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Changing Venice Beach Means Homeless Are Less Welcome At The Boardwalk

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The long boardwalk at Venice Beach in Los Angeles is a vibrant marketplace. By day, it's filled with artists, musicians, healers and preachers. They cater to hoards of beachgoers looking for tchotchkes or maybe a chakra adjustment. Reporter Karen Lowe got a behind-the-scenes look at what happens before dawn, especially on holidays like Labor Day, when there's a scramble for prime real estate among the merchants of Venice.

KAREN LOWE, BYLINE: As the sun comes up, scores of homeless people rise from the ground in the fog blanketing Venice Beach. Some trundle away. Others transform themselves into street vendors, hurriedly staking claims on the best sales spaces with chairs and boxes. The official set-up time is 9 a.m., but minutes before, things can get twitchy fast.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: So you're moving those?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: That's not cool.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, I'm sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No, that's very, very uncool. You could have just said something to me and I would've done it. I apologize that was in your way, but - no, it is a worry because these are things that are mine.

LOWE: A warm sun and Zen vibe draw nearly 16 million visitors a year to Venice Beach. What visitors don't see is the jarring, predawn jockeying among vendors. Last year, bloody fights broke out over some of the most prized spots. This year, a new first-come, first- serve policy has reduced conflict. At 8:50 a.m., vendors are poised 15 feet from their mark spots on the other side of the boardwalk. Here's what 9 a.m. sounds like.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Grab the corner.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL SCRAPING)

LOWE: Vendors set up an open-air market for colorful crafts and wild ideas. Brendon Browski arranges stones with healing energy. I ask him what he recommends for something like depression.

BRENDON BROWSKI: If their heart chakra's kind of messed up, you know, they're feeling sad about something, I'd say, you know, keep something nice and green, maybe like jade. Jade would be excellent for that, like right here.

LOWE: Across from an outdoor beer garden, Erik Larsen mans the Hope for Israel stand. He's looking for messianic believers to help fix Israel.

ERIK LARSEN: I think a few thousand years ago, Yeshua, Jesus, and his followers would have done the same thing. They would've been out on the boardwalk.

LOWE: A few stands down is 39-year-old Danny Howl from Oregon. He's a self-proclaimed Satanist who gives advice. To understand his philosophy, it helps if you've seen "The Matrix" a few times.

DANNY HOWL: You're outside of this reality and inside of this reality at the same time.

LOWE: The reality underneath all of this is that Venice is caught in a class struggle. Transients and affluent homeowners used to co-exist here, if somewhat uneasily. But as property values skyrocket, thanks in part to the booming high-tech community, dubbed Silicon Beach, the homeless are less welcome. And it doesn't help that among the vendors are homeless who suffer from mental illness and addiction - or just plain hair-trigger frustration. Schmitty, who lost a leg to diabetes, asks for donations for pictures of his amazingly tricked out wheelchair that he calls Pacific Rim.

SCHMITTY: It has a fantastic water show. And after that, I got a apparatus that I pour detergent in it and it becomes a fantastic bubble show.

LOWE: Out of nowhere, a man walks up and suddenly evicts Schmitty.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: You're going to kill me. You have 11 minutes to move all that over here or you're going to hurt the business 'cause they're open. I've told you like...

LOWE: But Schmitty isn't having it.

SCHMITTY: Don't go - get away from me. Get the [expletive] away from me. I'm talking to her.

LOWE: There are more laid-back spots. Gary Suhzinski has a prime space right next to a parking lot. His art sells from $5 to $5,000.

GARY SUHZINSKI: I paint. I get a lot of work done. That's the great side. The other side, it's basically like "Lord Of The Flies" down here. There's always a battle underneath and that's why you're going to find a lot of these vendors not in a good mood. This is heaven and hell for me. This is the grand duality of life.

LOWE: The vendors will have to breakdown shop by 9 p.m. And the scrimmage starts all over again tomorrow before dawn. For NPR News, I'm Karen Lowe in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.