With over 200 tents lining the Boardwalk and crime rates spiking, local businesses are severely handicapped in their ability to recover from the financial hit of Covid-19.
While crowds are flocking back to nearby commercial strips of Main Street and Abbot Kinney, many merchants on Ocean Front Walk are struggling to turn a profit as foot traffic flounders.
Business at long-standing neighborhood eateries the Venice Ale House and The Waterfront are down 50 percent from pre-pandemic levels. Boardwalk clothing stores Venice Liberty and Redline report that sales are only at 30 percent of 2019 levels.
Managers of all four businesses say the increase in homelessness and crime over the past year is severely impacting their business.
“We are very literally losing customers. We have people come sit down and say ‘okay let’s try this out and see if we can handle having a meal here’ and then get up and leave,” said Ale House Owner Thomas Elliott, whose tables directly face an encampment.
LAPD reports a 177 percent increase in robberies and 116 percent increase in assaults with deadly weapons in the area over the past year. In the last week alone, two men were violently assaulted by unhoused individuals. One victim was a 70-year-old street performer and the other a security guard who is still in the hospital.
“It costs us on all sides of the equation: We spend over $100,000 a year on security. We have less customers coming because they don’t feel safe on Ocean Front Walk and then we also spend money to try to provide services when we can to help people in need,” said Jake Mathews, who owns the Waterfront Restaurant.
Mathews is sympathetic to the hardships faced by the homeless and has made it a company policy to try and be supportive of their unhoused neighbors. The restaurant has hired three individuals who were living on the Boardwalk and provided safe storage areas for homeless individuals to lock their belongings.
However, in the past year the nature and scale of homelessness on the Boardwalk changed.
“There’s been more criminal activity and more intimidation that has taken place since Covid started and that corresponds with the fact that you see significantly less police presence or City services or sanitation,” said Mathews.
Patrick Liberty, who owns Venice Liberty clothing store, concurs that the homelessness situation has gotten completely out of hand.
“After being here 26 years I’m ready to just throw in the towel and say I can’t make it here. I’m working and losing money,” said Liberty, who works 10 hours every day and is currently unable to cover his rent and expenses.
The condition of the Boardwalk is not only taking a toll on Liberty’s business but also on his quality of life. He lives directly above his store and says that on average he is awoken at least twice a week by loud partying or fighting.
“It’s not sustainable. They can’t let it go on,” said Liberty. “There’s too many mentally ill people, too many violent criminals, and too many people like me getting woken up at 1:30 in the night.”
The City of L.A. has not articulated a plan for addressing crime or homelessness on the Boardwalk.
Citing a moment of crisis, L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has broken with jurisdictional precedent and deployed his Homeless Outreach Service Team to Venice. His goal is to offer everyone living on the Boardwalk alternative living spaces and clear the encampments by July 4th.
Local merchants are closely eyeing his intervention, as they recognize that the upcoming summer months offer a critical opportunity for businesses to get back on their feet.
“If we neglect this opportunity, not only will existing businesses be unable to recover from COVID, but the businesses that come in to replace us will not be the same neighborhood focused, locally owned businesses that reflect the character and the authentic brand of Venice hospitality,” said Mathews. “That would be a tragedy on top of the tragedy.”