With at least 30 million out of work in this country and half a billion facing poverty or starvation worldwide, indefinite lockdowns are no longer an option
I’ve refrained from personal essays on the all aspect report in favor of researched opinion pieces. Writing in the first person breaks a sort of journalistic fourth wall and can detract from the story and analysis. Personal opinions evoke more emotional responses than dispassionate analysis and can strain the trust between journalist and reader.
I’m making an exception today because this piece addresses an issue about which none of us truly can be impartial. I’ve bolstered it with as much factual support as could be mustered but it still relies on personal experience, reasonable deductions, and, frankly, instinct. So first person it is.
I believe it is time to reopen the U.S. economy. Not one state a time, not in the herky-jerky, make-it-up-as-we-go-along manner we’ve responded to the virus so far. We need a rational, reasonable, and efficient way to get as many institutions and businesses reopened, and as many people back to work, as quickly and safely as possible. In doing so we must balance the urgent, immediate threat of the novel coronavirus against the grinding, long-term dangers of continued economic contraction and social isolation.
I make this argument well aware of the dangers: I myself am in a somewhat higher risk group for coronavirus. I have an irregular heart beat and have had a minor stroke. These things seem to run in my family – my maternal grandfather had several strokes over the course of his life and my paternal grandfather died of heart disease in his early 40s. I also live in an apartment building in a dense area, Santa Monica, and have a job that requires me to go out and interact with people, sometimes in less than ideal conditions virus avoidance-wise.
I would be well-advised to stay home as long as possible. Yet as we enter the third month of official lockdown/shelter-in-place/quarantine/self-isolation (it says something that the folks in charge can’t agree on what to call it) I’m willing to risk my health and my life if it means reopening California and United States and getting millions of people back to work. I believe that the well-being, prosperity, and long-term happiness of my fellow citizens obligates me to take the (still relatively small) risk.
All who are reasonably able to do so must consider taking that same risk, because we’ve reached a turning point in the battle against the virus: There have been casualties and there will be more. But we cannot lock ourselves away from danger forever, especially when the costs grow more unbearable by the day. The U.S. food supply is showing signs of stress, with the federal government assisting the slaughterof millions of cattle, pigs, and chickens while untold thousands of tons of produce rots in California fields. None of that plenty will make it to Americans’ tables, much less into the global food supply. Worldwide as many as half a billion people are at risk of slipping back into poverty as a result of the economic shutdown. That means millions more premature deaths, countless millions of destroyed lives. The most vulnerable will suffer the worst. No single life is worth that kind of collective harm.
Obviously I don’t want to get sick and I’d certainly rather not kick the bucket at age 44. But one Chris LeGras is not worth millions of broke and bankrupt families in this country, countless millions of broken futures and shattered dreams, nor the early deaths and suicides that are their inevitable fellow travelers. I can be a selfish prick but I’m not a lunatic.
I’m also not an idiot (at least not completely). I’ll continue social distancing, washing my hands, and avoiding large crowds. When I’m out walking the dogs and encounter an elderly person I give them a particularly wide berth. When I have to go to the store I wear a mask and carry hand sanitizer. My hands are the cleanest they’ve ever been.
At the same time I’m going to keep living my life and doing my job, and I hope all who are capable do the same. I’m going to keep investigating, writing about, and exposing the historic corruption and fraud that threaten the futures of my beloved Los Angeles and California. Investigative journalism has a particular and essential role in times like this, when it’s easy for bad people to do bad things under cover of emergency and the fog of war. Doing that job requires going out and interacting with the world because that’s where the information lives.
I’m not looking backward: Whether or not the extended lockdown was necessary will be a matter of debate for decades to come. Many a Ph.D. dissertation will be written, many an academic career made. I believe that even if it was overbroad it was effective. The mass casualties and deaths of the more, shall we say, impassioned prognosticators didn’t come to pass, and thank God for that. Nevertheless, our hearts collectively break for every person suffering and every family who has lost a loved one.
The problem is that the lockdown treatment for coronavirus is not unlike treating aggressive cancer with chemotherapy: You cannot keep the patient on it forever. It’s cliché but the cure eventually, inevitably becomes worse than the disease. We are fast approaching that point.
Now is the time for the willing to return to their lives. State and local officials shouldn’t continue to expend resources closing beaches because Governor Newsom saw some pictures on TV that bothered him. As many have pointed out there’s no justice in keeping Wal-Mart open while sending the Sheriff to shut down the local hardware store. It makes no sense to shut down the churches and synagogues while leaving open the liquor stores and pot shops. To close parks to the public while allowing vagrants to gather.
The mountains and the beaches are each and every Californian’s birthright, whether they were born here or not. We need access to them now more than ever.
Also, lifting restrictions will allow authorities to focus the efforts more efficiently on known hot zones like retirement communities, areas of particularly high density, and of course homeless populations. Getting Californians back to work also will free up financial resources to support those cohorts. Rather than sending 80 million stimulus checks government could provide long-term support for those most vulnerable to the virus.
An anonymous source has told me that the Army is shutting down the emergency field hospital it set up in the convention center last month. If true this is more good news – it means L.A. has reached a point where existing capacity can handle further expected cases. The USNS Mercy remains docked in Long Beach to handle any unexpected surge.
According to military.com field hospitals worldwide are either empty, emptying, or well below expected capacity and likewise are starting to shut down while retaining contingency capabilities. This is more good news.
In contrast, with each passing day the harm of the economic shutdown increases. Calls to suicide and other mental health hotlines have spiked nationwide; a source in Wisconsin told me that calls to a hotline in her area are up more than 300% over this time last year. Reports of domestic violence are up, likely a small percentage of the true increase. Millions of students, in particular those with special needs, risk slipping behind academically, some of them permanently. And the overall mental health impacts of long term sheltering in place aren’t yet even dimly understood. The United Nations has warned, “This is a universal crisis and, for some children, the impact will be lifelong.”
Like the virus itself the economic damage risks expanding exponentially. Supply chains cannot be rebuilt as quickly as they can be shut down. Farmers are starting to slaughter stock in increasing numbers, increasing the time it will take to recover. You can’t grow a sow overnight. With each passing day more small businesses pass the point of no return; the restaurant industry may well never recover.
These catastrophic realities, the devastating impacts on countless millions, simply render any single life insignificant.
In addition to that stroke a the age of 42 I nearly bought it when I was 19. I was at Mt. Everest base camp and came down with severe altitude sickness and pulmonary edema. I’m here today because of dumb luck: A team of doctors from UC San Francisco happened to be on the mountain at the same time testing out two then-experimental cures. The one they tried on me, a Gamow bag, worked. And here I be. Despite that scare in the years since I’ve attempted and summited dozens of peaks, including solo efforts on Mt. Rainier, Mt. Shasta, Mt. Baker, and others. Why? Because it’s worth the risk.
Of 10,000 climbers who attempt Mt. Rainier annually about 5,000 achieve the summit, and an average of five are killed. That works out to a death rate of 50 per 100,000, higher than the coronavirus death rate in than all but four states (three of which are the tri-state area that has been disproportionately hard-hit). In the mountain’s deadliest year, 1981, 11 perished, for a death rate of 110 per 100,000, higher than the coronavirus rate for all but New York state.
In other words, 10,000 people are willing to risk worse odds – potentially far worse – than those of dying from coronavirus for a 50-50 chance to experience the thrill of summiting one of the country’s great mountains. I’d wager those kinds of folks are champing at the bit to get back to work, school, and their lives. It is time we let them.
Each and every one of us has to decide for themselves the level of risk we’re willing to take. If you want to stay inside, stay inside. For now. But it’s no longer acceptable for our elected officials – who work for us, by the way, and not the other way around, never forget that – to continue to lockdown our economy and increasingly, troublingly, infringe on our most fundamental freedoms.
It’s time for us to decide our own level of risk. Reopen California. Reopen America.
Inconsistent, contradictory orders and actions reveal a deeper and more troubling agenda, particularly in big cities
In the game of poker, it’s called a tell. In the heat of the moment, when they’re all in and holding a weak hand even the best players often reveal their bluff. A tell can be a quick sideways glance, an almost imperceptible change in their breathing, a change in the cadence of their speech. There are tells in business negotiations and legal proceedings as well: In a turn of phrase or an unconscious gesture even the most seasoned, Sphinx-like professionals can betray a crucial weakness or strength.
The coronavirus crisis is proving that much of America’s political class, particularly the progressives who occupy elected office in our larger metro ares, wouldn’t last very long in a game of Texas Hold ‘Em. Their tells reveal their that their orders and policies are about politics, not public health. That truth becomes more evident with each passing day, each irrational order, each insufferable press conference.
In California the political class’s tells have been obvious from the earliest days of the pandemic. As officials like Governor Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti effectively locked 40 million law-abiding citizens in their homes they allowed the state’s homeless population – officially 130,000 but in reality many times that – to continue their lives unaffected and unmolested. The same public places closed to everyone else remain gathering places for the unhoused, who continue to congregate in large and small groups in close quarters, sharing meals and bottles, pipes and needles, tents and sleeping bags.
In the scientific parlance Mr. Newsom is fond of invoking, albeit often wrongly, they have become the control group in the largest experiment on humanity in history (as such it’s worth noting that aside from a few isolatedoutbreaks the cohort exempted from draconian restrictions hasn’t experienced a spike in infections, much less deaths).
While California’s political class claim to be acting in the interest of public health they allow the homeless to continue their most dangerous behaviors. The homeless endanger themselves most of all, but also the communities in which they establish illegal encampments. They are exceptional potential vectors for the virus, roaming the streets at all hours, trespassing on private property, even breaking into houses and apartments. These behaviors are not exceptional, they are commonplace. If the political class truly was concerned about public health the homeless population would have been the first people they addressed. The same patterns are playing out in dozens of cities from Seattle to New York.
The political class’s treatment (or, more accurately, neglect) of the homeless is their biggest tell, but far from the only one. Four days before Easter Sunday Mr. Garcetti issued an order closing all public parks. His justification was that people gather in parks to celebrate and socialize the holiest day of the Christian calendar, and that in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic such gatherings could be, in his words, deadly. “We just can’t take any chances,” he intoned. The mayor’s order didn’t just target a specific religious group, there also was a strong whiff of racism to it: The tradition of gathering in parks to eat, drink, and celebrate on Easter Sunday is largely a Latino one. Suffice it to say, rich white people from Bel Air do not descend on Holmby Park to break cascarónes on the holy day. The order was a breathtaking violation of the constitutional protections of people’s freedom of religion, assembly, and speech as well as due process and equal protection. The mayor’s timing – he announced the closures less than 72 hours before Easter weekend – seemed specifically intended to avoid legal challenges. Otherwise why not announce it a week or a month ahead of time to give families time to organize alternatives?
Even as the mayor deprived millions of Angelenos of the opportunity to observe their religion in their chosen manner, he allowed liquor stores and pot shops to remain open all day for business. Apparently Mr. Garcetti believes that liquor store managers and pot shop owners are better qualified to look after their customers’ well-being than priests are to care for their parishioners. And of course homeless people continued to gather in the very parks forbidden to everyone else.
That’s not a policy, it’s a tell.
The most recent tell is a proposal from L.A. city councilman Mike Bonin, who wants the city to use federal coronavirus relief and other funds to purchase homes and businesses that will face foreclosure as a result of the economic shutdown. As first reported here, Mr. Bonin intends to use the crisis to evict untold numbers of people from their homes in order to, perversely, create new homeless and low income housing. Again, swapping one cohort of homeless people for another isn’t a policy, it’s a tell.
There are many other examples. According to attorney Mark Geragos Mayor Garcetti has declared liquor stores to be “essential businesses” while forbidding Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Last week a mentally disturbed homeless woman who had tested positive for covid-19 was allowed to leave a homeless shelter and return to the streets. An LAPD spokesman said that the city cannot “force” homeless people to remain in shelters, even those who are known to have the virus. This is the same police force that has arrested healthy people for paddle boarding, protesting, and even walking in the wrong place.
Not policies, tells.
What, then, are these policies and orders intended to accomplish, if not the protection of public health? All signs point to a power grab by the political class that is unprecedented outside of wartime. Moreover, unlike emergency war powers this move will be permanent unless Americans start fighting back. And make no mistake: The window is closing. Every day people remain in lockdown is another step toward normalizing the extraordinary. Every time a constitutional violation goes unchallenged, another nail is driven into the coffin of Americans’ freedoms.
The political class’s agenda is increasingly clear everyday. What remains to be seen is how much more the people are willing to accept. A moment of reckoning is fast approaching.
In a world of scarce resources they’re turning a short-term public health crisis into a long-term national catastrophe
As the United States enters the second month of a historic government-ordered lockdown a few realities are emerging into relief. The first and most inexorable is the fact that the nation’s political class were utterly unprepared for this – “this” being an entirely foreseeable, indeed inevitable public health crisis. In an era of mass travel and global commerce it is inexcusable for officials and bureaucrats in urban centers like New York City and Los Angeles to have been caught so flat-footed. The consequence is the grim spectacle of politicians making it up as they go along. Americans in every demographic are suffering the consequences of the political class’s maladministration.
Ignore the glowing headlines about what a great job we’re doing here in California. Everyone should be watching the official response the Golden State with a combination of disgust and horror. As reported earlier this month in The All Aspect Report parts of L.A. are verging on anarchy as officials have effectively shut down civil society while simultaneously hamstringing law enforcement (the reality on the streets makes laughable the official claims by LAPD Chief Michael Moore and others that crime is “plummeting” as a result of stay at home orders).
This is a state that closes churches, synagogues, and other places of worship while allowing marijuana shops and liquor stores to remain open for business. A state that closes parks and beaches to families while allowing vagrants and drunks to occupy those very places by the thousand. These are warped priorities.
California, a place where the next major natural disaster is not a question of if but when, doesn’t have sufficient hospital capacity to handle a moderate pandemic. Officials at the state and local level failed to establish substantive plans in place to surge emergency services in a crisis. For example, the official San Francisco earthquake response plan from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services contains a single sentence about fire response and overall is impossibly vague. Likewise, the City and County of San Francisco’s official Emergency Response Plan is not a plan but an 89-page compendium of org charts and bureaucrat speak that would be useless in an actual emergency.
The results are obvious in the misallocation of scarce resources and manpower. Two weeks ago a dozen law enforcement officers from three different agencies arrested a man for paddle boarding in Malibu, even as city officials ignore countless crimes committed daily by the city’s homeless population. A man boasted to The All Aspect Report that he’d been pulled over by LAPD last week with an open beer in his cup holder, and was let go without so much as a warning. Meanwhile, Mayor Garcetti urges Angelenos to snitch on each other for violating city orders (he actually said, “snitches get rewards”) while vagrants congregate in close quarters on the steps of City Hall a few feet away from his press conference. So much for California’s “leadership.”
The only place where the official response has been worse is New York City. Like their suntanned counterparts on the Left Coast everyone in the Big Apple ought to be appalled. The leadership of a city that experienced 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy failed to plan for this kind of emergency. Maybe they were too busy building bike lanes. The city so far has the highest number of coronavirus deaths in the country, with more than 11,000 to date. With less than six percent of the nation’s population the state of New York accounts for a third of all coronavirus deaths. It’s gotten so bad that the media and pundit class are rewarding Governor Andrew Cuomo for giving entertaining press conferences with his brother (who staged his own coronavirus quarantine). Not for handling the crisis, but for looking good on TV. Let that sink in.
The official response doesn’t just amount to political malpractice, it’s an existential failure that calls into question fundamental assumptions about the modern neo-liberal state. The relentless expansion of public bureaucracies since the Great Depression was based on a contract between the people and their governments (plural, because the contract is in effect at the local, county, state, and national levels). The people accept the proposition that the complexities of modern political, economic, and social systems demand the commitment of full-time subject matter experts (technocrats) who receive salaries from the taxpayers. In return the people/taxpayers expect those employees to dedicate their careers to sustaining, protecting, and improving those systems. That contract was fraying long before coronavirus as government at every level failed on issues including education, housing, health care, homelessness, infrastructure, and mobility.
Now, as official responses to the pandemic prove more chaotic and perhaps more destructive than the disease, Americans’ remaining faith in the political class is being shaken to its core. Tens of millions have lost work and income, their futures cast into doubt. All because of bungled responses to a public health crisis that every mayor, governor, legislator, and bureaucrat should have seen coming. In an era when the next terror attack, natural disaster, or public health crisis was a matter of time the political class was bickering about pronouns.
If government were like any other industry it would already be in receivership, its executives terminated, its rank and file radically reshuffled, its budgets slashed. Yet in the perverse logic of the public sector many officials see their coronavirus failures as opportunity. As Mr. Newsom said two weeks ago, it’s a chance for “re-imagining a more progressive future.”
Only in the realm of public policy does failure respawn stronger. Only in politics does one fail upward so spectacularly.
A second realization is emerging in the form of a question, albeit a clichéd one: When does the official cure become worse than the disease? The same political class who bungled the nation’s response to a crisis they should have seen coming is in the process of cratering the U.S. and global economies. As a direct result of their actions millions of Americans have lost their jobs in a matter of days while millions more have seen their incomes plummet or disappear. The stock market has erased more than $5 trillion in gains from the last four years. The unemployment rate is making the Great Depression look like the Roaring 80s, and it’s just getting started. Former Fed Chair Janet Yellen has estimated that unemployment rate reached 13% by early April, and some observers suggest that it could exceed 30% before the crisis is over. Countless thousands of small businesses have been shuttered, many never to reopen. Lives are being shattered, livelihoods destroyed, college and retirement savings gutted.
As they continue to collect their own six figure, taxpayer funded salaries the political class that failed so thoroughly is warning everyone else that the worst is yet to come.
In a sense we are in another “9/11 moment” in which reality is obscured by the fog of the crisis (of course, many people have argued that the political class should have seen 9/11 coming as well). In response to the attacks the political class hurled the country into the catastrophic Iraq War. An attack that cost 2,996 lives triggered a response that killed as many as 600,000. In economic terms the hijackers spent roughly $500,000 to carry out their acts of cowardice. The total U.S. military response cost some $6 trillion.
In the fog the political class also convinced Americans that national security necessitated unprecedented governmental invasions of privacy – an “emergency measure,” of course. Nearly two decades later every email Americans send remains subject to scrutiny, every credit card transaction, stock purchase, telephone call, and doctor visit. County and local governments introduced mass surveillance of their populations in the form of cameras and drones, while even suburban police departments obtained military-grade equipment. All of this, said the political class, was necessary to protect us, just like the current national shutdown. The political class was profoundly, dangerously, fatally wrong then. Why should Americans trust them now?
A pandemic by its nature arrives, spreads, peaks, and declines. In contrast, the effects of mass unemployment grind on a populace for years or decades. Make no mistake: Unemployment and poverty are deadly. How many Americans already are sinking into depression, substance abuse, and lethargy because of lost hours, social distancing, and lockdown orders? New York governor Andrew Cuomo was dismissive this week of domestic violence, but how many are being victimized? How many addicts, no longer able to attend in-person meetings, are relapsing? How many people will resort to alcohol or drugs for the first time? How many will contemplate suicide? These are not rhetorical questions: Calls to suicide hotlines around the country are up substantially. A line covering North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota has seen calls spike by 300%.
Suffice it to say, if the political class’s panicked responses to the coronavirus pandemic triggers a long-term recession or even a depression, it will kill many more people than the disease itself. It will invariably result in higher crime rates, more domestic violence, more suicides.
In a world of uncertain choices and imperfect information, America’s political class so far has taken the most imperfect route imaginable.
*Yes, that sentence is an example of the old adage that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. Comparing a viral pandemic to chronic conditions linked to genetics and behavior is apples and oranges. However, the metric officials are using to justify the massive response is the number of deaths. The current worst case scenario for coronavirus is around 200,000 deaths. Annually, nearly 700,000 Americans die of heart disease.
Councilman Mike Bonin’s idea would swap one homeless population for another while doing nothing to address the underlying crisis
Los Angeles city councilman Mike Bonin stunned constituents on Saturday when he announced that he intends to introduce legislation ordering the city to explore using federal coronavirus relief funds to purchase distressed properties and give them to homeless people. While he was silent on details – such as which city agency would be responsible for what would amount to the largest exercise of eminent domain in history or the legal basis for redirecting desperately needed federal dollars – his announcement sent chills through his west Los Angeles district.
According to the councilman, who along with his husband owns two houses, targeted properties would include homes as well as hotels (the All Aspect Report has the exclusive audio of Mr. Bonin’s announcement):
I intend on putting in another proposal in the next week or two that asks the city to look at the federal bailout or stimulus funds we’ll be getting as a result of this crisis…and using some of that to either buy hotels that go belly up or to buy the distressed properties that are absolutely going to be on the market at cheaper prices after this crisis is over. And use that as homeless and affordable housing. It’s going to be a hell of a lot cheaper to purchase stuff that is already there and move people in there than if we start from scratch. A lot of good stuff is being done.
Los Angeles city councilman Mike Bonin
The cynicism of Mr. Bonin’s proposal is exceeded only by its hypocrisy: Along with most of California’s political class he has claimed for years that the only solution to L.A.’s homeless crisis is, to coin a phrase, “build, baby, build.” Saturday’s proposal effectively admits that approach has failed, as anyone paying the slightest attention has long recognized. The problem is that he wants to replace a failed policy with a catastrophically destructive one.
Mr. Bonin’s constituents by now are well aware of the damage he can cause when he sets his mind to it. From business-killing “road diets” to neighborhood-destroying homeless shelters he long ago lost the confidence of many, if not most of the people in his district. Even his firewall of wealthy benefactors in places like Brentwood are questioning his motives and competence. He is as responsible as anyone for the homeless crisis ravaging the westside and has turned a blind eye to the rampant criminality consuming neighborhoods including Venice, Mar Vista, Brentwood, Marina del Rey, Del Rey, Westchester, and elsewhere. His office has all but stopped responding to constituents’ concerns and these days he only appears publicly in carefully stage-managed events flanked by reliable city bureaucrats and his own lackeys.
Having failed his constituents and communities for the better part of a decade he now wants to exploit Angelenos being devastated by the coronavirus shut down. He would give homes for which they worked and saved for years or decades over to the homeless, the majority of whom are unstable, often violent addicts who come to Los Angeles because it’s the best place in the country to live the lifestyle they’ve chosen (the protestations of Mr. Bonin and his fellow travelers aside, the majority of hardcore homeless are not struggling families or blameless working class people evicted from their homes – people who want shelter and services in Los Angeles find them).
It is unprecedented for a public servant to propose using the people’s own money to buy their homes at a discount in the midst of a crisis. Moreover, the fact that people who lose their homes to foreclosure would by definition become homeless themselves seems lost on Mr. Bonin. His idea amounts to poverty musical chairs. It would do nothing to solve the city’s homeless crisis, and almost certainly would make it worse. It would also be another huge step in the hollowing out of the California middle class.
Mr. Bonin and other self-proclaimed progressives on city council claim to care about the poor. Yet the first people to be evicted will be those who are barely hanging on as it is. Those foreclosed properties he wants to buy for a song would be the homes of hardworking Angelenos, many of them people of color. Meanwhile, Mr. Bonin himself continues collecting his $285,000 a year taxpayer funded paycheck. He doesn’t have to worry about losing his home(s).
Mr. Bonin could have proposed a mortgage assistance plan that actually would help struggling Angelenos stay in their homes (and which would be considerably cheaper than purchasing properties, even at foreclosure discounts). He finally could have proposed using the federal funds to establish rapid deployment emergency shelters, as many have been urging for years.
Instead, while millions of tax paying, law abiding Angelenos face financial ruin as a result of the now two month long government shutdown, Mr. Bonin – a man who has never run a business or been responsible for a payroll – casually refers to hotels going “belly up.” He sounded positively giddy at the possibility of the city using taxpayer money to snap up people’s homes, which he says will be available on the cheap.
Never let a crisis go to waste, indeed.
The failure of L.A.’s elected officials to solve the homeless crisis is well-documented, and some of the largest encampments in the city are in Mr. Bonin’s district. Despite years of pleas from his constituents the councilman has done virtually nothing to tackle the crisis. Indeed, even some of the homeless themselves have castigated Mr. Bonin for his incompetence. A man living in a small homeless camp near the Mar Vista post office who identified himself as “Hippie” told The All Aspect report late last year that, “I’ve heard him talk, but I never see anything happen.”
Mike Bonin long ago proved he is not worthy of the office he holds. He is a pawn of big developers and a tool of the homeless industrial complex. This latest proposal proves once and for all that he could care less about the hardworking Angelenos he is supposed to represent.
It’s a shameful moment for the city of Los Angeles.
Talk of “shared sacrifice” rings increasingly hollow as the political class enjoys protections the rest of the country does not
About the only people whose jobs are truly secure during the coronavirus pandemic are politicians, government bureaucrats, and public employees. While the national unemployment rate increases even faster than the spread of the virus itself the political class remain comfortably ensconced in their taxpayer supported offices, riding in vehicles purchased by the people, and of course collecting their twice monthly treasury funded paychecks. The electeds issuing increasingly draconian, economy-destroying orders are untouched by the consequences. That’s bad for both the country and the politicians themselves: If they aren’t feeling some of the sting of their actions they can’t truly understand how everyone else is affected and craft appropriate policies.
It’s time for America’s political class to take a haircut.
Elected officials should forgo their salaries and donate them to small business support funds, at least until the immediate crisis is over. Gavin Newsom, whose life and political career have been funded by the Gettys, Pritzkers, Fishers, and a handful of other California aristocrats, doesn’t need his salary in the best of times. He makes more than a million dollars annually from various investments his benefactors provided him over the years. As a consequence a man who has spent the majority of his career in public service has amassed an estimated net worth of more than $20 million. He’s also married to Jennifer Siebel, daughter of billionaire tech executive Thomas Siebel. Considering his privilege it is grotesque for him collect his $300,000 taxpayer funded salary and benefits (he’s the highest paid governor in the country) at a time when millions of Californians are facing financial ruin.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is not personally as wealthy as Newsom but he comes from the same sort of rarefied and privileged background and has an estimated net worth of around $6 million. He doesn’t need his salary, either, yet there’s no indication he intends to forgo his $200,000 salary. Quite the contrary, in fact: Less than a week after the state lawmakers voted to give him a $50,000 raise he announced that he is freezing pay raises for all other government employees, including low salary front line workers, as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
Keep it classy, Andrew.
Of course not all elected are millionaires, and demanding that someone like Maine governor Janet Mills forgo her $70,000 salary is a different ask. But every politician is taking every opportunity to lecture the country about sacrifice. It’s time for them to share in it. All 50 state governors should announce they are forgoing their salaries entirely, effective immediately.
Likewise, state legislators, mayors, and local legislators should voluntarily forgo some or all of their salaries. Los Angeles city councilman Mike Bonin, along with his husband Sean Arian, has a net worth of at least one million dollars and owns two homes. Certainly a politician like Mr. Bonin, a member of the highest paid city council in the country, can return some of his money to the people in the midst of a historic crisis. He recently posted on his official councilmember Facebook page that, “In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, low wage workers are either losing their jobs, or being left on the frontlines, underpaid and under-protected.” He could set a positive example by walking the walk and donating his salary to a fund supporting those workers. The entire Los Angeles City Council should follow suit. To not do so is, at this point, the epitome of hypocrisy.
Again, there are certainly politicians of modest means, but in a crisis like this it simply does not matter. There should be no distinction between the private and public sectors. If we truly are all in this together – as pretty much every politician tells us – their sacrifice should be no different. Low-income workers in the private sector are figuring out how to survive, it should be no different for the public sector.
In fact, lower income elected could prove to be decisive: A city councilmember or county supervisor living paycheck to paycheck would feel exactly what so many her constituents are feeling, which would lead to better decisions.
In forgoing their salaries to support their constituents the political class could take cues from the private sector. Dozens of CEOs, including Disney’s Bob Iger, Delta Airlines’s Ed Bastian, and GE’s Bob Culp, are taking zero salary for the rest of the year. More still have set up funds to support employees.
At least one elected is doing the right thing: Ohio Senator Rob Portman (R) has announced he is donating his salary to coronavirus relief. It’s high time for the rest of America’s political class to follow the examples of Sen. Portman and the CEOs.
It isn’t just the right thing to do: It’s smart politics. In the next election cycle constituents will ask what they did during the coronavirus crisis. “Sat at home collecting my paycheck while remotely voting for measures that destroyed thousands of livelihoods” isn’t a good answer. Yet that’s just what the political class is doing right now.
It’s time they stepped up. Press conferences are all well and good, but it’s time the people demand that the political class put some skin in the game.
A government that prioritizes prosecuting surfers and beer drinkers over pimps and drug dealers is a government adrift
Since the first states issued self-isolation orders in early March Americans have surrendered a shocking portion of their rights to the political class. In a matter of weeks 250 years of constitutional law has collapsed upon itself like a spectacular legalistic quasar. Like an imploding star the collapse has generated a massive release of energy, only instead of electromagnetic radiation the energy here is frenzied governmental activity.
To be sure, a pandemic like coronavirus requires robust public sector action. But the brute force of the official response is deeply disconcerting, more so in light of history: Governments that seize control rarely relinquish it.
At the same time, two months into the emergency people are discovering that every level of their government was utterly unprepared for a 21st century public health crisis that wasn’t just foreseeable but inevitable. The precursors were SARS, H1N1, and avian flu. To not have seen something like coronavirus coming amounts to willful ignorance bordering on criminal negligence.
Of course the very officials and bureaucrats whittling away at civil liberties (while continuing to collect their taxpayer funded paychecks) are the ones who failed to prepare in the first place. In late January the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – an agency whose $5 billion annual existence is predicated on preparing for and responding to public health issues – was still reassuring Americans that coronavirus was not transmittable between people. In March, with the crisis in full bloom, the agency still was fumbling its response. So much for disease control and prevention.
The political class is proving that while they can’t contain a virus they can extinguish constitutional rights. Much easier for a governor or mayor to sign a one-page order written by staffers than to spend the months and years necessary to actually prepare for something like this in the first place. Much easier to bloviate at daily pressers than to devise a strategic response.
The price of their incompetence has been lost lives, lost jobs, lost wages, and lost futures. These countless individual tragedies have been compounded by a sudden, massive deprivation of civil liberties. In places like New York and California the deprivation has become virtually absolute.
With few exceptions people have accepted the diminution of cherished rights willingly, voluntarily, even enthusiastically. They’ve surrendered rights for which millions sacrificed, fought, and died over the course of two and a half centuries at the behest of a political class that in the best of times can’t keep the streets paved.
Virtually no one blinked last Thursday when Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the city was closing all public parks for 36 hours, from Saturday afternoon to Monday morning, specifically to prevent people from gathering to celebrate Easter mass. The order effectively suspended two of the Constitution’s most precious protections, freedom of religion and assembly. Churches, of course, have been closed for weeks already.
People convening for a few hours to observe the holiest day of the Christian calendar warranted draconian measures and the full force of the state’s police powers to suspend core constitutional rights. Mr. Garcetti said, “I know this is a time of the year when many of our families and friends celebrate Easter by getting together outdoors –– and we just can’t take any chances right now.”
Yet he’s been taking chances with tens of thousands of homeless people since the crisis started, which in turn threatens the well-being of every single Angeleno. Make no mistake: Mr. Garcetti, like California’s entire political class, has concluded that homelessness, prostitution, drug dealing, addiction, crime, and public disturbances are acceptable exceptions to self isolation orders.
As millions of Angelenos shelter in place public parks have remained havens for homeless, vagrants, and criminals. Dealers openly sell meth, opiods, fentanyl, even home-brewed liquor without the slightest fear of consequence. Open-air drug deals go down in plain view of law enforcement. The All Aspect Report observed a resident of L.A.’s “A Bridge Home” shelter in Venice yesterday dancing on a sidewalk screaming, “It’s corona time, baby!” A few minutes later shelter staff allowed him back inside, no questions asked.
Homeless people gather in close quarters and in small and large groups without any law enforcement response. Quite the opposite, in fact: The Los Angeles City Council ordered that illegal encampments and entire tent cities will remain in place 24 hours a day, indefinitely. Council’s tortured logic is that homeless people are safer in filthy, vermin infested, crime ridden camps. In reality they’ve simply given up. San Francisco quickly followed suit. Meanwhile, across California politicians’ bold plans to house tens of thousands of homeless in hotels, motels, and recreation centers has quietly fallen apart. And just today the Los Angeles Times reported that the LAPD has all but ceased enforcement of sex trafficking laws, exposing the most vulnerable girls and women to new levels of danger and exploitation.
In one of the more infamous examples a man paddle boarding near the Malibu Pier was arrested two weeks ago for refusing to comply with orders that he leave the water. While the man behaved foolishly in defying law enforcement’s orders, it beggars belief that a single individual in the middle of the breakers required two lifeguard boats, a half dozen Sheriff’s cruisers, and two dozen personnel. He was literally the only person for hundreds of yards in any direction.
When people (again, foolishly) crowded L.A. County hiking trails last month the official response was to close all trails completely. Instead of such drastic measures perhaps some of those Sheriff’s deputies who spent time arresting an errant wave enthusiast could instead have been dispatched to enforce social distancing on trails. Then again that would require planning, strategy, and creative thinking, all of which are in dangerously short supply among our city’s and state’s electeds. Last weekend the Santa Cruz sheriff’s department handed out $7,000 worth of fines to a group of young people whose offense against the state consisted of purchasing beer.
Meanwhile, the county is dispatching enforcers to small businesses perceived as violating shut-down orders. Most of these visits are unannounced. The owners of a small print shop in north L.A. report that they have received visits on consecutive days, first by the Sheriff’s department and then by an city official who refused to identify himself (he also claimed to be “out of business cards”) but who left orders from the county health department related to the shop’s operations. The owners, who asked not to be identified for fear official retaliation (let that sink in, by the way), have been keeping the shop open to serve residents seeking, among other things, to apply for relief or small business loans under the CARE Act. If that isn’t an essential service it’s hard to imagine one, but it remains to be seen whether they will be allowed to continue.
People need to be demanding answers from the political class. Why are hundreds of thousands of vagrants and criminals allowed to roam free, their lives virtually unchanged, while everyone else is subject to virtually unlimited control? Why are some kids buying beer considered a greater threat than vagrants assaulting women and dealing drugs?
Stripped to the essentials government’s purpose is protect the populace. At every level, government has failed. Instead of protecting the people the political class is stripping them of basic civil liberties. A government that prioritizes prosecuting surfers and beer drinkers over pimps and drug dealers is a government adrift.
The most egregious of the violations is the virtual suspension of due process. Stay at home orders, orders banning business from operating, and orders forbidding people from assembling amount to an unprecedented intrusion by government into every single American’s life and an unprecedented use of the state’s powers – and it’s happened with zero due process. The many constitutional infringements include:
First Amendment. Stay-at-home orders by definition violate the First Amendment’s protection of peaceable assembly. In a very real way that right has all but ceased to exist. Meanwhile, city and state governments nationwide banned religious gatherings over Easter weekend. Some places like Los Angeles banned all gatherings, while states like Kansas banned more than 10 people. Regardless these orders are fundamental violations of the constitutional protections of religious freedom.
Fourth Amendment. State and local officials across the country are urging people to report violations of stay at home orders to law enforcement. Last Tuesday Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti openly encouraged Angelenos to “snitch” on each other, and this week Riverside County released and promoted a mobile app that allows neighbors to anonymously report one another. As the print shop case proves in stark relief officials have abandoned standards of probable cause or even reasonable suspicion, in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.
Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Due process has virtually ceased to exist. Extraordinary government orders have deprived tens of millions of their civil liberties, not to mention their livelihoods, without notice, an opportunity to be heard, nor a chance to rebut the justifications behind the orders. Procedural due process is the guarantee of a fair legal process when the government tries to interfere with a citizen’s protected interests in life, liberty, or property. Substantive due process is the guarantee that the government will not encroach on fundamental rights of citizens. Government at all levels has abandoned these precious guarantees.
Fifth Amendment, part 2. Official orders also are depriving millions of Americans of business income without any compensation. The shuttering of millions of businesses amounts to the biggest de facto public taking in American history, which under the Fifth Amendment requires due process and just compensation. A twelve hundred dollar check doesn’t count.
Sixth Amendment. Many official orders arguably are tantamount to criminal prosecutions. Shuttering a business, putting dozens or hundreds of people out of work, and destroying people’s life’s savings is a profound exercise of governmental police power. Every affected business owner is effectively presumed guilty. They have been given no opportunity to be heard, no trial by jury, no opportunity to present contrary evidence or witnesses, and no legal representation.
Eighth Amendment. The Excessive Fines Clause prohibits fines that are “so grossly excessive as to amount to a deprivation of property without due process of law.” While stay at home and other orders aren’t strictly “fines,” they have the same cumulative effect: Forcing businesses to close amounts to a fine, because the order deprives them of normal income. Moreover, to the extent the orders are enforced by government’s police power they may violate the amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
Fourteenth Amendment. Again, many of the orders issued at the federal, state, county, municipal, and local levels have deprived Americans of fundamental rights. No one has been given notice or an opportunity to be heard.
It remains to be seen how many of these new restrictions will become permanent or semi-permanent. Yesterday Governor Gavin Newsom justified more stay-at-home orders by remarking, “Not only is the past not equal to the future, but we also have to recognize that we are not just along for the ride as it relates to experiencing the future. The future happens inside of us.”
Because, you see, we have always been at war with coronavirus.
Despite official promises and plans lawlessness remains the new normal in many neighborhoods
While public health orders have ten million Los Angeles County residents hunkered down during the coronavirus pandemic, many of the region’s homeless – officially numbering nearly 60,000 in the county but in reality significantly more – are living as though nothing has changed. Encampments remain stubborn facts of life in virtually every community in the Southland, on sidewalks and in parks and public places closed to the general public. Homeless people socialize in close quarters and congregate in small and large groups, sharing cigarettes, food, drink, and drugs. Virtually none wear facial protection in accordance with the most recent orders.
In Venice Beach a group of homeless artists even put up a “permanent” art installation called The Tiki Bar where people have congregated over the last week (UPDATE 4/2/2020: The Sanitation Department removed the Tiki Bar. It will be kept in storage, as the department considers bulky items on sidewalks “not a health hazard” under the municipal code. The department left the remaining parts of the installation intact).
To be sure, the “homeless” are not a monolithic cohort, and people lose their housing all the time and for myriad reasons. Many are deserving of aid and assistance, and many do find it. But this surreal moment is a bona fide holiday for the criminals for whom homelessness is both cover and opportunity, as law enforcement has been ordered to stand down enforcement of all but the most serious crimes and to release thousands of “nonviolent” offenders early. Many L.A. communities were on edge even before the pandemic introduced this new level of risk, and Coronavirus has compounded people’s fear. Last week multiple Venice residents said that homeless people had “been walking up and down Paloma Avenue coughing loudly on all gates and screaming Corona.”
The All Aspect Report spent the last week documenting the situation in several communities around Los Angeles including Venice Beach, Santa Monica, downtown L.A., Hollywood, and Van Nuys. It was clear from the start that city officials are not enforcing stay at home orders against residents of shelters. There’s no enforcement of social distancing requirements in homeless encampments. In fact, from all appearances there’s no enforcement at all, at any level, of any aspect of the homeless crisis. As the pandemic cuts through Southern California, official failure puts everyone in danger, the unhoused themselves most of all.
The danger is no longer theoretical, and officials are running out of time. Last Monday, March 30 the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said two homeless people in L.A. have tested positive for coronavirus. Additionally, the Los Angeles Times reported last week that an employee of Union Rescue Mission, the largest homeless services provider in Skid Row, had tested positive.
The Mission’s Executive Director, Rev. Andy Bales, said an entire floor of the nonprofit’s five story shelter is in quarantine. And also as of Monday 24 LAPD officers had tested positive, many from the Central Division whose beats include Skid Row. Given how many 911 calls are related to homelessness it’s possible they contracted the disease that way.
All of this before the virus peaks in California sometime in the next three weeks.
Staff at homeless shelters aren’t enforcing health orders, allowing residents to come and go at will
On February 23 the City of Los Angeles opened a homeless shelter known as “A Bridge Home” in Venice. Mayor Garcetti and the City Council have promoted these temporary shelters as essential to the city’s comprehensive homeless strategy. A total of 30 locations are planned with a dozen open already. The Venice facility, which sits on an old Metro bus repair yard, houses 100 adults and 54 young adults (18-23) in a combination of modular units and a sprung structure.
The shelter’s location in the middle of a residential neighborhood and one block from an elementary school prompted strong community opposition, culminating in a lawsuit that delayed the project by nearly three years. Residents expressed fears that the shelter would attract criminals and endanger the community. As previously reportedby The All Aspect Report, their worst fears were coming true before the coronavirus emergency compounded the dangers.
To take one of many examples: In mid-March a Bridge shelter resident was sentenced to 180 days in county jail for threatening two women outside the facility (including a death threat to onoe) and smashing a half dozen cars. The man, known to shelter staff as a problem, was released after just 10 days as part of the county’s coronavirus-related incarceration downsizing. He was allowed to return to the shelter and was only removed by staff when a neighbor noticed he was back and called to complain. His current whereabouts are unknown.
Over the course of several days last week, constant flows of people were observed entering and exiting the shelter. They came and went singly, in pairs, and in small groups. Most used the main entrance, where a security guard let them in and out through the gate, coming into close and in many cases direct contact with everyone. She was not equipped with any protective gear and was not wearing gloves or a mask. She remained on duty and did not appear to wash or sanitize her hands. There also is a second gate farther down the block which some residents used to let people in and out on their own accord.
While Angelenos (a few scofflaws aside) restrict their movements to the “Essential Activities” defined in the state public heath department’s orders, in a single afternoont Venice Bridge residents walked the streets freely and interacted with people living in nearby encampments. They smoked cigarettes and cannabis and socialized in close quarters with each other and shelter staff. They engaged in black market transactions. There were physical altercations and shouting arguments. Suffice it to say no one engaged in social distancing.
An email to the executive director of Safe Place for Youth (SPY), the organization responsible for the shelter’s young adult (18-24) population, was not returned.
The scene was similar at the Bridge shelters at El Pueblo de Los Angeles downtown and on Schrader Boulevard in Hollywood. At el Pueblo dozens of homeless people congregated in close proximity in the park and sidewalk near the shelter. As in Venice, shelter residents came and went at will. A pair of individuals walked across the street and into Union Station. Again there was no evidence of social distancing and no washing stations or other prophylactic measures. Also as in Venice there are hundreds of tents and temporary shelters on the sidewalks and overpasses around the shelter.
One of the core premises of the A Bridge Home program is that it targets local hardcore homeless and gets them off the street. Large encampments covered public spaces around all three of the observed shelters.
Officials promised that “A Bridge Home” shelters would reduce street living in communities. The Mayor’s website says, “As the new shelters open their doors, City Sanitation teams will work to restore spaces that were previously encampments into open and clear public spaces.” So far they appear to be having the opposite effect: Encampments are as sprawling as ever in public spaces immediately adjacent to all three Bridge shelters. People live in tents on a lawn directly adjacent the el Pueblo shelter, tents and campers occupy streets and sidewalks around the Hollywood site, and Venice Beach is virtually at war. If anything street living has increased in proximity to the “A Bridge Home” shelters and brought danger with it.
Officials are enforcing public safety orders against everyone but the homeless, endangering everyone
In a pattern that has become distressingly familiar to Angelenos, there are two sets of rules during the coronavirus emergency: One for the homeless population and one for everyone else.
Current emergency orders from the county and state health departments restrict people’s activities to things like grocery shopping, going to the doctor, pharmacy, or veterinarian, caring for relatives or vulnerable persons, and legally mandated activities. It strains credulity to believe that the scores of homeless people at the two Bridge shelters were engaged in these “Essential Activities” even part of the time. The shelters are open 24 hours a day, meaning people come and go at all hours.
Meanwhile, the city and county of Los Angeles shuttered public access to beaches and parks last week. Mayor Eric Garcetti admonished Angelenos, “Too many people, too close together, too often. The longer we do that, the more people will get sick, and the more people will die. There’s no way to sugarcoat that.” He’s threatened to cut off water and power to “nonessential businesses” that violate the city’s closure orders, and encouraged neighbors to report each other. “You know the old expression about snitches?” he said last Tuesday. “Well, in this case, snitches get rewards.”
Yet thousands of homeless people remain concentrated in parks and other public spaces, unmolested by the same authorities threatening everyone else with penalties and fines. The danger to them is palpable, while the danger to the general public grows by the day.
The city’s disjointed and inconsistent efforts endanger everyone, including city employees and contractors
Two weeks ago Mayor Garcetti announced the city would accelerate the “Pit Stop” program that provides temporary daytime (7a.m. to 7p.m.) porta-potties, hand washing stations, and drinking fountains at homeless encampments. Equipment is contracted with United Site Services and some (though far from all) of the sites are staffed by employees of a San Francisco nonprofit called Urban Alchemy. According to its website, the company employs former long-term felons and assists them on their path back into society.
Over the weekend UA employees at two sites on the westside described their responsibilities as part janitorial and part security. One said that in addition to keeping the units clean, “We make sure no one’s doing any funny stuff in there, doing drugs, sexual, anything like that.” They said they had received basic hygiene training and been told to practice social distancing. They were supplied with spray bottles, bleach, and paper towels. One of the workers had just come back from eating lunch in his car. “Takes an extra few minutes now, because I disinfect the whole interior every time I get out.”
All agreed that camp residents are grateful for the services, though one added, “A lot of people want to vent to us. Some are crazy, some just don’t have anyone else to talk to.” As if on cue, a woman walked up to the attendant and demanded to know why the city had closed the bathrooms and showers at the beach. “That’s the only place we got to go, and they’re shutting it down!” She yelled for several minutes as he tried to explain closing the bathrooms wasn’t in his control.
It was difficult not to wonder whether these employees are properly trained and equipped for the tasks they’re being paid $16.50 an hour to do. They are outside for the duration of their shift and are exposed to filthy environments. They wear rudimentary protective gear like standard surgical masks and latex gloves. One of the employees was visibly wearing her mask improperly, and the mask itself appeared to have been reused several times. As coronavirus makes its inevitable way through the homeless population these workers will be a new front line. They do not appear prepared.
United Site Services employees set up the Pit Stops each morning and pick them up in the evning. At the Third Avenue camp on Monday a single worker from United Site Services – who was aware he was being filmed – hauled two regular porta-potties, a handicap accessible porta-pottie, and a mobile sink onto a flatbed trailer, presumably either to be moved to another location or returned to a company facility. He wore no protective gear save for a pair of gloves and had only a standard size dolly to assist him.
He began by emptying liquid from one of the porta-potties onto the sidewalk. The liquid ran onto the street and toward the storm drain. It also immersed the wheels and platform of the dolly the worker was using, and he stepped through it repeatedly. Over the next 15 minutes he loaded the other structures onto the flatbed. He was in direct contact with the structures nearly at all times. Several times he struggled with the weight, rocking the porta-potties back and forth and at one point jumping onto the dolly to tilt a unit backward. Virtually his entire body came into contact with the plastic surfaces of the units. Scientists have determined coronavirus can remain on plastic for two to three days.
An email to United Site Services was not returned.
The city also has set up water fountains at homeless camps. The fountains, which are not tended by UA or other employees, quickly become filthy. Down the street from the Third Avenue Pit Stop a man brushed his teeth at a temporary fountain the Department of Water and Power had connected to a fire hydrant. He repeatedly spat into the sink, washed his hands and face, and touched virtually every surface of the fountain.
City homeless workers not observing social distancing
Even the city-county agency responsible for homeless services has been part of the problem. Members of the Facebook Group Fight Back Venice! captured video of LAHSA workers handing out water bottles and other supplies to homeless people at the Third Avenue encampment. Like the residents and workers at the Bridge facilities, the LAHSA workers did not observe social distancing and came into proximate and direct contact with homeless people. The workers were not wearing protective gear, though one man appeared to have a bandana tied around his face.
A similar video was posted from the boardwalk of homeless people lined up (again in close quarters) to receive bottles of water from a LAHSA worker. That worker was not wearing protective gear or gloves.
Some nonprofit and faith groups also are putting themselves in harm’s way. Two volunteers with an organization called Bread of Life spent Saturday morning handing out sandwiches and bottles of water to homeless people in Venice.
The problem is getting worse, not better
The dynamics of homelessness endanger the wider population as well. A decade ago the chronically unhoused, for better or worse, congregated in a few neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Tenderloin, Skid Row in Los Angeles, and north Bakersfield. Things were bad but still manageable, particularly given the billions of dollars in homeless-related public spending.
That’s all changed. These days L.A.’s homeless population is diffused throughout the region, a translucent parallel population superimposed upon communities. Encampments have developed social orders and some even have rudimentary economies and self-government. As previously reported by City Journal‘s Chris Rufo and others, once autonomous encampments are becoming interconnected and even interdependent. Mass transit and the profusion of scooters, e-bikes, bike share, and other “micro-mobility” programs provide ample opportunity for people to move among camps. Bike and scooter chopshops are commonplace in encampments. Last summer a resident of a homeless camp in Lake Balboa told The All Aspect Report that people know where to go to get which drugs and where to barter for electronics, bicycles, clothing, food, even sexual favors
This mobility presents an urgent challenge to public health officials during the pandemic. As the virus’s spread approaches its apexin the southland homeless people will be among the hardest hit: They live already with risk factors like poor sanitation, close contact, substance abuse, preexisting conditions, and compromised immune systems. A study released last week by researchers at UCLA, Boston University, and the University of Pennsylvania estimates that as many as 1,200 homeless people might die of the virus in the L.A. area alone. Unhoused victims could overwhelm the county’s medical resources, yet another source of danger for themselves and the wider community.
Whittier represents a prime example of this new dynamic. As soon as the first coronavirus cases were identified last week on Skid Row those who could began to flee. According to Paul Ramirez, founder of Whittier Town Hall, “Unfortunately, [the homeless] are not following any CDC or Public Health guidelines. They are congregating, sharing sleep areas, tents and needles. Local [homeless] are actually welcoming new arrivals, coaching them on our watch habits and directing them to our parks and vacated buildings. On Monday I spoke to a local homeless man and appealed to him to self-isolate, to seek assistance from his family and to take the Covid-19 crisis seriously. His response, ‘FU – If I die, I die.'”
It is well past time for city and county leaders to treat the homeless crisis with the urgency it requires during the coronavirus pandemic. The anemic response to date, the slow-motion rollout, is no longer acceptable. The challenge is compounded by years of poor planning, waste, and fraud.
Angelenos are doing their part. It’s time for the political class to do theirs.
For politicians this isn’t a national emergency, but “a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.”
One of the greatest aspects of the United States of America is the way in which the country’s political class, for all their sins and flaws, rises to the moment when it really matters. Our national tapestry is woven with moments such as Congress gathering on the steps of the Capital and singing “God Bless America” the afternoon after 9/11. We remember Ronald Reagan standing before the Brandenburg Gate imploring Soviet Premiere Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” and the confidence people had in JFK and his team of the best and the brightest during the terrifying days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. We remember Dwight Eisenhower defying members of his own party as well as the blue dog Democrats by sending the National Guard to Little Rock to enforce the Supreme Court’s desegregation order in Brown v. Board of Education. For all our collective national malefactions over the years these are the moments that have forged the American spirit in the modern era.
All of which is why it has been saddening to witness today’s political class respond to the existential threat of the coronavirus pandemic. Rather than unifying in the face of an invisible enemy that kills regardless of party or faction, they have devolved into bouts of petty partisanship that would be unbecoming in normal times. Normal times these are not, and their failure risks becoming our nation’s failure. [UPDATE: On Friday, March 27 Congress passed a $2 trillion emergency stimulus package. The partisan bickering continued through the floor vote itself. It will be a long time before Americans know the full scope of the bill’s provisions.]
Instead of standing together and showing America and the world that they are worthy of the moment, over the past week members of Congress repeatedly have taken their toys and gone to their corners. As the stock market and economy careened toward recession and obliterated the financial security of 330 million Americans, members of the United States Senate, who call their institution the Greatest Deliberative Body in History, spent a week bickering over whether or not to bail out the post office.
At a moment when Americans need leadership, vision, and reassurance they were instead treated to the spectacle of Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer spitting invective at each other across a split screen. Bernie Sanders, who has convinced millions that he’s a viable choice for President, skipped a vote on Sunday to host a virtual town hall from his basement with a neophyte legislator from Brooklyn. This is the man who last week snipped at a reporter that he was busy dealing with a “f***ing global crisis” and doing his “best to make sure that we don’t have an economic meltdown and that people don’t die.” Apparently his best doesn’t include showing up to vote, at least not when there’s a quixotic presidential campaign to attend to.
Both parties are showing Americans that they are incapable of setting aside ideology. Republicans want to hand out extra billions to industries that don’t need it, while Democrats have gone full Green New Deal and P.C. Neither set of demands have anything remotely to do with coronavirus. If the Senate is able to compromise and pass a bill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi won’t guarantee her chamber will so much as bring the bill for a vote.
In the most jaw-dropping display of cynicism to date, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) told reporters on Monday that the crisis is “a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.” Not an opportunity to help Americans, rescue the economy, or save lives, but to achieve partisan ideological goals. While Mr. Clyburn is a Democrat it’s safe to assume many Republicans feel the same way.
It’s important – nay, essential – to keep in mind that the 535 members of the United States Congress, along with their thousands-strong army of staffers, advisors, lawyers, and consultants, are among the few Americans who don’t have to worry about missing paychecks, losing their jobs, or being evicted from their homes during this crisis. They’ll be just fine. In fact, with a $2 trillion stimulus bill in the works their cups runneth over. The few of them who’ve contracted the virus will receive world-class medical care while millions of their fellow citizens wait for basic testing kits to reach their communities.
It is also essential to recognize that, a few scofflaws aside, the vast majority of Americans are comporting themselves with more seriousness, not to mention dignity and community, than their elected representatives. The news waves and social media are chock a block with acts of kindness: A small dental company in Oklahoma donated desperately needed medical supplies to a medical clinic. A barbecue join in Phoenix, Arizona brought hot meals to exhausted staff at a local hospital. Teachers in Indiana formed a car parade to visit their students and uplift everyone’s spirits. The Dropkick Murphys, Boston’s most beloved band, streamed a free concert for 150,000 people on St. Patrick’s Day.
At the same time millions of health care workers, first responders, delivery drivers, grocery store workers, volunteers, journalists, and community leaders are placing their own health at risk to do their jobs and serve their communities during the crisis. The average clerk at Ralph’s has shown far more moxie, courage, and generosity than the entire political class.
While Americans display their best impulses, the political class cannot rise above their worst.
It’s no better at the state or local level. Here in Los Angeles coronavirus has revealed in stark relief the fecklessness of Mayor Garcetti’s and the City Council’s approach to homelessness. More than a month into the crisis, while four million Angelenos (with the exception of a few idiots) self-quarantine and shelter in place, tens of thousands of homeless people, addicts, and lunatics wander the streets at all hours of the days and nights. They convene, as usual, in close proximity in desperately filthy encampments. They share food and drink, clothing, and hypodermic needles. At this point it’s all but certain that the disease will cut through their numbers like a scythe through dry wheat.
At the Mayor’s behest last week council belatedly passed a series of measures aimed at sheltering the homeless in city recreation facilities as well as hotels and motels. Their actions comprise not a coherent strategy so much as a series of impulsive reflexes. The belated plan to cram thousands of people into close quarters also conflicts with guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control. At the same time the city has deployed hundreds of porta-potties and hand washing stations in homeless encampments, which units are serviced by blue collar workers who aren’t provided with even rudimentary protective gear.
As of this writing there’s been no visible change in the conditions on the streets. Reports from some communities, including Venice Beach, confirm that homeless populations actually are increasing, not decreasing. One neighbor told The All Aspect Report that she and her husband can “hear the hacking” from people on the street in front of their home. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Chronicle reported over the weekend that that city’s leadership is “preparing” to make shelters safer.
Governor Gavin Newsom has fared somewhat better, though like so many other members of the political class he’s shown a lack of creative problem-solving. Mostly he’s holding long, meandering press conferences as is his wont, though he’s refrained from overt partisanship. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo seems to believe that part of his job is to post as many videos as he can of his celebrity friends telling Americans what to do (Note to the Governor: Most Americans reflexively do the opposite of whatever Alec Baldwin says).
When the story of this crisis is written, the coda may well be the beginning of the end of America’s two legacy parties. If this is the best they can do in the face of a life and death crisis that threatens the lives and livelihoods of 330 million people, they do not deserve to lead. For the last three and a half years they’ve treated the country to the worst forms of partisanship, all too often comporting themselves like entitled, self-involved children. The GOP has enabled and encouraged Donald Trump’s most egregious conduct, while the Democrats all but abandoned any semblance of effective governance in an all-out, at all costs campaign to destroy him.
They could have seized this moment, as those who came before them, to rise above that perpetual, exhausting fray to deliver leadership and reassurance. They could have shown Americans they are capable of setting aside personal vitriol and political vendettas. They could have behaved like adults, like leaders.
Their failure must not be forgotten nor forgiven. When this is all over, there must be a reckoning, and Americans must hold the political class to account for its failures. The next crisis may not be so gentle with us.
Part I of an occasional series on the public health implications of California’s homeless crisis
As coronavirus continues to spread and approach its apex in the United States, homeless people will be among the hardest hit. They live with numerous risk factors including poor sanitation, close contact, substance abuse, preexisting conditions, and compromised immune systems. California, home to nearly half the country’s unhoused population, faces particular perils. Health experts are reporting they are at twice the risk of contracting the virus as compared to the general population. A recent study by researchers at UCLA, Boston University, and the University of Pennsylvania estimates that as many as 1,200 homeless people could die of the virus in Los Angeles before the current outbreak recedes. Homeless victims alone could quickly overwhelm the county’s stretched medical resources. And while the state’s official response to the outbreak overall has received good marks, and rightly so, it’s a different story with the homeless.
The dynamics of homelessness these days also potentially endanger the broader population. A decade ago chronic homelessness, for better or worse, was concentrated in a few neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Tenderloin, Skid Row in Los Angeles, and north Bakersfield. The situation was at crisis levels and constituted a humanitarian disaster, but at the time it still appeared manageable, with the state and individual cities spending billions of dollars to bring people indoors and provide them with services.
In contrast, these days California’s homeless population is diffused throughout the state, a translucent parallel population superimposed upon cities and towns. Individual camps have social orders and some have developed rudimentary economies and self-government. Still, the twin demons of addiction and mental illness leave few unhaunted and the camps are places of endless suffering. That translucent civilization is corrupted by criminality, exploitation, disease, and death. Last October a man lwho called himself Hippie, who was living in front of the U.S. Post Office in Mar Vista told The All Aspect Report, “It’s f***g Hell, man. I wouldn’t wish this on anybody.”
At the same time, as reported by City Journal‘s Chris Rufo and others, previously autonomous encampments are becoming interconnected and even interdependent. In particular the profusion of scooters, e-bikes, and bike share programs provide ample opportunity for people to move among camps. Bike and scooter chopshops are commonplace in encampments. As a man in a homeless camp in Lake Balboa who identified himself as Roberto told The All Aspect Report last summer, everyone knows where to go to get which drugs and where to barter for electronics, bicycles, clothing, food, even sexual favors.
Disease already spreads easily through homeless encampments. San Diego, Los Angeles, Oakland, and other cities have experienced outbreaks of hepatitis, typhus, influenza, and tuberculosis in camps. Last year L.A. was sued by, ironically, a City Attorney who alleges she contracted typhus from flea-infested rats at City Hall. Also last year City Council President Herb Wesson ordered the rugs in his office replaced after his staff found fleas and reported hearing “rustling” in the ceiling. Of course, homeless people don’t have the luxury of litigation or fumigation.
Given that disease and sickness already were prevalent in the homeless population, their new mobility virtually guarantees that infectious agents are spreading among different camps – and that means spreading through neighborhoods. Homeless people often find shelter in the doorways and courtyards of apartment complexes where hundreds of people live, or the parks where families play and recreate. They traverse neighborhoods, entering backyards and even breaking into homes. They are ideal vectors for aggressive pathogens as proved by those experiences at City Hall last year. With coronavirus the crisis now threatens the health and welfare of all Californians.
City emergency resources were at the breaking point before coronavirus
As these issues coalesce, the state’s emergency response infrastructure already is at a breaking point. LAFD Station 9 in downtown L.A. got 35,518 calls for service last year, making it the busiest station in the country. A huge portion of which were homeless-related. The San Francisco Fire Department fields enough homeless calls every day to reduce service capacity to Level Zero, meaning no available resources are left for additional emergencies. While it sometimes only lasts a few minutes, those minutes can make a life or death difference. The city’s widely respected new fire chief told the board of supervisors last autumn, “It’s been a huge challenge for us. We run at level zero on a daily basis and level zero is when there are no ambulances available to respond to an incident. That speaks volumes to me.”
The All Aspect Report has spoken with dozens of emergency officials off the record and on background about the crisis. The rank and file use words like “overwhelmed,” “exhausted,” and most of all “frustrated.” When asked how many of his station’s fire calls are homeless-related he replied unhesitatingly, “All of them.” Speaking on an otherwise quiet Sunday afternoon he and his crew said they had responded to eight calls to fires just that day. “Toss in the emergency and non-emergency calls the homeless make, sometimes just because they need a ride to the doctor to fill a prescription, and we’re toast,” he said.
Overwhelmed first responders and Level Zero resource capacity are bad enough during normal times. These are not normal times. It is well past time for officials like Governor Gavin Newsom and mayors like London Breed in San Francisco and Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles to admit the state no longer can go it alone.
Only the military and organizations like the Red Cross are equipped to handle the crisis
Within 24 hours of the devastating 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia the United States dispatched C-17 Globemaster, C-5 Galaxy, and C-130 Hercules heavy lift aircraft to the region. Military personnel and private and nonprofit contractors provided shelter, clean water, food, medicine, sanitation, and search and rescue operations from Indonesia to Madigascar. Operation Unified Assistance became the largest relief effort since the Berlin Airlift. It involved some 15,000 personnel, two aircraft carrier task forces, a Marine expeditionary unit, a U.S. Navy hospital ship, and countless vehicles and rotary and fixed wing aircraft. At the peak of the operation the U.S. and a dozen other countries were delivering more than 100,000 pounds of supplies every 24 hours. Less than a year later, some of those same personnel and resources were on the ground in cities and towns throughout the southeastern U.S. providing relief to survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
That is the kind of response California’s homeless crisis demands in the context of the coronavirus. The state’s responses to date have proved woefully inadequate, as a walk down the street proves. It would require a fraction of the effort and resources of Unified Response to aid every homeless person in California in a matter of weeks and prevent a possible mass outbreak of coronavirus in that population. The coronavirus emergency should be a starting point in terms of a long-term solution to homelessness, a solution that recognizes the urgency of the situation. No more “Ten Year Plans” to solve homelessness, no more $700,000 apartments built by plugged-in developers. Californians don’t have the luxury to indulge official corruption and incompetence anymore.
If it wasn’t apparent to the political class before it is now: This is an emergency. It’s time to bring in the resources with the knowledge and experience to tackle it. The military has an extraordinary record of service in the context of natural and man made disasters going back to at least the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. General Fredrick Funston’s Presidio Battalion established relief camps, provided food, water, and medical attention to survivors, conducted search-and-rescue operations, and tapped out looting and civil unrest. If they could do it 115 years ago they can do it today.
Mr. Governor, this is no longer a drill. Look to the history of the city in which you began your political career, learn from it, and do right by the people of this state. Call up the National Guard.
They said it wouldn’t be like this. Officials including Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilman Mike Bonin promised that the “A Bridge Home” initiative, which provides temporary housing and services to the chronically homeless, would bring vulnerable people indoors while providing relief to communities from the street crime, drug use, and public endangerment that often accompany illegal encampments. They’re betting hundreds of millions of the public’s money on it.
In one Venice Beach neighborhood, unfortunately, A Bridge Home shelter has had the opposite effect.
In the week since officials celebrated the opening of a new Bridge facility at the old Metro bus maintenance facility on Main Street in the heart of a residential neighborhood three blocks from the Venice boardwalk, people have reported and documented dozens of crimes and public disturbances. The incidents occur at all hours of the day and night and include assault, sexual assault, fights, vandalism, graffiti, illegal camping, public defecation, drug use, and disturbances of the peace. On social media and via email residents have shared frightening experiences, videos, and pictures. A tense email thread between some 60 neighbors and Councilman Mike Bonin’s Venice Bridge Home Deputy, Allison Wilhite, began the day the facility opened.
Single women and mothers are among the most vocal residents. They’ve expressed fear for their personal safety and even their lives, and collectively their experiences reveal a worrying degree of lawlessness.
On March 3 at 8:20pm, resident Soledad Ursura wrote to Ms. Wilhite, “I was just on a nightly walk with my dog which I do at the same hour every night. There were three male youths coming from Bridge Housing walking towards me and they asked if they could get a cigarette off me. I said no, and as they passed me they started telling me things they wished they could do to me and that I was a bitch for not talking to them, and to keep my head down and keep pretending to talk to my dog. Something similar happened last night as well.” As a legal matter this amounts to a sexual assault.
On the morning of March 4 another neighbor wrote, “I’m a single woman 2 blocks away. It’s now unsafe for me to step out of my house without my dog and mace. And I’ve been here for 20 years and never experienced this before.” Within minutes yet another echoed her experience, “I too am a single woman living across the street and I don’t feel safe. I have already been followed twice. I can’t enjoy my life in Venice anymore.”
An hour later yet another woman wrote, “I am starting to feel like a prisoner in my own home while these vagrants harass and assault people, shoot up on our door steps, vandalize our homes, start fires and invade our properties! I have had several incidents when I am afraid to leave my home, another incident with someone very high and mentally unstable on my driveway when I came home from grocery shopping that I was afraid to get out of my car and unload my groceries into my OWN HOME. I fear for my life. I have had vagrants ring my door bell at 2:45 am and 12:15 a.m.”
There have been multiple instances virtually every day since the facility opened. For example, in a span of three hours on Wednesday, March 4:
At around 4pm Venice resident Vicki Halliday called police to report that a man had threatened to kill her. The incident took place across the street from the Bridge facility’s entrance. After confronting Ms. Halliday he went on a spree and smashed the windows, hoods, and roofs of at least half a dozen cars – with his body. LAPD arrested the man, whom The All Aspect Report confirmed is a resident of the Bridge facility.
An hour later another woman reported that her 14-pound dog was attacked by a resident’s much larger dog as they walked past the shelter entrance. Fortunately, her dog was uninjured.
An hour after that, yet another woman reported a man defecating in her front yard.
These incidents occurred over just three hours on a single day. According to interviews with dozens of residents, it’s a typical afternoon in this neighborhood since the shelter opened.
There have been incidents inside the shelter as well. On Monday a resident posted a picture and message on the Facebook group Venice United: “Around 10:30 on Monday, March 2, at least five LAPD patrol cars were spotted responding to an apparent fight inside the shelter. Later that same night a man filmed several apparently intoxicated individuals walking down his street having a screaming fight.”
The community’s experience in the first week has been a far cry from official promises. On Councilman Bonin’s Bridge Home Venice webpage is the promise, “RESIDENTS WILL BE GOOD NEIGHBORS – Each temporary housing facility built as part of the Bridge Home initiative will be required to abide by rules that protect neighbors from any nuisance. There will be on-site management and on-site security, and opportunities for neighbors to discuss other operational rules before the facility is opened.”
Likewise, at a February 25 ceremony celebrating the shelter’s opening, Mayor Eric Garcetti declared, “Today’s opening is a reminder that people across Los Angeles are saying `yes’ to delivering the housing, healing and hope our unhoused neighbors need and deserve.”
It’s a safe bet that few people in Venice believed they were saying yes to this kind of “housing, healing and hope.” Other documented disturbances in the facility’s first week have included individuals passed out on sidewalks, in driveways, carports, and front yards. Individuals have been reported pounding on front doors and ringing doorbells in the middle of the night. On the shelter’s opening night a resident filmed traffic including a Metro bus stopped in front of the shelter as a group of individuals fought in the street.
Officials promise help is on the way, but concerns remain
City officials including Ms. Wilhite assure neighbors matters will improve once the LAPD sets up a Special Enforcement and Cleaning Zone (SECZ) in the area. SECZs include dedicated LAPD foot patrols, four days a week of bulky item pick-up, a weekly dedicated cleaning, and additional outreach by personnel from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA).
However, the city will not establish the zone until March 9, nearly two weeks after the bridge shelter opened. In response to queries from residents Ms. Wilhite sent a statement to neighbors and members of the media:
The decision to wait until March 9 was made after having conversations with the Unified Homeless Response Center (aka UHRC, the Mayor’s Office team that coordinates the enhanced services), LAHSA, LAPD Pacific Division, and other Council District Offices that have opened an A Bridge Home. Each have different perspectives on the best timing, and all for good reasons.
The experience in other Council Districts has been that starting the SECZ the same day as intake can cause a lot of movement and frustration among unhoused people and make it harder for our outreach teams to bring people to site for their intake appointment. We know residents have waited a long time for these enhanced services to start, and we want to honor that as soon as possible, while also ensuring we can effectively and efficiently open the site to our unhoused neighbors. There are requests from the community that we delay it longer, even upwards of 90 days, but we are hopeful these two weeks will let our outreach teams and on site service providers do their work to open the site successfully.
In the meantime she told neighbors to call 911 for emergencies, 1-800-ASK-LAPD and the local LAPD Senior Lead Officers for non-emergencies, and the city’s 311 neighborhood services line for issues like graffiti removal.
UPDATE 3/7: The All Aspect Report reached out to Ms. Wilhite via email on Thursday afternoon to ask about services, security, and rules at the Venice Bridge housing facility. She forwarded those questions to representatives at PATH, SPY, and LAHSA. As of the end of the day on Friday none had responded.
There are reasons to question whether the new services, when the do start, will have an impact. Thanks to laws like Prop 47 and initiatives like restorative justice many of the crimes neighbors are enduring in Venice Beach are no longer priorities for police, much less prosecutors. What can police do when politicians tie their hands? Across the City of Los Angeles it has become depressingly familiar to see homeless people and vagrants engage in lawless behavior in plain full of law enforcement, with no consequences. Those who are arrest all too often are back on the streets in a matter of days, often hours. How can neighbors trust officials who have already broken so many promises when they say this time will be different?
Indeed, Ms. Halliday told The All Aspect Report crimes already are being ignored. She wrote in an email, “All weekend, shelter residents hung out and smoked weed or did their meth doses. A dealer is conveniently located in an RV on Main Street across from the Google building.” However, she added, “LAPD has had a problem dealing with the dealer for some reason even though many of them have witnessed the exchanges.” She said she has personally witnessed transactions.
It has taken less than a week for three years’ worth of promises to be broken, with devastating consequences for countless neighbors. Meanwhile, officials are forging ahead with dozens more Bridge facilities throughout the City of Los Angeles.
It’s almost as if they have priorities besides helping the homeless.
UPDATE 3/17: Disruptions continued outside the bridge facility a week after the SECZ allegedly began: Video shows several young men fighting at the entrance to the bridge facility, several of whom subsequently approached and accosted a journalist covering the incident.