Casa Vega in Sherman Oaks now has a new, more secure patio. Its customers — including some celebrities — liked the old one just fine, but so did the folks living in tents nearby.
“They just walk onto the patio, they grab people’s food, they throw salsa cups at my employees, they scare customers,” said Christina Vega, whose father, Rafael Vega, opened the popular Mexican restaurant on Ventura Boulevard in 1956.
She erected a tall fence around the patio last week to keep out an influx of aggressive homeless people. In fact, several business operators in that area are alarmed not only by the rise of what some call the “criminal homeless,” but also by the lack of help or even acknowledgment by city officials and police.
“My staff is forced to deal with them and … if we call the police, they won’t come for hours,” said Vega. “I called our councilwoman Nithya Raman’s office over and over saying that I needed help. It always fell on deaf ears, and they never returned my call, they never emailed me back.”
Vega recently banded together with other local business owners going through similar experiences. The group’s aim is to raise awareness about issues that they feel the public has become jaded about; they hope to meet this month with law enforcement and public officials with the aim of coming up with solutions.
“I get so many people who call me, text me, and reach out through social media thanking me for saying something because their businesses are smaller, and they don’t have the voice or the platforms that we do,” Vega said. “And they don’t also have the resources to pay for privatized security and remodel their whole outdoor dining to keep this element out.”
The patio incursions are among the string of incidents Vega has had to contend with since the onset of the pandemic. The tents she set up for outdoor dining have served as sleeping quarters for drug users, their needles littering the floors the following morning.
“They would use all the landscaping as waste receptacle. They’d bathe in our fountains, and they would unplug all the lights we had in the tents to plug in (and charge) their phones,” she said. “I had a graveyard (shift) employee guard the property until he was attacked with a stick and chased after, and so I thought that’s too much liability.”
Another Casa Vega employee was “knifed by a homeless man” as he was getting off the bus in front of the restaurant.
Jessica Lewis, owner of Dragonfly Cycling, which is located off Van Nuys Boulevard, said she found human feces in front of her studio doors in June. A couple of weeks earlier, someone camped out at the same spot, all of their belongings in tow.
“My clients are afraid to come because we don’t have a private parking lot, so they have to park down the street at a meter. And oftentimes they are accosted by homeless, mentally ill people just walking into the front doors of the studio,” Lewis said. “A couple of them had bottles thrown at them, have been chased down. They have to weigh the reward versus risk about even just coming for a workout.”
She added that she and other business owners “have very little support from the LAPD.”
“I do not blame them; I blame the fact that their hands are tied,” she said. “We have no choice but to kind of attack this problem on our own… We’re going to the LAPD. We are going to the media in droves. We’re getting more and more coverage because we feel that the more pressure we put on Nithya Raman — possibly, maybe, hopefully — they’ll do something because she wants to get reelected. It’s all about strength in numbers.”
Lewis compared Ventura Boulevard to “a ghost town.”
“There’s more and more for-lease signs and more and more bodies just literally strewn on the sidewalks, mounds of garbage, and it smells like urine and feces everywhere,” she said. “I couldn’t even get (the city) to agree to do the regular power-washing of the sidewalks.”
Paul Scrivano, co-owner of the Blue Dog Beer Tavern in Sherman Oaks, spends his Sunday mornings on the boulevard painting over the graffiti.
“I want the streets to be clean and I do it on Ventura Boulevard where my business isn’t even located because that’s where people have to drive to get to me,” Scrivano said. “I don’t want them to think we’re driving through a war zone to get to me.”
The people he’s encountering around his restaurant lately are not the same he’s been chasing away over the years.
One homeless man threw a plastic bag containing his feces onto Scrivano’s car window. Scrivano, who took a video of the incident, sent it to Raman’s office. He claimed the office told him he “crossed a boundary” by sending it because the genitals of the person in the video were exposed. Raman’s office told him to not to send such things again.
Raman’s office did not respond to the Business Journal’s inquiries.
Angela Marsden, owner of the Pineapple Hill Saloon and Grill, is also part of the owners’ group. She said she “had a naked guy on a bike ride through the inside of the pub, from the back door out the front,” while another individual who lives in a nearby tent “came in dressed in a monkey suit and sat in my bar and refused to leave on a Friday night. He cleared out my bar, literally … we couldn’t get him out.” She added that the majority of the people she’s contending with “are severely mentally ill, severe drug addicts or they’re literally people that look like they just got released out of prison.”
“For us mom-and-pop businesses, they raised the minimum wage, and now with all this is going on, business is down and I can’t afford security seven days a week,” Marsden said. “I have security two days a week. I know other businesses in the neighborhoods that are corporate or that have more money, they’re spending $10,000 a month on security.”
Risk of talking
While doing nothing is expensive, speaking up can also be costly. Initially, Marsden was set on hunkering down and focusing on keeping her restaurant alive.
“As business owners, there’s risk that we’re taking by telling this story — it may make somebody think ‘Oh it’s dangerous, we better not go eat there,’” she said. “But then (the Dragonfly owner) Jessica stepped up on her own and called the news and showed her Ring camera of everything that she’s going through and she’s right across the street from me. And I was like, ‘Thank God, there’s other people also willing to speak up.’”
She said she considers the group’s work as a “fight for survival.”
“It’s a war on business, and if it’s not a war on business, I tell people it is gross negligence then and mismanagement of our city and our state, to the tune of the Titanic,” Marsden said.
The business owners said they blame the situation on Propositions 47 and 57, which lightened sentencing laws and converted some felonies into misdemeanors.
“What I found out from city prosecutors, unfortunately, what happened is we voted for them not to go to jail and instead to go to rehabilitation centers, but the politicians never made the rehabilitation centers,” Vega said. “They had funding for it, but they never did the projects. So now they’re just on Ventura Boulevard all over businesses in encampments. They are just doing massive amounts of heroin and drugs and crack because they’re bumped out of jail.”
Vega added that the responses to her complaints included accusations that she’s “criminalizing poverty.”
“The politicians, they shame us,” she said. “Nobody wants to criminalize poverty and it’s a very manipulative term. All we want to do is make sure that our streets are safe and that criminals be treated like criminals …
“They can sleep on your front doorstep, they block your entrance. They can poop and pee all over everything, they can harass you and scream at your customers and scare your children and do whatever — and nothing’s going to happen to them because they won’t criminalize poverty.”