people who are enduring the most suffering themselves.

Jessica Pishko is a lawyer, writer and researchers who focuses on sheriffs.

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22 thoughts on “Commentary: How Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva Made Houselessness About Himself”

  1. Alan Miller

    Many of them were members of various “concerned citizens’ groups” that Villanueva had been meeting with to garner support and assure them that their fears and anxieties over the houseless population on Venice Beach were legitimate.

    Because they are.  Except they are not ‘fears and anxieties’, they are reality.

    (Villanueva describes these people as “business owners” and regular citizens even though the average price of a home in Venice is nearly $2 million.)

    I know ‘business owners’ in Venice.  They aren’t rich.  It’s an alternative vegan restaurant / tea parlor on Main.  There have always been ‘transients’ in Venice and challenges.  This is a whole new level of hardcore meth and opiod addicts, and everyone knows it.  Venice is becoming a shˆthole.  You can’t deflect that with the usual social-class-envy politics.  Of course a home in Venice goes for $2 million – it’s on the f-ing beach for crissakes.  Doesn’t mean it’s OK for drug addicts en masse to camp in filth and make the town filthy because politicians are enabling the filth.

    how did houselessness in Los Angeles suddenly become about one man?

    Because he’s doing something that the people of the town want (yes, the housed) and ignoring LA City.

    Houselessness is not only a triggering issue for people in California,

    You mean policies enabling meth addicts is a triggering issue

    The base of his argument is that people living on Venice Beach aren’t “poor,” but rather have a questionable lifestyle and made bad choices that are being encouraged by California lawmakers who are giving people “free stuff,” in Villanueva’s words.

    I wouldn’t word it quite as he did, but . . . yup.

    1. Keith Olsen

      Of course a home in Venice goes for $2 million – it’s on the f-ing beach for crissakes.  Doesn’t mean it’s OK for drug addicts en masse to camp in filth and make the town filthy because politicians are enabling the filth.

      Come on Alan, drug addicts are being priced out of homes in Venice Beach.  As a society we have to realize that they have a right to have a home in Venice Beach.  Maybe the state can come up with an addict voucher program so that homeless drug addicts can live in Venice Beach.  It’s only right.

  2. Ron Oertel

    Almost as soon as California became a state, it became a place where Anglo settlers obsessed about invasion and preservation. Early on, the southern California real estate industry wanted people to buy into the idea of Los Angeles as an “Anglo-Saxon paradise.” Yet, “hobos” and “tramps” – single men, usually white – were coming to Los Angeles, most in search of work and some, yes, living a transient lifestyle whose lack of family values and rootedness bothered the establishment.

    Try to envision this comment as if Yosemite Sam was saying it:

    “No-good bushwackin white varmints, giving other white varmints a hard time.”

     

  3. Bill Marshall

    Is there a change in the vernacular, definitions?

    “Houselessness” vs. “Homeless”… maybe vs. “shelter”…

    Is the trend going from, everyone deserves decent ‘shelter’, to a decent ‘apartment’, to having a ‘house’?

    I believe in decent shelter, to protect against the elements… but that could be a a shelter space, or a motel room…

      1. Ron Oertel

        We’ve seen this before, words like transient or hobo are retired and no longer acceptable to use,” Garrow said. “Homeless has become intertwined with narratives that are toxic. It deserves to be retired.”

        Perhaps it’s not the words that are “toxic”. Perhaps it’s the result that’s causing toxicity to be associated with words.

        How about illegal, permanent urban campers?

        1. Ron Oertel

          There was a time when “queer” was a bad word.

          Now, it’s sometimes embraced.

          Also, have you ever noticed the fine line between “underserved”, and “undeserved”?

          Those of a particular political persuasion do seem to pay a great deal of attention to changing terminology, which some might describe as a form of virtual signaling. The article David cites notes that the “homeless” themselves don’t care that much about labels, as long as they’re treated with relative respect (like any human being).

          Charlie Chaplin was a “tramp”. (Now, that word also seems to have a different meaning, though even that’s becoming increasingly rare, as well.)

        2. Keith Olsen

          Houseless is one letter longer than homeless

          Good, then you use it all you want.  I don’t think too many people really think homeless is an issue.

        3. Alan Miller

          We’ve seen this before, words like transient or hobo are retired and no longer acceptable to use,”

          That’s just not true.  In the hobo community, hobo is a positive term that denotes someone who travels from place to place, often to find temporary work and then move on again.  “Bum” on the other hand is considered an insult in the hobo community, to denote a more worthless traveler.

        4. Ron Oertel

          That’s just not true.  In the hobo community, hobo is a positive term that denotes someone who travels from place to place, often to find temporary work and then move on again.

          As presented in the corresponding movie, Christopher McCandless might be considered a “hobo”.

          (But ultimately, one lacking in judgement.)

          Perhaps that other guy who was eaten by a bear, as well. (Forgotten his name, and the details of his story.)

          “Trailers, for sale or rent . . . rooms to let 50 cents”.  (Love that song, including its double meaning of lyrics.)

           

           

        5. Ron Oertel

          Grizzly Man, not to be confused with Grizzly Adams.  The former suffering a not-entirely-unexpected grizzly death.

          My “as well” above was misplaced, in regard to the exact manner of death as a result of judgement.

        6. Bill Marshall

          Hobo… since the term is ‘verboten’ by the Gestapo-like “word-changers”, guess we should remove all vestiges…

          Like the old movie, “The Littlest Hobo”… starring a G. Shepherd named London… great movie… (1958) [at least a two tissue movie, and a great theme song…]

      2. Alan Miller

        Homeless is out.  Houseless or unhoused are preferred.

        Preferred?  I ‘prefer’ “meth addicts”.  Let’s call a shovel a shovel.  I’d use the classic phrase but considering it involves a card suit that that is black, I’m sure someone has decided that phrase is racist, because, well, everything is.  Systemic playing cards.

    1. Bill Marshall

      I reject the ‘ arbitrary’ change in “terms”… I will not use the term “houselessness”… too many other interpretations of the term… any one living in an apartment is “houseless”… don’t care much about the ‘preference’ of others..

      I’ll revert to “shelterless” as it describes the situation, and even a tent camp can be a “home”… not all houses are “homes”…

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