Organizing Skid Row

Organizing Skid Row

Many policies treat homeless people simply as eyesores or hygiene hazards or potential criminals. By instead recognizing them as community members, we can assert the rights of homeless people as citizens like any others.

(David McNew/Getty Images)

Mornings on Venice Beach are often chilly, thanks to low-lying leaden clouds known as the marine layer. The gloom leaves no golden SoCal gleam on the graffitied concrete skate structures or the shuttered souvenir hutches promising legal pot, bikinis, T-shirts, and ice cream. Surfers cross the sand with their wetsuits half-on, joggers careen through with smartwatches on their wrists, and jet-lagged tourists wheel their suitcases in search of a beachfront hostel. And each Friday morning, near the famous weight-lifting equipment of Muscle Beach, a flotilla of trucks and police cruisers assembles. Police officers and sanitation workers, dressed in blue uniforms or white Tyvek coveralls, huddle amid the trucks before the sweep begins.

Their targets are the items accumulated by people living on the beach, the boardwalk, and in the alleys of Venice. Los Angeles permits sleeping in public spaces from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., but on Fridays in Venice, the belongings of each of the unhoused must be packed up and consolidated into a sixty-gallon plastic bag, per city code. Anything that doesn’t fit, anything deemed “bulky,” will be seized, and if it’s “soiled,” it will be trashed.

Longtime Venice homeless know the sweep is coming, and they are packed up and standing at attention by 7 a.m., guarding their neatly stacked sixty gallons, having dragged the excess to someplace where it might pass unnoticed—behind a dumpster, into a sympathetic homeowner’s driveway. Those who aren’t ready scramble as the parade approaches. There’s an exodus from the sand—people dragging behind them laundry bags, baskets, suitcases propped on bicycles, or belongings wrapped in blankets. The trucks crawl along as the officers walk up to encampments. When the sweep approaches a camp that hasn’t been quick enough to clean up, officers will often close off the area with police tape. Tourists stop to gawk.

“Sir, you have too much property,” an officer tells a homeless man during one of the sweeps.

“What would happen if we went to your house and did this to your house?” he retorts. Arguments ensue. Someone had an appointment and had to leave their things unattended, and their friends are trying to keep it; a homeless street vendor’s paintings are stacked neatly on a cart, but exceed sixty gallons; someone needs extra time to move their cat, who sits impervious in a pink harness on top of a suitcase.

Blankets and cushions are often declared soiled. Any sign of drug use, needles especially, triggers an aggressive seizure. Bags are slashed open and picked through with trash claws. Sometimes the sanitation officers don’t bother to dig through, and a whole shopping cart full of stuff goes straigh...

Duggan | University of California Press Gardels