California on the brink

LOS ANGELES (August 25) Home sweet homelessness: The new normal in California. Photograph by Christopher LeGras

In Edgar Allen Poe’s The Mask of the Red Death, Prince Prospero hosts a hedonistic masquerade while outside his ramparts the population succumb to a gruesome plague. The prince installs garish, grotesque décor in his castle’s seven interconnected halls. He provides revelers with music and wine, dancers, clowns, buffoons, and “dreams.” As far as the prince and the nobility are concerned, beyond their debauched bacchanalia “The external world could take care of itself. Meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.”

It’s a classic trope, Nero fiddling while Rome burns. Literature and history are replete with let-them-eat-cake moments. In the 21st century California’s political class has joined the sad cortège. They have their own Prosperos in the likes of Gavin Newsom and Eric Garcetti, les élues whose keeps are gated communities in Marin County, bastioned manses in Palo Alto, compounds in Bel Air and Malibu. They most assuredly aren’t thinking about, much less grieving for, the external world.

While hundreds of thousands of homeless decay on the streets of the state’s once-great cities, California’s elites cloister in their rarified confines, perversely feting themselves for their enlightened benevolence. While some 6 million of their fellow Californians struggle in poverty they refuse to return so much as a farthing; indeed, the extract ever-more tribute. While millions of children languish in some of the country’s worst schools they host fundraisers for their own children’s exclusive acadamae, lavish events at which they auction diamond earrings and Tahoe vacations. Their concern for the commoners is but a pretext as their own vaults runneth over. All the while they assure themselves that thanks to their sagacity, outside the battlements all will soon be well in hand.

In reality, California already is bankrupt. Decades of public sector profligacy have left the state with some $1.5 trillion in imminently due bond payments, loan service, and other long-term debts, not to mention unfunded liabilities for post-employment benefits (primarily public sector retiree healthcare), as well as unfunded pension obligations. And that’s just amount we know about: California politicians are infamous for flubbing numbers. Add to those numbers the hundreds of billions that will be necessary to repair and maintain the state’s crumbling infrastructure. No one has the slightest idea where the money is going to be found. Tax receipts have been declining for years thanks to the state’s ever-increasing hostility to small business and the exodus of millions of middle class residents. The state’s careening fiscals have led to perverse proposals like Newsom’s tap water tax. As with all such ideas, the fixes would hit the lower middle class and poor the worst.

The “bullet” train is Exhibit A for the political class’s misguided (to phrase it gently) priorities. It was sold to voters in 2008 as a miracle green machine that would cost $35 billion to connect Sacramento to San Diego. A decade behind schedule and $44 billion over budget, the current plan will only connect Bakersfield to Modesto, for the same original price tag. Suffice it to say, $35 billion would solve a great deal of the homeless crisis, but it will be used instead to build an already outdated rail system between two remote towns. Such is the way of things in the California chirocracy. But the contractors and consultants will make out like bandits. Literally.

These are not the qualities of a prosperous, successful state. They are harbingers of horrible things to come. Not that the political class notices.

California’s political class send their kids to schools like this one in Marin County for a cool $45,000 per year…
…while hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens languish in conditions like these.

Newsom’s patrons are among the eldest of California’s nobility: the Gettys, the Fishers, the Pritzkers. He wasn’t born rich, but his family was well-connected. His father William was a state appellate judge and trustee of the Getty family fortune. When John Paul Getty III was kidnapped in 1973, William helped deliver the ransom. Gavin was raised safe within the palace, groomed from a young age with European grand tours, African safaris, and a Rolodex sure to set him for life. As a consequence, his contact with average Californians always is fleeting, ephemeral, a sort of half-hearted, modern day noblesse oblige. He plays his part with a cheery gusto that is gruesome in light of reality. Like Prospero he is “happy and dauntless and sagacious.”

We have our Prosperos. The plagues outside their walls are Poverty, Addiction, Mental Illness, Ignorance, Hopelessness, Helplessness. The first victims already are dying in the streets – Los Angeles has experienced more than 1,200 homeless deaths since 2017. The victims are addicts wasting away before your eyes, lunatics being devoured from within by demons only they can see and hear, people who have given up on life. They live in mile after mile of tent cities, from Sacramento to San Diego, Yreka to Calexico, and all points in between. Unreported crime is rampant. We’ll never know how many homeless women will be raped or assaulted.

Meanwhile huge swaths of L.A. and San Francisco have been reduced to near-anarchy. Dozens of fires break out in illegal encampments in both cities, as in countless others, on a daily basis. Crime, including property and violent offenses, have become routine. Entire neighborhoods resemble Third World shantytowns and entire communities bring to mind the End of Days.

A missive Mayor Garcetti recently sent L.A. city staff was leaked to the all aspect report. He advised staff to “stay in well-lit areas, pay attention to your surroundings, and travel in groups.” This is the mayor of the wealthiest city in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history acknowledging that it is no longer safe to walk down the street alone. He alone seems blissfully unaware of the import of his advice. Unimaginably, conditions are even worse in the Central Valley and northern counties.

The plagues afflicting California are not just metaphorical: Typhoid fever, typhus, hepatitis, and tuberculosis all have been identified on our streets. There are increasing fears of a full blown outbreak of bubonic plague.

LOS ANGELES (August 19, 2019) Life in L.A., the richest city in the richest state in the richest country in human history. Photograph by Christopher LeGras

You see the victims also in our public schools: The thousand-yard stare on the face of a South L.A. middle schooler whose best friend was shot in a drive-by when they were both eight years old. The high school graduate wandering lost through a world she was never taught to navigate, lacking so much as the ability to fill out a fast food job application. In 2018 alone child homelessness spiked by 50% in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Outside California’s one-great cities, entire counties are being consumed as people sickened by one or more of California’s plagues abandon their neighborhoods. As the older generation passes no one is there to take their place. In the Central Valley hundreds of communities resemble ghost towns. So too in places farther south like Palmdale, and in the far north like Siskiyou; these places are previews.

The political class whisk past and tut-tut and remind their minders to remind them to mention it in their next address.

Poe’s tale has a final, crucial element: A clock. Within one of the chambers in the castle is an enormous ebony clock that on the hour chimes a peculiar, and peculiarly chilling timbre that freezes the revelers in place: “While the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation.”

The clock reminds them that the whole garish, phantasmagorical affair is a lie. They are going to die the same agonizing death as the commoners.

We’ve begun to hear the chimes of Prospero’s clock in California. We hear it in a hundred car windows being smashed by vagrants every night in San Francisco. We hear it in the screams of the insane in the streets in the darkest nights, the wail of a siren racing to resuscitate a drug overdose victim.

We hear it more earnestly when a mentally ill homeless man stabs and kills a father while he’s at a café, his five-year-old daughter on his lap. It becomes deafening when we hear the pleas of millions of children in failed public schools: I want to learn.

In the end, of course, the Red Death reaches the nobility. In the end, the only difference between Prince Prospero and the lowest commoner is the opulence of his demise (and, perhaps, his ultimate destination).

Unless things change, Prospero’s clock will soon be tolling for every Californian.

Out of control spending and lack of oversight impedes progress in L.A.'s homeless crisis

The official rendering of the planned bridge housing site in Venice Beach.

How much does a bed cost? In Los Angeles, it’s more than $50,000. Despite a a lawsuit brought by residents of Venice Beach, the city has started construction of a so-called “bridge housing” facility located at a former Metro bus yard at 100 Sunset Avenue. The facility, which when finished will provide beds and some services to 100 adults and 54 children, costs $8,000,000, which works out to $51,948 per person. That’s in addition to the annual cost of maintaining and operating the facility.

The per bed cost is consistent in bridge facilities citywide. The Schraeder shelter in Hollywood cost $3.3 million to construct and has 72 beds, or $45,833 per bed. The first bridge housing facility to open, in downtown L.A.’s historic El Pueblo district, contains 45 beds and cost $2.4 million, which works out to $53,333 per bed. And a recently-opened bridge housing facility for 100 homeless veterans on the West Side cost $5 million, or $50,000 per bed. What’s more, that facility is temporary and consists of two “tension membrane structures” as well as modular trailers. Translation: Los Angeles spent $5 million on two tents and some campers.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) recently released the results of the 2019 homeless count. To the surprise of no one besides Mayor Eric Garcetti and the city council (who were shocked, shocked!) the number of homeless people in the city increased over last year, by 16%. Officially that means there are nearly 36,300 homeless in the city, though the actual number is much higher. If studies from organizations like the Economic Roundtable are accurate, the number of people experiencing homelessness – and therefore needing a bed – over the course of a year in Los Angeles is closer to 100,000 (even that number may be low; according to a 2014 report from the American Institutes for Research, that year as many as 130,000 children may have experienced homelessness in L.A.).

Even accepting the official number, existing bridge housing projects reveal how utterly unserious L.A.’s political class is about solving the homeless crisis. Assume the average cost per bed is $50,000. To provide $50,000 beds for 36,300 people would cost more than $1.8 billion. And if the Economic Roundtable is correct it would cost $5 billion to provide beds to everyone who will experience homelessness for any amount of time in L.A.

This is what $100,000 buys in Eric Garcetti’s Los Angeles.

Bridge housing by definition provides temporary shelter for people awaiting permanent supportive housing, meaning that $1.8 (or $5) billion would fund only an interim solution. Which is bad enough. But where you really see the rub is in the city’s approach to permanent housing for the homeless. Contrary to politicians’ promises during the campaigns for Measure H and HHH, the city currently is spending between $400,000 and $500,000 per unit of permanent supportive housing. To provide housing to 36,300 people at an average of $450,000 per unit would cost $16.5 billion. A more recent analysis suggested that the per unit cost of permanent supportive housing may top $900,000, for a total of $36.7 billion.

Of course, that all assumes the city ever builds any units. As of this writing, officials have completed none at all.

What’s more, construction costs are only the beginning of the tally. While annual operating costs are difficult to come by – perhaps by design – the L.A. Daily News reported in 2016 that permanent supportive housing costs $22,000 per resident annually, meaning that annual costs to support 36,300 people would be $800 million. Once again that number may be on the low side: Last month L.A. Downtown News reported that the cost of LAPD patrols at the El Pueblo facility run to $96,171 per month, or more than $1.15 million annually, in addition to annual operating costs of $1.3 million. And that’s just one, small facility with 43 temporary beds. That works out to $56,976 per bed per year. Annual operating costs at the Schraeder shelter are $4.7 million, or $65,277 per bed. For perspective, that’s nearly two and a half times the average annual rent in the City of Los Angeles. It works out to $5,440 per month. That’s how much it costs to rent a 1,500 square foot, two bedroom new construction apartment four blocks from the beach in Venice.

In L.A., $5,400 a month pays for this….
…or this.

These aren’t real numbers. Only in the bureaucracy-addled imaginations of politicians do they even begin to make sense. To be sure, bridge facilities offer general services for the homeless, not just to the people staying there. Nevertheless, the construction and operating costs are eye-watering. Yet no one seems to be asking where the money is going to come from.

Not every one of the city’s homeless people will need permanent supportive housing. But given that the city’s official count is a massive underestimate it’s reasonable to use 36,300 as a working number. If the real number is closer to 100,000 it’s fair to assume that a third will need some form of permanent support in perpetuity. Indeed, according to the Economic Roundtable’s report, of the 100,000 people estimated to experience homelessness in L.A. in a given year, a third will remain homeless for a year or more, meaning they likely will need a permanent solution.

Like so much of life in Eric Garcetti’s Los Angeles, the more the city spends on homelessness the worse the problem gets. Two and a half years after voters did their part by overwhelmingly approving Measure HHH, not a single unit of supportive housing has opened. The first are expected in December, which will be more than three years since the vote.

Then again, perhaps we should have read Measure HHH more carefully: It promises to deliver 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing over the next ten years, for $1.8 billion. A thousand units a year won’t even staunch the bleeding. 10,000 units is enough housing for less than a third of the city’s current chronic and hardcore homeless population (the real number, not the city’s fanciful official one) over a decade. Apparently we’ll get to the other two thirds at some later date.

The numbers aren’t real. The money isn’t real. The time frame is utterly unrealistic. Officials routinely shoot down any alternatives as “impracticable.” And all the while tens of thousands of people languish in post-apocalyptic conditions, with more joining them every single day. This is life in the wealthiest city in wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history.

This Thanksgiving, I’m most grateful for my friends’ lack of cynicism

Despite the lazy nihilism of our era, most Americans still love Thanksgiving. Stock photo.

Over the last two days there were two op-eds about Thanksgiving in the Los Angeles Times. One was entitled, “I am not afraid of Thanksgiving dinner, I just hate it,” while the second declared, “Thanksgiving: A time for family, fun, and food-borne illnesses.” A New York Times op-ed by the reliable miserablist Charles Blow was headlined, “The Horrible History of Thanksgiving,” and just in case readers weren’t sufficiently conscious-stricken a second piece reminded them of, “The Vicious Reality Behind the Thanksgiving Myth.” Paul Krugman, never to be outdone in the cynicism department, chimed in with, “Why Trump Should Hate Thanksgiving.”

NBC ran a story entitled, “Turkey social media photos promote harmful obsession with meat,” which included an interactive guilt-o-meter where readers could measure their shame over eating a thigh or breast (seriously). The Huffington Post offered helpful advice on “How To Tell Your Family Being Home For The Holidays Isn’t Good For You.” Meanwhile, at the the ubër-Millenial salon.com, Lisa Haas lamented how last year was when “this vegetarian finally gave in and cooked a turkey.”

The horror, the horror.

“Hate.” “Harmful.” Horrible.” “Gave in.” These are the words the modern media associate with a holiday centered around a singular expression of gratitude. These sorts of desultory écritures transgressives have become distressingly predicable holiday tropes in much of our media ecosystem. In an era when the news delivers little beyond daily doses of despair, the holidays no longer offer so much as a 24-hour holiday respite. Instead, journalists pile on the bleak cynicism.

It’s a perverse bouillabaisse of our era’s twin obsessions: Political correctness and egocentrism. You will not be considered sufficiently woke unless you accept the premise that every traditional and festive celebration is bound up inextricably with historic injustices, and your words will not be sufficiently relevant unless you find a way to make them all about yourself.

To wit, the L.A. Times’s resident Turkey Day hater is Mary McNamara, who opines, “when I see a piece celebrating an author’s ability to work in a cramped kitchen, in a lavish setting or over a campfire, a recipe list rhapsodizing the creativity involved in throwing together a feast in 24 hours or accommodating vegans, vegetarians, small children and all manner of food intolerance at the same meal, I think, ‘Bitch, please.'”

She continues by informing us that, while she’s all too aware of the darker sides of the holiday’s origins, she actually hates Thanksgiving dinner “because I am the adult child of an alcoholic and it is the event I most associate with the emotional damage that implies.” Sounds like Ms. McNamara is, in fact, afraid of Thanksgiving dinner. Somebody pass her the Xanax.

The stuffing….the stuffing. Stock photo.

Krugman proffers a more tolerant version of the Thanksgiving creation myth: “the traditional portrait of the first Thanksgiving is as a moment of racial tolerance and multiculturalism: European immigrants sharing a feast with Native Americans.” He acknowledges that the idealistic moment was fleeting, followed by tragic decades and centuries, but nevertheless he concludes, “we still celebrate the tale of a benign meeting of races and cultures.” Of course, the New York Time’s resident curmudgeon doesn’t hew to the happiness for long. Invoking the divisions of the Trump era he grimly inveighs, “there’s no guarantee that we will emerge from this dark chapter as the nation we used to be.” He concludes, “That’s why it’s a holiday true patriots, who believe in our nation’s underlying values, should love — and one people like Trump and his supporters should hate.”

The New York Times columnists direct a lot of hate toward Thanksgiving, for diametrically opposed reasons.

I often wonder what previous generations – the ones who sacrificed, fought, and died so that Americans in 2019 might have the freedom to opine about the oppressiveness of a Meleagris Linnaeus-centric dinner – would say. What would the men who flew heavy bombers into near-certain death over occupied France, or the women who worked 14-hour shifts in often unbearable conditions to build those aircraft, say? Probably something like, “You all are complaining about…roasting a turkey? About the political differences we died to preserve?” I’m guessing that the millions of Americans of all backgrounds who endured the depressions of 1890s and 1920s-30s would have given entire body parts to live in an age in which political bickering over organic heirloom cranberry sauce counts as a traumatic life experience.

Hearing our generation’s laments, Rosie the Riveter might say, “Bitch, please.” Stock photo.

Mr. Blow intones, “I’ve come to believe that is how America would have it if it had its druthers: We would be blissfully blind, living in a soft world bleached of hard truth. I can no longer abide that.” As if generations that endured slavery and Jim Crow, depressions, world wars, and genocides remained somehow blind to hard truths. As if he is the courageous teller of truth.

It’s not clear who Mr. Blow believes his theoretical, anthropomorphic country would be fooling. Few people who have traversed the U.S. educational system in the last half century are ignorant of the darker sides of our history, including treatment of native peoples. The point of Thanksgiving is that we come together as families and friends, as a country, in spite of those hard truths. Thanksgiving is a day to find a little bit of hope and love in the darkness.

All of which is why I am glad that none of my friends have succumbed to the cynicism, misanthropy, and outright nihilism of so much modern media. I am grateful that they are looking forward to the annual indulgence of food, friends, family, and football (or, in my case, basketball).

People like my friend Lydia, who has overcome more challenges in life than I could probably endure. People like Ted, a thirty year homeless activist who has seen the worst that human beings can dole out to each other and still hasn’t lost his faith. Or my friend Nora, God rest her, a lifelong Communist who loved the USA more than anyone I’ve ever known.

People like Bryan, a homeless man in my neighborhood who spent years living on the streets until finally getting an apartment two months ago. I bumped into him this morning for the first time in six months. I had worried that something terrible had happened to him, yet there he was, walking out of the corner store looking better than I have ever seen him. He told me his good news and we embraced. An artist, Bryan told me that thanks to his new home (“I even have hardwood floors, can you believe it!”) he’s been able to paint for the first time in years. He invited me over to see some of his new works.

These people have enjoyed none of the luxuries of academics like Mr. Krugman or full-time pundits and pontificaters like Mr. Blow and Ms. McNamara. Yet there they were, each of them, full of gratitude each in their own way. Lydia, who is disabled and recently suffered a gruesome shoulder injury, nevertheless got up this morning at 4:30am to start cooking and packing meals for some 1,500 homeless people in west Los Angeles. Ted will spend his day serving people in Venice Beach. People who would have every right to indulge in cynicism instead are giving back more than we can possibly imagine. People like Bryan, who could have given up long ago, instead experiencing their own Thanksgiving miracles.

Almost twenty-five years ago I was a junior in college. My roommate Neal and I drove to visit his younger brother in school in Washington, DC. On a frigid winter evening we ducked into a pizza joint to warm ourselves over slices. At one point Neal went missing. Looking through the restaurant’s window I saw him handing two slices and a drink to a homeless man. They exchanged a few words then Neal came back inside. He never said anything, he’d just done it. I’ve never forgotten his example.

And so on this Thanksgiving, this time when we take a day to be grateful for the plenty we otherwise tend to take for granted, I will bow my head and give thanks to my friends and family. People who have endured. People who have risen above everything this world has thrown at them, not only standing strong and tall but making a point of giving back. These are the people I think of and thank when I think of the holiday, and of my country. They have taught and continue to teach me more about life and priorities than ten thousand columnists.

I’ll gather with friends and family who have survived all manner of trauma, abuse, pain, and sacrifice through the course of their lives and who nevertheless will come together in joy, gratitude and merriment to break bread, drink wine, commune, and occasionally talk smack. We may even yell about politics a little bit, because that’s what friends and family do. That’s what Americans do.

I’ll heed Cicero’s maxim that, “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”

Or, as the Rosie the Riveters of an earlier age might have said to the pundits of our era, “Bitch, please.”

California homeless fires have become a game of “Russian roulette.”

Thousands of fires break out every month statewide. “Sometimes I feel like we’ve already lost the war,” says on LAFD firefighter

SYLMAR (October 12, 2019) A burned-out cookstove amid the remains of a homeless encampment in the Saddleridge Fire burn zone. Photograph by Lydia Grant.

Note: More than three dozen Los Angels Fire Department personnel were interviewed for this story. None of them were willing to go on the record, citing concerns over professional retribution. All told similar stories. First responders from other California cities did go on record.

During a recent tour of a downtown Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) station, the captain pointed at one of the trucks. “We call this one the dumpster fire tender,” he said. “Every day we get multiple calls to fires started by homeless folks. Cooking or heating fires jump to nearby fuel sources like trash cans and refuse piles. Some spread to houses, apartments, or other buildings. Of course, the first things to burn are the homeless folks’ own possessions. They’re most in danger.” He would not go on the record because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the issue.

The captain at a station on the west side, when asked how many fires in his area are attributable to homeless activity, replied, “All of them.” Interviewed at 5pm on a Sunday he said his crew had responded to eight just that day. “There are days we can barely keep up.” Shaking his head, he added, “Sometimes I feel like we’ve already lost the war.”

As Los Angeles and California brave another fire season, the attention of politicians and the media has focused on the role of utilities in starting wildfires. After the Kincade Fire burned 77,000 acres and nearly 400 structures in Sonoma County in October, Governor Gavin Newsom accused Pacific Gas & Electric of prioritizing revenue over safety. He said, “It’s about corporate greed meeting climate change. It’s about decades of mismanagement.” (Governor Newsom and his wife Jennifer Siebel have accepted more than $700,000 in contributions from the utility and its employees)

Utilities have caused fires, including some of the worst in the state’s history, but on balance homeless activity is responsible for far more blazes. While utility equipment has been blamed for some 2,000 fires statewide in the last three and a half years, an investigation by NBC L.A. found that there were 2,300 homeless fires in Los Angeles County in 2018 alone. That’s likely an undercount, as it often is difficult to ascertain how fires start. As Jonathan Baxter, Public Information Officer for the San Francisco Fire Department told the all aspect report, “If a 911 caller reports a trash fire in an alleyway, we’ll record it as a ‘small debris fire,’ even if the conditions on the ground suggest homeless activity.”

Homeless fires have had devastating consequences for communities and families. The October Easy Fire, which burned 6,000 acres and threatened some 7,000 structures including the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, is suspected to have started in a homeless encampment. In June a family in South Los Angeles lost their home to a blaze attributed to an encampment in an adjacent alley.

A scatter map shows the locations of homeless fires in Los Angeles County in 2018. Courtesy esri.

In the last three months fires attributable to transients have broken out in San Diego, Oxnard (Ventura County), Goleta (Santa Barbara County), Modesto (Stanislaus County), Stockton (San Joaquin County), Contra Costa, and Redding (Shasta County), among other places throughout the state. In July a homeless fire in the Bay Area city of Pittsburgh destroyed a family owned roofing business. San Francisco firefighters extinguished a half dozen fires in the same park in two weeks. In Oakland, residents call the situation a “crisis.”

The crisis endangers smaller communities as well. In the central valley town of Paso Robles, Fire Chief Jonathan Stornetta said that homeless fires spiked from 43 in 2017 to 115 last year. The number is on track to increase again this year, with 63 as of mid-June.

PASO ROBLES (June 10, 2019) A fire in a homeless encampment in the Salinas River basin. Photo courtesy PRFD Chief Jonathan Stornetta.

Chillingly, officials in Chico, adjacent the burn zone of the Camp Fire that killed 85 people and obliterated the towns of Paradise, Magalia, and Upper Ridge last year, report numerous homeless fires every week. Members of Facebook groups like Butte County Fires, Accidents, & Crimes post incidents every few days.

Homeless people themselves sometimes take matters into their own hands. Since July at least three fires have started at an illegal encampment at Lake Balboa Park in Van Nuys. The city began a cleanup of the camp, but the problem is there are four others in the park. At one of them, a man named Roberto said, “We put out fires all the time, usually before the firefighters get here.” Inhabitants keep shovels handy, and hoses they connect to public spigots. Still, electric cords zigzagged through dry undergrowth, past propane tanks, under garbage piles, and into dwellings. Gasoline generators chugged away.

LAKE BALBOA (August 5, 2019) Electrical cords and a propane tank in a homeless encampment in a public park. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

The dangers aren’t just in illegal encampments. An official in the LAFD Fire Prevention Bureau said that transients often squat in buildings unfit for human habitation. The official, who declined to go on the record, said, “We can’t inspect buildings we don’t know about. We can’t warn people or get them out.” Homeless people routinely cook and heat with open flames inside buildings. “It’s Russian roulette,” said the official.

Homeless fires have become particularly common in wildfire hazard zones. Lydia Grant, a former Los Angeles City Commissioner and current member of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council, pointed out the locations of illegal encampments in the mountains surrounding her community in north east L.A. She said, “On average there’s a fire every day.” In 2017 the area endured two of the worst conflagrations in L.A. history, the Creek and La Tuna Fires. The causes remain unsolved, though many residents blame homeless encampments. Ms. Grant says, “We don’t have any support from the city.”

Meanwhile, in the face of threats to hundreds of communities and millions of lives, the state’s political class is busy trying to tax drinking water and eliminate plastic straws. While Governor Gavin Newsom’s 2019 budget increased funds for Cal Fire, the overall picture remains grim.

Do they not recognize what the rest of us have known for a long time now, that the next homeless fire could become the next Camp Fire?

Photojournal: What a failed homeless camp cleanup looks like in Los Angeles

Less than a week after Councilwoman Nury Martinez announced a third cleanup in Lake Balboa Park in as many months, piles of garbage remained and homeless people were returning to illegal campsites

Part Two of an occasional series

LAKE BALBOA PARK (November 10, 2019) Massive trash piles remained after a city homeless camp cleanup, the third in as many months. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

The man’s voice screamed from a dense grove of willow trees on the west bank of Bull Creek in Lake Balboa Park on Sunday afternoon: “Who the f*** is there? Who the f*** is it? My dog will f*****g kill you!”

As if to confirm the threat, with the man’s encouragement a dog started barking and snarling. Suffice it to say no one in their right mind would have ventured any further. It was one of countless places in the park that remained unsafe for anyone but the homeless who continue to live in illegal encampments despite multiple city cleanups and official promises to clear them once and for all.

Councilwoman Nury Martinez launched the latest effort last Wednesday. Gathered with select members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s and Police Departments she told reporters, “Today is part of an extensive cleanup on city of Los Angeles-leased property at the Sepulveda Basin that began in August and will continue until completed. The city has a duty to ensure that park hours are enforced and the Basin remains safe and accessible to all visitors.”

“Extensive” is a relative concept. Even where city workers had cleared campsites they’d left huge amounts of refuse. Indeed, garbage was everywhere, including piles of flammable clothing, wood, and electronic equipment. The stench of excrement hung heavy in the air. In places it was nearly suffocating. The water in Bull Creek was fetid.

Moreover, less than five days after the cleanup the homeless were reclaiming much of the space for themselves. Patricia Wilcox, 28, of Mesa, Arizona, said that she and her partner stayed on nearby streets for a few nights, and had returned to their old campsite on Saturday.

Many campsites appeared to have escaped attention altogether, including subterranean dwellings near the creek reminiscent of Viet Cong bunkers. There was a sense of defiance: Boomboxes blared music and the sounds of building echoed through the undergrowth and along the creek bed itself: Hammering, sawing, even power tools. People were carving new campsites into the undergrowth bare feet from the parking lot and from a hill where children rode bicycles and scooters. People unloaded everything from tents and cooking gear to furniture and electronic equipment – all of it almost certainly stolen – from dilapidated cars, vans, and campers.

LAKE BALBOA (November 11, 2019) Homeless people moved back into the encampment days after a cleanup. Photographs by Christopher LeGras

In short, despite the Councilwoman’s rhetoric and the city’s activity, resources, and promises Lake Balboa continues to be a dangerous place. Indeed, if the last two days are any indication the park has become even more perilous since the cleanups, as if the homeless have circled the wagons.

When we visited in late July after a fire in another part of the park, the camp’s inhabitants were friendly if suspicious. We spoke with many of them, and a couple provided contact information. One even gave a cell number. They spoke openly of their lives in the camp. There were sentries, but they kept their distance and nodded in acknowledgement as we passed.

Not this time. On Sunday, an air of menace permeated the park. In addition to the man with his pit bull, sentries on stolen bicycles kept vigil over strangers, making no secret of their presence. At one point one of them said loudly to another camp inhabitant, “I’m following this motherf***r who’s taking pictures.” This is what has become of too many public spaces in Los Angeles.

LAKE BALBOA PARK (November 11, 2019) Five days after an official city cleanup a new propane tank was discovered among dry brush. Photograph by Christopher LeGras

Unfortunately, there is nothing unique about the city’s failure to clear out Lake Balboa Park. Two weeks ago the all aspect report exposed homeless fire dangers in a half dozen communities – all places where members of the City Council and other officials have promised action.

It’s almost as if L.A.’s political class doesn’t want to end the homeless crisis at all.

Photojournal: As wildfires rage, Los Angeles officials ignore homeless fire dangers across the city

Utilities bear the brunt of politicians’ blame, but homeless activity causes many more blazes

Part One of an occasional series

LAKE BALBOA (August 4, 2019) A propane tank next to a live power cord in a homeless camp in Lake Balboa Park. For the second time in three months a fire broke out last week in this area of the park. Witnesses reported seeing and hearing propane tanks explode. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

Angelenos have awakened every day this week to pillars of smoke from wildfires. As of this writing the Getty Fire, which started early Monday morning in the Sepulveda Pass, has burned nearly 700 acres, destroyed at least eight homes, and forced thousands of people to evacuate. Also on Monday firefighters extinguished a small homeless fire in Calabasas, and battled three structure fires in empty buildings in downtown L.A. likewise attributable to homeless activity. On Wednesday morning residents in the San Fernando Valley woke to their own latest conflagration, the Easy Fire in Simi Valley. Early reports suggest that fire began in an illegal encampment. And this morning it was San Bernadino’s turn. In all there are at least seven active fires in southern California, part of a grim new annual tradition throughout the state. It’s just another week in Paradise.

Over the last two years much attention has (rightly) been focused on the role of utilities in starting wildfires. According to a Los Angeles Times analysis utilities were responsible for at least 2,000 fires between 2015 and 2018. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) in northern California is by far the worst offender. For years its management – with deep ties to the administrations of Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom – operated with virtually no oversight as its executives prioritized their own compensation and shareholder returns over public safety.

Nevertheless, the number of fires triggered by failed or damaged utility equipment pales in comparison to the number started by homeless activity. A recent analysis by NBC L.A. found that in 2018 alone there were more than 2,300 fires attributable to homeless activity in Los Angeles County.

For those of you keeping score at home, that’s 2,000 fires statewide in three and a half years caused by utilities, versus 2,300 in a single county in a single year caused by homeless activity. Neither Mayor Eric Garcetti nor the City Council have expressed the degree of concern, much less urgent action, the crisis demands. In fact they have been virtually silent on the issue.

It’s time to hold them accountable.

Over the last several weeks, the all aspect report has been compiling pictures and stories from around Los Angeles that demonstrate the terrifying extent of the fire dangers posed by the city’s burgeoning homeless population. From electric generators and cook fires to the use and manufacture of illegal narcotics, the homeless crisis poses a mortal threat to Angelenos every minute of every day. Until now, however, the true extent has remained somewhat elusive. Scroll down to see pictures and stories, and check back with the all aspect report often as we continue to add to the journal.

CD7: Monica Rodriguez refuses to order clearing of dangerous illegal encampments

SUNLAND-TUJUNGA (October 26, 2019) An illegal homeless camp in the hills west of Sunland-Tujunga. A radius of ten yards around the site was charred and burned, and the camp was scattered with propane canisters, gas cans, cook stoves, and refuse including electronic equipment. Nearby residents report the man starts fires on an almost daily basis. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez, whose district includes some of the highest fire hazard zones in the city, is the daughter of a retired LAFD firefighter. She emphasized her father’s bravery during her council run, filling her campaign materials with firefighting imagery, including pictures of herself as a little girl at her father’s station. She currently chairs the city council’s public safety committee.

Strange, then, that she has done virtually nothing to secure her district, which includes some of the city’s highest fire hazard zones, from wildfire threats posed by the homeless. Despite three catastrophic fires in the last three years (Creek, La Tuna, and Saddleridge) scores of illegal encampments remain throughout CD7, from Sylmar’s horse country to the eastern sections of Griffith Park in Glendale. Brush fires are not just a daily fact of life in Rodriguez’s district: They happen multiple times every day. Residents of Sylmar, Pacoima, Shadow Hills, Lake View Terrace, Sunland-Tujunga, and elsewhere live in fear virtually year round. Homeless encampments have sprung up in drainage ditches, ravines, mountains, and canyons. Nowhere seemingly is safe. Councilwoman Rodriguez’s much-ballyhooed homeless cleanups have come to naught.

Two weeks ago, while hotspots still smoldered in the aftermath of the Saddleridge Fire in Sylmar, the all aspect report visited the burn zone. The charred remains of homeless camps littered the hillsides above the Stetson Ranch Equestrian Park. There were numerous cook stoves of various types, scores of propane and butane bottles, batteries, electronics, and aerosol bottles. Many of the pressurized bottles had exploded, suggesting extreme dangers for firefighters. Which is not mere speculation: Exploding propane tanks were documented during both fires in the Sepulveda Basin.

The gallery below is a small sampling of the images from the fire area (Photographs by Christopher LeGras and Lydia Grant).

Officially the Saddleridge Fire is being attributed to a Southern California Edison transmission tower located on the eponymous hilltop. However, a wildfire expert who visited the site with the all aspect report said that charring, burn patterns, and other evidence strongly suggest the fire started in the canyon at or near the large homeless encampment pictured above. A spokesperson for the LAFD, after initially cooperating, stopped corresponding.

Regardless of whether the camp is responsible for the fire, tens of thousands of people and their homes remain in harm’s way thanks to Ms. Rodriguez’s inaction.

CD11: Mike Bonin walks away from fire dangers

DEL REY (October 15, 2019) Mike Bonin stands with his hands in his pockets as a mentally disturbed homeless man plays with fire. A few second later he walked away without interceding, despite the fact that there was a police station across the street. Screen shot from a video by Travis Binen.

The story repeats in council district after council district. Another prime offender is CD11 Councilman Mike Bonin. Two weeks ago he drew heavy criticism across the city after he was filmed standing idly by as a mentally disturbed homeless man played with a fire in a dry, grassy median in the Del Rey neighborhood. He stood over the man with his hands in his pockets for 30 seconds before turning and walking away without a word, even though there was an LAPD station less than 50 feet away on the other side of Culver Boulevard. After three days of silence, Mr. Bonin lashed out at his own constituents and residents, blaming the video on “right wing trolls” who “exploited” and “laughed at” the homeless man. The man was arrested two days later after a neighbor reported he was brandishing a large hunting knife.

The homeless danger continues to spread throughout Mr. Bonin’s district, and like Ms. Rodriguez he shows little appetite for tackling the problem in any realistic way. From decrepit RVs to sidewalk encampments to illegally occupied buildings, the danger increases literally on a daily basis.

The captain at a LAFD station in Mr. Bonin’s district, when asked how many fires in his area are attributable to homeless activity, replied, “All of them.” Interviewed at 5pm on a Sunday he said his crew had responded to eight just that day. “There are days we can barely keep up. Sometimes I feel like we’ve already lost the war.” His team echoed the sentiment.

Then again, with an armchair general like Mike Bonin in command it’s no wonder the rank and file feel abandoned.

LOS ANGELES (October 28, 2019) An RV with a burnt roof parked next to a brush covered hillside on the Pacific Coast Highway at the border of CD11. A gasoline generator was running in front of it, connected by a cord to the vehicle. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

CD6: Nury Martinez allows homeless to continue living in a park where they’ve already started at least two fires that threatened neighborhoods

After an illegal homeless encampment burned down in Lake Balboa Park in Nury Martinez’s district the all aspect report visited the area. It turned out the camp was just one of at least a half dozen scattered throughout the 80 acre recreational area. Electric cords zigzagged through dry undergrowth, past propane tanks, under garbage piles, and into dwellings. Gasoline generators chugged away. Some people had connected TVs and other devices in their tents to generators in RVs parked hundreds of yards away.

The city belatedly cleaned up the camp after it burned (though officials claimed the cleanup was scheduled before the fire broke out) but left the others untouched.

It was clear that the camps had been there for quite some time. Many of the people living there literally had dug in: Reinforced underground bunkers lined a long section of Bull Creek, which itself has been transformed into a fetid swamp by refuse and human waste. Walking through the encampment triggered a disconcerting frenzy of activity, as men on bicycles rode in constant circles around the area keeping an eye on a stranger. Barely five minutes elapsed between passes, which often were accompanied by intimidating stares. It was clear who ran the park, and it wasn’t the city.

The fire danger in the camps was omnipresent. At one camp a man named Roberto said, “We put out fires all the time, usually before the firefighters get here.” Inhabitants keep shovels and buckets handy, as well as hoses they can connect to public spigots. “There’s a fire every few days,” added Roberto, who asked that his last name not be used because he is in the country illegally. Confirming his statements, charred spots peppered the ground.

LAKE BALBOA (August 3, 2019) Many people living in the Lake Balboa homeless encampments have dug in. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

As in Rodriguez’s and Bonin’s districts these dangers are not secret, yet Ms. Martinez’s website is virtually silent on the issue. Ms. Martinez has publicly commented on them yet has failed to act beyond another half-hearted cleanup in late September that obviously failed to eliminate the danger: A fire broke out in the park last Thursday.

CD14: In Jose Huizar’s district, fires in RVs and abandoned buildings

LOS ANGELES (September 21, 2019) The charred remains of a burned-out RV sit in the street in downtown L.A.’s produce district. Photograph by Manny Rodriguez.

During a recent tour of a LAFD station in Jose Huizar’s district, the captain pointed at one of the trucks. “We call this one the dumpster fire tender,” he said. “We get multiple calls every day to fires started by homeless folks. Cooking or heating fires easily jump to nearby fuel sources like trash cans and refuse piles. Inevitably, some spread to houses, apartments, and other buildings.” He would not go on the record because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the issue.

Another member of the crew invoked the Ghost Ship fire that claimed 36 lives in Oakland in 2016. Dozens of artists and squatters had converted a warehouse into a makeshift community. “We have a hundred potential Ghost Ships in our area,” said the firefighter, alluding to the epidemic of homeless people taking up residence in condemned buildings. “It’s incredibly easy for a trash fire to jump to a building. Fires seek fuel, and we have tons of it.”

Blazes routinely erupt in alleyways, buildings, and encampments in Mr. Huizar’s district. In July, an immigrant family of five lost their home to a blaze that started in a dumpster in the alley behind it. A week later firefighters doused a fire that started at a homeless encampment in Skid Row. They were responding to reports of a trash fire in a large homeless encampment, according to Los Angeles Fire Department Captain Donn Thompson.

LOS ANGELES (October 23, 2019) Another burned-out RV on the streets of downtown. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

Again, the story is the same as in other districts: Residents and business owners routinely report encampments, often for months and years, to no avail. It’s only when a fire breaks out that they see any action.

“If anything, it’s actually gotten worse,” Captain Thompson told KTLA News.

What is it going to take for officials to act?

Angelenos, like all Californians, have been asking themselves a singular question for the last two years. As the homeless crisis continues not only to spiral but accelerate, what is it going to take for officials to finally start acting with the sense of urgency – even desperation – the situation demands?

At least three people are perishing daily on the streets of Los Angeles, the richest city in the richest state in the richest nation in human history. Is that not enough? 2,300 homeless fires erupted in 2018. Is that not enough? Hundreds of Angelenos have lost homes, cars, and other property to homeless fires. Is that not enough? Tens of thousands of acres have burned, releasing enough CO2 and other greenhouse gases to wipe out the gains from California’s renewable energy push by an order of magnitude. Is that not enough?

Politicians constantly talk about the “new normal” of wildfires. In reality, the new normal is their own lack of competence in solving the crisis. Thanks to officials like Councilmembers Rodriguez, Bonin, Martinez, and Huizar, solutions are farther away than ever.

Buckle up, Los Angeles, the ride is only going to get worse.

Trying to spin failure, Mike Bonin sends out bizarre fundraising email

Less thank a week after a homeless man died on the streets of his district, Mr. Bonin has settled on a strategy of doublespeak, obfuscation, and attack

MAR VISTA – There’s an old saying that the definition of chutzpah is the man who murders his parents then asks the court for sympathy because he’s an orphan. Today, Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin displayed his own version of chutzpah with a fundraising email in which he once again lashes out at his own constituents and other Angelenos for having the temerity to point out the failings of his stewardship.

Last week a video that captured him turning his back on a mentally ill homeless man who was starting a fire went viral. It exposed not just the reality of the ongoing homeless crisis in Los Angeles, but also the reality of the city’s elected officials and their response. It captured in 90 seconds what Angelenos have suspected for two years, that the people we elected to handle the crisis are out of their depth, lost, and increasingly inconsequential to the spiraling catastrophe they themselves created. The homeless man was arrested two days later for brandishing a large hunting knife and threatening passersby (LAPD case no. 191422115).

Mr. Bonin already responded to the negative publicity last week by attacking his own constituents. Through a spokesman (Mr. Bonin himself has yet to speak publicly on the issue) he told local blog Yo!Venice, “It is shameful that opponents of bridge housing in Venice have manipulated the incident and turned into a right-wing smear attack, aided by talk radio shock jocks and internet trolls.” On his personal Facebook page, Mr. Bonin redoubled his attacks, dismissing the concerned citizens who captured the videos as, “People who have filmed, photographed, mocked and sometimes taunted people living on the streets,” and called them trolls.

High political discourse, Mike Bonin-style.

This is the same elected official who previously argued, “I can’t accept the idea that there is an inextricable link between crime and homelessness. It is wrong it is not backed up by the data, and it leads to bad policy.”

This morning’s email continues Mr. Bonin’s desperate efforts spin his way out of the inescapable facts captured in the videos, and the undeniable realities on the streets of his district. Using his own failures to try and raise money with a self-pitying email is Mr. Bonin’s ultimate act of chutzpah. He pleads for donations to help him fight reality – or rather, what he calls “an unprecedented onslaught of bizarre and baseless attacks.” Apparently three different videos capturing the same shameful scene, an elected official abandoning one of the most vulnerable members of society while that person endangers himself and his community, constitutes a “bizarre and baseless attack.”

Is it “bizarre and baseless” to assert that Councilman Bonin has all but lost control of the myriad problems and crises in his district, and that everyone is suffering every day as a result?

This week in CD11

The reality is that the carnage continued unabated in the week since the videos hit social media. There was crime, chaos, and death on the streets of Councilman Bonin’s West Los Angeles district, particularly in Venice Beach and Mar Vista. Mr. Bonin, too busy attacking average Angelenos and using his own failures to raise campaign money, has remained thus far remained silent on the issues that are threatening to destroy his councilship.

Last Friday night, three days after Mr. Bonin’s encounter on Culver Boulevard, a homeless individual died at a small encampment that has formed next to the Mar Vista Post Office on Venice Boulevard. According to people living in the camp Nicolas Newberry overdosed on heroin. There was dispute among camp inhabitants as to whether it was accidental or intentional, and the death remains under investigation with the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office.

Homeless people living in Mar Vista scrolled messages on the Post Office wall near where the body of Nicolas Newberry was discovered Friday night

In conversations with a number of those residents, however, there was no dispute that Councilman Bonin has been MIA as the crisis spirals. Newberry’s body was discovered nearly a week ago and yet there’s been nary a word from the councilman’s office. One would think that a tragic, avoidable death would elicit a response, that Mr. Bonin would acknowledge Newberry’s passing.

The camp’s inhabitants described Newberry as a generous, gregarious individual. They said he had begun transitioning from male to female. They described him as an inveterate jokester, and said that he had recently starting asking people to refer to him as “Tits.” Newberry’s death – which was not reported on the Citizen app – is another tragic example of the continuing downward spiral in Los Angeles’s Council District 11.

Mr. Bonin’s silence helps explain why several people at the encampment, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from the city, blamed Mr. Bonin for allowing the camp and dozens more like it to fester. “He’s lost control,” said one last night. The fact is that the very people Mr. Bonin constantly claims to be championing have come to view him as a central part of the problem (check back with the all aspect report for in-depth interviews with camp inhabitants about the changing dynamics of homelessness in L.A. as officials continue to lose control).

There was a reported violent assault at the camp less than 15 minutes after we left.

There were other violent incidents in Mar Vista and Venice last week. On Saturday, a man was stabbed on the Venice Boardwalk near Windward Avenue (LAPD case no. 191422302). According to crimemapping.com, there were fourteen car break-ins, six assaults (including four with a deadly weapon), six burglaries, five thefts, four stolen vehicles, and three robberies. And these are just the crimes that made it into the official system; the true number likely is substantially higher.

In response to the video and subsequent media coverage Mr. Bonin has lashed out at his constituents. Through a spokesman, he told local blog Yo!Venice, “It is shameful that opponents of bridge housing in Venice have manipulated the incident and turned into a right-wing smear attack, aided by talk radio shock jocks and internet trolls.” On his personal Facebook page, Mr. Bonin doubled down on his attacks, dismissing the concerned citizens who captured the videos as, “People who have filmed, photographed, mocked and sometimes taunted people living on the streets,” and dismissed them again as trolls.

This is the same elected official who previously argued, “I can’t accept the idea that there is an inextricable link between crime and homelessness. It is wrong it is not backed up by the data, and it leads to bad policy.”

There were other violent incidents in Mar Vista and Venice in the week after he tried downplaying the incident. On Saturday, a man was stabbed on the Venice Boardwalk near Windward Avenue (LAPD case no. 191422302). According to crimemapping.com, there were also:

  • 15 car break-ins
  • 6 assaults (including 4 with a deadly weapon)
  • 6 burglaries
  • 5 thefts
  • 4 stolen vehicles
  • 3 robberies.

These are the data from a single week in a small part of Mike Bonin’s district. And these are just the crimes that made it into the official system; the true number likely is substantially higher.

In light of this data, and people’s experiences on the streets of CD11, is it “bizarre and baseless” to suggest that Mike Bonin is out of his depth?