Venice, Calif. — Most weekends the boardwalk at Venice Beach offers a kaleidoscope of humanity - hawkers and Hare Krishnas, jugglers and gymnasts, guitarists and gurus - that helps make it Los Angeles's No. 2 tourist attraction behind Disneyland. Lately, however, a new element has been added to the social pageant: the homeless.
In recent months clusters of tents and tarpaulins have sprung up at various points along the three-mile stretch of sand - to the chagrin of some area merchants and residents.
Last week, in response to local complaints, the Los Angeles City Council voted to ban overnight sleeping on city beaches.
The move is expected to eventually clear the area of ``sandominiums,'' as the shelters have become known, but the problem of the homeless that has sharply divided this freewheeling, Bohemian part of Los Angeles is likely to linger.
Indeed, local residents say the parable of Venice's beach people is a parable of the growing problem of homelessness in Los Angeles and urban America.
``We're at the end of the trickle down,'' says Jack Hoffmann, a local realtor and member of a task force that has been dealing with the issue. ``We're attempting to satisfy at the local level what is really a national problem.''
With its come-as-you-are, accepting life style, Venice has always had its share of drifters and homeless people. But in the past year the numbers have swelled.
Residents attribute the increase in part to the growing numbers of homeless citywide. At the same time, a crackdown on street sleeping in the skid row area of downtown, as well as the closure this fall of an ``urban encampment'' for the homeless, has caused some to migrate to the beach.
Residents say Venice has also been more lenient in allowing people to sleep on the beach, and word has spread that it is cleaner and safer to stay here than on a cardboard slab on a skid row sidewalk.
``It has really exacerbated in the past year,'' says Dr. Mary Ann Hutchison, a psychologist who chairs the homeless task force. ``All of a sudden the eyes of the city were on Venice as the place for the homeless population.''
This community of 40,000 is estimated to have 2,500 homeless people. When combined with neighboring Santa Monica, which has a similar number, the area is believed to have the second highest concentration in the city. Los Angeles County as a whole has more than 35,000 homeless.
Residents here have long tolerated the displaced. But when the number of beach sleepers began to grow last summer, tempers flared.
At the peak in July and August, some 250 people were living on the sand, though the number has now dropped to about 80.
Some restaurant owners complained of patrons being harassed, while a few residents said the homeless were using their garden hoses or hot tubs to bathe. Others complained that the panhandling was becoming intolerably aggressive.
In response, the City Council representative from the area, Ruth Galanter, had job counseling, housing, and other ``outreach'' programs brought to the beach. She said the services would be pressed for a period and then a sleeping ban would be enforced.
Last week the Council gave preliminary approval to the ordinance outlawing overnight sleeping.
The ban is expected to go into effect in January. In the meantime, social service programs will again be pushed.
Still, the move angers some Venice residents, who see it as ``vigilantism'' rather than a compassionate response to a social problem.
``The fact is that police sweeps will not make the problem go away,'' says Jennifer Pirie of Venice Neighbor-to-Neighbor, a group organized to aid the homeless and oppose the ban.
Some of the homeless plan to stay on the beach until the police move in.
David Burdett has been living in a soiled tent behind the graffiti-blotched Venice Beach pavilion for five months. ``It is just going to displace people - push them from one place to another,'' he says.
Another man says he migrated to Los Angeles from Reno, Nev., three weeks ago after getting laid off as a landscape architect.
Unable to find work, he ended up on the beach with a sleeping bag.
``It is cleaner and safer here than downtown,'' he says, sitting on a worn carpet on the sand. ``Hopefully, the police won't come and start knocking heads.''
Whatever does happen, residents on both sides of the issue agree the challenge is clear:
Society and government at all levels need to do more in the way of providing temporary and permanent housing, job opportunities, and mental health and other services.