Sunday, October 3, 2010

Meet Robert W_____________

If you live in Venice, you deal with RV's. Anywhere from 250-300 RV's have taken up residence in the 1 square-mile area between Rose Ave. to Washington Blvd, and Walgrove Ave. to the beach. It's an issue almost as old as Venice itself.

But as the economy has worsened and other neighborhoods push their homeless away from their own communities, Venice has seen a huge uptick in the homeless and people who live in their RVs.

Last month, when an RV owner was caught dumping raw sewage on a Venice street, the situation reached the boiling point, culminating in an explosive Town Hall meeting called by Councilman Rosendahl to address the issue. Like most contentious meetings in Venice, there was an awful lot of shouting, but at least a plan was offered to help at least some people get out of their RVs and into permanent housing.

This morning, the issue exploded again. This time literally. At 9 AM, an RV caught fire in a bank parking lot just off of Lincoln Blvd., where it had been parked overnight. The fire was so intense, it melted the plastic off of a nearby vehicle and seriously damaged a wood fence that separated the lot from a residential property.

Since the fire was near my house, I went over to see what happened and to take some photos. This is what I found:

Behind Chase bank at the corner of Lincoln and Millwood.

The vehicle next to the RV and a wood fence were heavily damaged in the fire.

The self-identified owner, Robert W_______ told fire investigators at the scene the blaze started inside the camper due to faulty wiring. Robert claimed he had only bought the camper the day before, although reports from neighbors place the vehicle in the area for the last several weeks months.

The fire was so intense, it partially melted the vehicle parked 10 feet away.

A parking sign was also heavily damaged.

The RV was an old Econoline model.

A partially burned book.

Thankfully, the propane tanks remained intact.

A curious neighbor inspects the damage.

While we were there, another RV pulled up to the scene.

There was at least one small child in the RV.

Fire inspectors talk to a witness who was there when the blaze started.

Self-styled homeless "activist" Peggy Kennedy documents the scene. Peggy has been a fixture in the Venice homeless community for years, but social service agencies won't work with her since she often advices her "clients" to turn down help if it means entering programs with rules and fixed schedules. When I first arrived, she was telling anyone who would listen that the fire was likely arson, claiming RV residents had been threatened in the past. However, the owner of the RV quickly contradicted her, stating unequivocally the fire started inside the van.

Robert W_________ talks to fire inspectors.

Robert gets a hug from a waitress who worked next door. He escaped in just his shorts, but someone from the Methodist Church down the street gave him a clean shirt and a pair of shoes. Everything else he owned burned up in the van. The woman handed him a small wad of cash, her tips from the day before.

All that was left of Robert's ID, a partially burned passport. When asked for his address, Robert told them he used an address on Hampton, St. Joseph's Center. Asked if he had someplace to go, he said no, that's why he had the camper.

A few final thoughts about what I saw today. I'm the first to admit I'm deeply conflicted about this issue. I felt for Robert, and was thankful he escaped uninjured, and that no one else was hurt. This was someone who appeared to just want to be left alone. He wasn't looking for a beach "lifestyle", he wasn't militant or political or strung out on drugs. Yesterday he had next to nothing. Today he had less.

But as a resident, I'm grateful that van wasn't parked anywhere near my home. And there are hundreds of fire traps like this all over Venice. Many parked on narrow residential streets.

That we live in a country where people are reduced to living in their vehicles is a tragedy. That the city and county haven't found a way to get these people off the streets and into permanent housing is worse. That we have self-styled "activists" like Peggy Kennedy who use the homeless to score political points, while at the same time we have major social service organizations in Venice that seem to provide the homeless little more than a PO Box, is insane.

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