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.