"We got geeks": Inside Google's ugly war against the homeless in LA
“We’re in a bit of uncharted territory. We’re trying to figure it out. How do we use all these resources . . . and have a much more positive impact on the world.”
“In terms of being remembered, I think I want to make the world a better place.”
VENICE BEACH, CA — How does Google, one of the most cash-rich and innovative companies in the world, propose to deal with the issue of homelessness in America? What's its 21st century, New Economy solution to disrupt and solve this difficult socio-economic problem once and for all?
In Los Angeles, the company's fix is brilliantly simple: Hire private security to harass and push the homeless out of sight, and then make sure that the smelly bastards and their tents and carts never come back.
I have seen this solution in action myself. I live just around the corner from Google’s new campus in Venice, LA — two big properties located right off the beach, smack in the middle of Venice's tiny Skid Row. Los Angeles is in the grips of a homeless population explosion, with an increase of 12 percent just in the last year. And this small two-square-block area used to be one of the last places where homeless people were somewhat tolerated around these parts.
But not any more — not after Google decided to claim sidewalks for itself and cranked up aggressive security patrols in order to drive away the local homeless population.
"Me and my girlfriend got maced by doing nothing,” a man named "Cory" [not his real name] tells me. He has steely blue eyes and shaggy hair, and looks more like an aging surfer than someone who sleeps rough on the streets. He recounts a recent experience he claims to have had with a Google security guard while sitting on a public sidewalk near the company's campus.
“He wanted us to leave. I had water in both hands so I couldn’t attack. And we’re like, 'what the fuck, man?' And he was just like, pshhhhh,” he continues, reenacting the hissing sound of the mace spray can and explaining that they were given no time to leave or react in any way. "My girlfriend didn’t want to be there. Actually she was terrified of them. Every time Google security came, she said ‘we gotta go, we gotta go.’ We’re not allowed to be on public sidewalks, even though we’re the public.”
I'm talking to him on a sidewalk in the shade of a small tree on 3rd Avenue, which runs between a self-storage business and the backside of Google’s newest property, a giant warehouse that’s currently being remodeled into an expansive new Google office space.
I look up and down the street. It's around 10 am and a dozen people are still hanging around — but most have split for the day, leaving their bedding and belongings neatly stacked up in bundles against sides of the sidewalk.
Talk to the people here, and you’ll hear similar tales of harassment and intimidation at the hands of Google security guards — tactics they say are designed to make their homeless existence even harder and more painful than it already is.
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"We running a business here. Can't have homeless people out here like that. We got geeks. They're scaring folks.”
That's what I was told — firsthand, no hearsay — by a Google security guard who was patrolling the perimeter. It was a chilly Los Angeles evening in mid-February, and the security guard wore a fleece and baseball cap emblazoned with the cheery Google logo. A Google employee badge dangled at his belt.
The reason he was speaking so freely is that I hadn't mentioned I was a member of the press — largely because, that evening at least, I wasn't. I was just another Venice area local, on my way home from the gym, who had stopped to chat to the guard. I certainly hadn't expected him to so candidly explain how Google employees — and especially Google executives — were freaked out by the homeless people outside its walls. So freaked out that he was hired on as part of a beefed up security presence aimed at clearing the public street that bisects Google’s two properties of any homeless presence.
The guard pointed at a Google building on the corner of Hampton Drive and Rose Avenue: "This building right here is for all the engineers. Everyone in there makes over $1 million. They got their own barbershop right there. They take care of them. You can't have all these tents here," he said, sweeping his arm in an arc, pointing to the parts of the street he considered to be off-limits to homeless people — day or night.
Google's no homeless on the sidewalk policy may make sense for the company. The catch is that the sidewalks don't belong to Google: they're public property, and a federal court had mandated that Los Angeles allow people to sleep there between the hours of 9 pm and 6 am, as long as they leave a little room for foot traffic and don’t block any doors or driveways. This restriction is part of a settlement that has been in place since 2007, and neither police nor a corporate giant like Google has the legal right to determine who can or cannot sleep on any given chunk of sidewalk in LA.
But, lawful or not, Google’s tactics are working. Before the company moved into the neighborhood, the stretch of sidewalk between its two buildings had always had a homeless presence. The number of people sleeping there was always in flux. Sometimes there were just one or two, other times a dozen. Some would sleep in their cars; others would park their RVs for days at a time. Sometimes people would roll out their sleeping bags or tents for the night, and those with neither would sleep with nothing but a blanket and few cardboard boxes spread out to cushion the hard and cold concrete. Usually, they’d pack up during the day and leave their bedding and gear stacked against a wall or fence.
But on the night I stopped to speak to the guard, there was barely a homeless person or RV or van in sight. The sidewalk was swept clean, illuminated by rows of powerful new LED lights installed by Google. A few late-working Google employees, who increasingly use this stretch of sidewalk to go between the company's two properties on either side of the street, walked up and down without a care in the world.
The security guard was clearly pleased with the results. This was, after all, what he and his colleagues were hired to do.
The homeless were out of sight and out of mind. But they weren't gone. Just dispersed — dispersed and bitter.
Some of the people had scattered, others had migrated over a block down to the last little sliver of skid row left. That's where I found them when I went back several months later — identifying myself as a journalist this time, and accompanied by filmmaker Rowan Wernham — to try to understand the relationship between Google and its homeless neighbors.
The homeless people we met weren't crazy or dirty or violent. Some just wanted to be left alone. Others had been brutalized by the recession and the disastrous American economy. Many were recently homeless and had the bottom fall out by the foreclosures and layoffs triggered by the crash of 2008.
"It looks horrible, but it's not as bad as it looks — not if you know people here," says "Cory." "It's like family, I've been here for two years. If I need something I'll have it in a couple of hours. Like if someone steals my sleeping bag. I need that. That's life. But somebody will help me here. We're a tribe. Everyone knows each other here."
They talk about the ineffectualness of Los Angeles’ current homeless programs of alleviating their core problem: housing. They complain bitterly about constant police harassment — something they say only got worse after Google moved into the neighborhood a few years ago. Many are angry and seething with resentment at Google’s tactics, which they believe are designed to push them out of the area for good.
Google comes to Venice
Google first opened up an office in Venice Beach in late 2011. It then snapped up leases on surrounding properties, allowing it to sprawl over nearly two square blocks of prime real estate in one of the best neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
On paper, Google’s new digs — intended to house a portion of its Google+, YouTube advertising, and Chrome Book divisions — seemed picture perfect. The property is just a few minutes by foot from a gorgeous never-ending white sand beach. It's surrounded by all sorts of bars, cafes, and restaurants and is just around the corner from Abbot Kinney — named by GQ as the "Coolest Block in America." Google employees can surf, skate, bike, play volleyball, see shows, check out art galleries or visit pot dispensaries — all within a few square blocks of their office.
But there was one bug that needed to be fixed: the homeless. Google’s new property sat smack in the middle of Venice’s Skid Row — a few square blocks still zoned for light industry and home to a sizable homeless encampment.
At first, Google didn’t seem to mind. The company initially operated only one property — the famous Frank Gehry “Binoculars Building.” Like other Google locations, it is a self-contained ecosystem; an office bio-dome: Delicious food service, snacks, coffee, surfboards, games, a top-of-the-line gym, a climbing wall, a cool roof deck, periodic food truck lunch parties, and an underground gated parking lot. With so much stuff to do inside, Googlers rarely ventured outside and didn’t have to see or interact with the homeless population that was camped out just beyond its walls.
But this live-and-let-live attitude changed after Google leased a second giant property — a series of warehouse compounds that take up almost an entire block and which used to belong to James Cameron’s Digital Domain special effects company. This new compound is located on the other side of the street from the Binoculars Buildings. For the first time, Google employees needed to venture outside of their compound to cross the street. As foot traffic between the two properties increased, Google employees suddenly had to navigate a terrain of impoverished people living right under their windows, with nothing but tents and sleeping bags.
That’s when I, and other Venice locals, noticed the hammer coming down.
I watched as Google increased its security presence and aggressive patrol tactics. Bright lights were installed to illuminate the sidewalks at night. LAPD cruisers began appearing with more frequency. Altercations between the local homeless and Google security guards increased as well. One day, I saw a Google employee accompanied by a security guard dumping what appeared to be belongings left behind by homeless people into a giant trash bin on wheels.
“Google? Google is a fucking asshole. Straight up,” says "Jesse," a wiry man with a buzzcut and a black shirt with "It's the People" written on the front. He is camped behind Google’s second property and recycles cans and assembles bikes from junk parts to get by.
He claims Google security guards have started menacingly patrolling the area with sticks and pit bulls, and explains how they routinely called the police for all sorts of trivial and petty things that no one in the area minded before — like forbidding them from collecting bottles and cans from public trash bins near Google’s buildings, depriving them of the chance to make a bit of money by collecting recyclables. "Jerry" says that Google even went so far as to try to prevent them from drinking water.
“Right around the corner here at Gold’s [Gym] is a spigot, a water spigot. Just sticking up out of the ground. We go down get some water in our water bottles and come back. Google calls the cops on us. Gold’s has no problem with us using their water. Gold’s pays for this water,” he says, explaining that the outdoor faucet sticks out of a property that has no connection to Google, but it didn’t matter. Google called the cops if they saw them doing it anyway. “Google thinks they own the whole block.”
A man named Freedom, who was born and raised in Venice and who sleeps on a street behind Google’s property, says he was a victim of a hit-and-run right in front of Google’s office and claims the company refused to release video evidence of the accident.
“I got hit on December 3rd on Hampton — and Google had it on camera, everything. I got hit by a fucking SUV, alright. I went into trauma, I went into cardiac. I almost died. Google has it on camera, but they don’t want to release the DVD, ” he said, showing a deep scar on his forehead. “I lost a lot of blood, but Google won’t do shit about it.” (LAPD told Pando they had no record of the accident.)
Another man claims that a Google security guard spat in his face when he refused to move from a stretch of sidewalk not far from a gate used by “Google Express,” an experimental shopping service.
“Over there I was sitting on a sidewalk… I was sitting down on the curb and he was like, ‘Get out, you can’t be sitting here.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean I can’t be sitting there. Who are you? I’m not moving nowhere.' And he just hocked a loogie right in my face. Right in my eye, too. It was ridiculous. That’s disgusting.”
Evie, who has jet black hair and wears a neat long black dress, criticizes Google for resorting to crude intimidation tactics to clear the homeless.
“If Google sincerely wants to clean up these streets, they need to start pushing and advocating for housing first. Utah finally did something about their homeless population. At least 74 percent of the homeless in Utah now have housing, and it's costing less per person to do that. You need to have stability to function in society. And you can’t function if you don’t have stability."
Evie speaks from experience. She became homeless three years ago, lived in her car for a while, and tried to go through the city's shelter program but realized it was a waste of time. For the past year and a half she had been living here on the street. Her belongings — blankets, bedding and cushions — are stacked on the sidewalk across the street from Google.
“If they would just stop playing games and just put housing first, a lot of people would be able to get their act together, they could get off alcohol, they could get some stability in their lives, they could get a job again. But they don’t want to do it. There is so much money and everything wrapped up in the system and these people with their jobs and everything, they don’t want to actually give housing to anybody and solve the problem. They just want to complain about it. If Google were serious and they wanted to get this area cleaned up, they should advocate for housing first. It’s simple as that. That’s the way I see it.”
The Google security guard I originally spoke to justified the company's aggressive patrolling tactics by saying the homeless people were aggressive and dangerous. "A lady tried to kill me the other day with a U-lock. It was crazy. She was throwing water, went after another security guard. Someone threw a brick through the window there,” he said, pointing at one of the corner buildings recently occupied by Google.
I was skeptical of his claim. In the five years I've lived in the neighborhood and walked through that street, neither I nor my wife nor anyone that I know have ever been threatened or harassed by people sleeping out on the sidewalk.
The local homeless I spoke to didn’t deny that physical altercations between them and Google security guards had taken place. But they put the blame squarely on Google’s shoulders, saying the company's own aggressive tactics were what's causing the pushback from the locals.
"It's horrible, but we basically had to physically threaten them because they were physically threatening us," says "Jesse." "If you have guys down the street carrying sticks, no, you’re not there being peaceful. They had their batons, and they were spinning them around. I don’t like you walking down the street spinning your baton at me, telling me to get to the other side of the street. I’ll be damned if I have anyone intimidate me or run me off a block.”
City of Homeless
Los Angeles has one of the biggest homeless populations in the country. In sheer size, it ranks second after New York. But the city has the largest number of unsheltered homeless in America — people who spend their days and nights living and sleeping on the street. Jerry Jones, executive director of the National Coalition of the Homeless, told CNN that the unsheltered make up two-thirds of the county's 40,000 homeless people. A patch of downtown Los Angeles known as Skid Row is basically a giant refugee camp, a tent city within a city. The city’s homeless population has swelled over the past five years. According to some estimates, the number of homeless has grown by nearly 10 percent a year — all thanks to foreclosures, a prolonged economic recession, a continued lack of jobs, and a localized real estate boom that has sent rents and evictions through the roof.
A lack of affordable housing is the leading cause of homelessness in Los Angeles. In Venice in particular, affordable housing has been vanishing at a rapid rate. Driven in part by an influx of tech companies benefitting from Los Angeles’ tax subsidies for Internet businesses and hoping to turn Venice into "Silicon Beach," rents have shot through the roof — increasing by 50 percent just over the last two years. People are being forced out of their apartments with alarming frequency here. Many are leaving the area, while those who can't are being forced out onto the street.
Los Angeles — ever mindful of the needs of real estate developers and landlords, and keen on attracting high-tech businesses into the area — has done a horrible job at addressing the rising homeless problem. Here in Venice, the city's homeless strategy might as well be called “harass and disperse.” It’s tried to criminalize sleeping out in RVs and cars, stepped up police harassment, pushed homeless people off the streets, and attempted to corral them into a tiny two-square-block industrial area — the exact same spot that Google would decide to call home. But while the homeless population there grew, the city failed to provide bathroom facilities, porta-potties, or much of anything in the way of sanitation — operating on the theory that any useful services will only attract more homeless to the area. Naturally, the place got scuzzy and gross.
That was the state of things when Google moved in.
When it first opened its Venice office in late 2011, Google said it wanted to play a part in helping the local community. The company donated money, computer equipment, and volunteer time to local organizations, and hosted a fundraiser for a Venice clinic that provides free healthcare to the homeless. All this made for good PR and guaranteed a good early reception.
Local organizations that work with low-income, minority, and homeless communities knew Google’s move to Venice Beach was going to put a lot of stress on these already extremely vulnerable segments of the population. They were wary, but still hoped that Google, with all its power and influence, would go beyond these token, symbolic actions and work with local organizations to try to tackle the problem of homelessness on a deeper, substantive level.
Those hopes dwindled fast.
“From the point of view of low-income, African-American, and Latino residents of Venice — what does Google mean to us? Pretty much all bad news,” said Bill Przylucki, who heads People Organized for Westside Renewal (POWER), a community organization in West Los Angeles. “They are gonna displace other type of businesses that do pay taxes — they are gonna get tax breaks. That means less money for the local park, the library, the public services that we rely on. They are not gonna provide jobs to our folks. Our folks are not the people they are gonna be hiring. They are gonna drive up rents, put more pressure on our folks, and put more pressure on landlords to displace our members through evictions and demolitions.”
Przylucki says POWER approached Google to see if the company would use its influence and sheer star power to push for low-income housing in Venice and Los Angeles, and to fight against the criminalization of poverty in their neighborhood. But their attempts at cooperation went nowhere.
“They have a shitload of power," says Przylucki. “But they didn’t show any interest whatsoever in working with that side of the community. And that silence is deafening in terms of their position.”
Google was more than just silent: Community organizations discovered that Google was almost impossible to reach or talk to in any meaningful way on a local level. The company was so centralized and opaque — and so deaf to local requests — that activists say they've had more success in getting giant banks and subprime lenders like Countrywide Financial to address community concerns than they've had in talking to Google.
"Their structure is really centralized — more so than some other big corporations," Przylucki explained. "An inverse of that is, some of the really big banks we've tangled with on plenty of occasions. We can get quite a bit of meeting with the highest level person in the city or the state — they have quite a bit of power to do some of the things we care about on a local level. But Google is not quite the case. It is not impossible for a giant faceless multinational corporation to still have real people you can do business with at a local level. That is the decision of the corporation and the choice Google has made."
Does Google always harass the press?
I have frequently experienced that wall myself in the course of my reporting on Google — and this story was no exception.
When I talked to Google security guards without identifying myself as a member of the press, they were chummy and polite, freely talking about Google's campaign to clear the area of homeless people. But when I showed up with a filmmaker and a video crew, the attitude was one of instant hostility and denial.
Our plan was to hang out outside of Google and talk to Google employees about what they thought of their company's treatment of the homeless. But we never got a chance. As you can see in the video above, we were immediately accosted by a Google security guard. He yelled at us and demanded to know what we were doing there, without even bothering to introduce himself or to show any ID.
When he found out we were reporting on Venice’s homeless community, he denied that Google had anything to do with pushing homeless people off the street and then got even more aggressive. He called us “paparazzi types” and followed us around, repeatedly jamming his Android phone into our faces and recording us in order to document our identities. It was creepy and disturbing — especially because this all happened on public property.
The security guard was just doing his job: to prevent us from talking to Google employees. And he succeeded, blocking our camera and getting in our faces while Googlers crossed the street safe from our prying lens, and their colleagues gathered at the windows looking at the commotion.
“Do you always harass the press when people are out on the street like this,” I asked him, as he kept blocking the camera and jamming his phone cam into our faces.
“No I don’t always harass the press. I only do it when the press harass us,” he replied.
Google Replies… Sort Of
I reached out to Google several times in the course of my reporting. I wanted to offer someone from the company a chance to sit down with me and watch the interviews we shot with the homeless in Venice. I wanted to show Google what the local community was saying, and give the company the opportunity to respond.
A Google spokesperson declined my offer to sit down and watch the footage, and refused to comment on the record regarding allegations that company security guards had been intimidating the homeless. Google’s public relations department didn’t deny that homeless people were being harassed and pushed out of the area. Instead, the company claimed that it was the result of vague "city processes” that had nothing to do with Google.
Most of Google's response was “off the record.” On the record, the company issued a bland corporate response:
“Hundreds of Googlers have lived and worked in Venice since we opened our doors in 2011, and we’re committed to being good neighbors. We’re currently working with local authorities and the nonprofit community of Los Angeles to see how we can best help to keep Venice’s streets safe and healthy for everyone.”
It also provided a handy list of all the great things that Google’s done for local non-profits that serve low-income and homeless people in Venice and Los Angeles. It wasn’t a very long list, and it mostly consisted of Google helping local organizations by donating free Google gear and services: computers, tablets, analytics services — those kinds of things.
Here’s a sample:
- The Teen Project - grant for computer lab for teens (2014)
- St. Joseph Center - grant for computers, tablets and software (2012); grant for tech infrastructure (2013)
- OPCC - grant for card-based registration system (2012)
Upward Bound House - grant for online client tracking and analytics (2012
- Westside Center for Independent Living - grant for STEM program (2014)
- A Window Between Worlds - grant for website (2014)
- Venice Community Housing - Goodware donation of computers (2014)
- Annual adopt-a-family event for Upward Bound house. 70 families in transitional housing adopted in 2014
- Clothing drive for Safe Place for Youth
It's a bit bizarre that Google is so proud of this list. The company generates billions in pure profit, pays a meager tax rate that's in the low single digits and has so much cash stashed that it's turned into a giant bond trader and investment company — an entity that competes with giants like PIMCO and BlackRock Inc. With all those resources, the company actually boasts that it's trying to solve homelessness by giving a couple of non-profits Chromebooks and Google Analytics?
The strangest part of Google's response: the spokesperson told me that if I really wanted to find out how great Google has been to the people of Venice, I should get in touch with Mike Bonin, the Los Angeles Councilmember who represents Venice. “Councilmember Bonin’s office is looking forward to hearing from you," the spokesperson wrote — she even indicated the exact person I need to contact.
Apparently, Google had put Bonin’s people on alert. I got in touch with the councilman’s office and immediately got an earful of all the great things that Google is doing for Los Angeles — and the great things that Los Angeles is doing for Google, as well.
"We work closely with Google as we do with any large employer in the area. They are a terrific partner," David Graham-Caso, Bonin's Communications Director, told me by phone. "They are very much engaged in the Venice community and has been very active.”
How exactly is Google engaged?
Well, according to Graham-Caso, there are several new data sharing programs. One is a city partnership with Google push notifications of government events to users of Google Now in real-time, based on location. Another is a data sharing program that feeds the city’s Department of Transportation information on road closures and maintenance and special events into Google's Waze App — so that Google users can get better up-to-date information on city traffic conditions. “That’s one way we're working with Google to make LA a better place to live,” said Graham-Caso.
He also talked up Google's participation in Venice Forward, a "collaborative effort to end homelessness" lashed together by Councilman Bonin earlier this year. It's a nice program that seeks bring together shelters, local businesses, and the non-profits to provide services to the homeless in a more streamlined manner, with the goal of reducing homelessness in Venice by 1o percent over the next two years. Unfortunately, the effort seems to mostly exist on press releases and social media at this point. More importantly, it doesn't seem to include provisions to build local subsidized housing — the only thing that can truly bring down the homelessness rate.
Graham-Caso hyped one of Bonin’s flagship pro-tech initiatives: extending a tax break on Internet-based business, which is aimed at attracting more tech companies to the Venice area: "We'd like to see creative — and community-focused companies like Google has demonstrated itself to be — come to Los Angeles,” he said.
All these new partnerships with Google sat alongside a formal $7.25-million commercial arrangement that goes back to 2009 to run LA's entire email and office infrastructure via Google Apps — Gmail, Google Docs and Google Calendar. Winning an IT cloud contract for the second-largest city in America was a major coup for Google. The company even got LA's city managers to help promote Google Apps via blog posts and promo videos.
As for complains that harassment of the homeless has increased since Google moved in? “You’ll need to contact LAPD for that,” Graham-Caso told me. I contacted LAPD but they didn't respond.
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Google's founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin like to talk about how they want to leverage their company's resources and immense talent pool to change the world for the better. The company wants to bring Internet connections to the poorest communities around the world and funds efforts to combat human trafficking and gender inequality.
But when confronted at its doorstep with a real societal challenge like homelessness — an issue that truly requires innovation, investment, public service, and political maneuvering — the company simply reverts to the cheapest and meanest solution on the books: hire thugs to push the problem out of sight and force other people deal with it.
[Video Credit -- Camera / Edit: Rowan Wernham. Producer: Evgenia Kovda]