California is a failing state

The Summer of 2019 may go down as the moment the Golden State slipped into the abyss

(VENICE BEACH, CA) In the middle of the night, a toddler stands amidst the detritus in an illegal homeless encampment. If scenes like this aren’t enough to wake the political class, what will be? Photograph courtesy of Soledad Ursula.

The image is virtually unspeakable: In the middle of the night a toddler stands barefoot amidst garbage and needles in an illegal Venice Beach homeless camp, while a few feet away her mom and a friend lie on cardboard boxes getting high. A local resident took the picture across the street from an office building owned by Google, a $300 billion company.

This is life in California in 2019.

We should be asking, where is the outrage? A picture that should have incited a mass response provoked hardly a whimper. It garnered minimal local coverage and nothing at the state, much less national level. To their credit, KABC and KFI radio ran segments. Yet it seems that as far as the majority of the media are concerned, a naked toddler in a homeless encampment is the new normal in California, not worth so much as a remark. No big deal, nothing to see here, move along.

Can any sane human being, anyone with a scintilla of decency and empathy, look at that picture and not be moved? Have we already fallen into the abyss?

Everyone here feels it, the unreality permeating life in the Golden State these days. The California dream has become a nightmare: Shuffling corpses populate our streets, parks, and neighborhoods. Transients are replacing children on playgrounds. We wake in the night to the wails of lunatics battling demons only they can see, to the screams of assault victims, the crashes of criminal vagrants breaking into car windows. We endure physical battery, property damage, theft, and more. We navigate our children past excrement and hypodermic needles in public spaces, hoping that today won’t be the day we have to explain what that man near the jungle gym was doing under his sleeping bag.

We go through our days haunted by a vague and disconcerting sense that no one is really in charge anymore, that no one in power is up to the task. We live with the feeling that we’re on our own, that we’re already living in anarchy. It’s just that most people hadn’t noticed until recently.

What will it take for things to change?

Californians from Siskiyou to San Diego are asking themselves the same question: What is it going to take? When will our state’s political and bureaucratic classes realize they have lost control?

While they declare war on plastic straws (but not, mind you, plastic hypodermic needles, which they hand out by the thousand to addicts for free) California’s myriad self-inflicted disasters continue to spiral: Failed school systems, mass poverty, rampant crime, crumbling infrastructure, public corruption, out-of-control living costs, nearly $2 trillion in debt and public liabilities, illegal immigration, the destruction of the middle class, crushing taxes and regulations, bloated bureaucracies – on and on far into the night. And they call this a sanctuary.

The most obvious and visible, indeed inescapable manifestation of the state’s failure remains the homeless crisis. The staggering human costs are on display in every neighborhood, on virtually every corner, on nearly every block.

Make no mistake: Officials from Governor Gavin Newsom to the lowest level bureaucrat are encouraging hundreds of thousands of people to come to California and destroy themselves. They’re making it easy, in fact. They hand out those free syringes while decriminalizing many drug offenses. In California you can get high in public, wander drunk down the street, and relieve yourself on the side of a school building, all without fearing so much as a sideways glance from a cop. You can die in a tent on city property and no one will notice. Countless hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, are slowly killing themselves on the public dime. They’re taking the rest of us with them.

Just two weeks ago, the body of a homeless man was discovered inside a tent on city property, barely 50 feet from the entrance to a city facility that provides services to low income seniors. The staff had walked past the man’s tent several times a day but did nothing. It was only when his body began to decompose and reek that anyone thought to check on him. Many of us thought that would be enough. It wasn’t.

And so, here in the Summer of 2019, Californians are asking: What will it take for things to change?

(HOLLYWOOD, CA) Flowers mark the place where a homeless man died in his tent. The spot is barely 50 feet from the entrance to a L.A. City senior center. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

In April of last year a father was sitting on a restaurant patio with his five-year-old daughter on his lap. Out of nowhere a transient walked up and stabbed him in the neck, killing him. The transient had been known to local authorities, who did nothing. Many of us thought that would be enough. It wasn’t.

Starting in February of this year, local media outlets – most notably Dr. Drew Pinsky on KABC 790 – began sounding the alarm over outbreaks of medieval diseases in homeless camps, including typhus, typhoid fever, dengue fever, and tuberculosis. More recently there has been talk of bubonic plague and leprosy. Many of us thought that would be enough. It wasn’t.

In April of this year, a report by Kaiser Health said that more than 900 homeless people died on city streets in 2018, a spike of 76% over 2017. Many of us thought that would be enough. It wasn’t.

Earlier this summer several homeless people were burned alive inside their tents in a spate of attacks. At least two died. Many of us thought that would be enough. It wasn’t.

If murder, medieval plagues, and mass deaths aren’t enough, what possibly will be? If an infant left to fend for herself in a homeless camp in the middle of the night, amidst criminals and lunatics and addicts isn’t enough, what is? At what point do we acknowledge the inescapable truth, that California is a failed state, where the most vulnerable suffer and die on a daily basis while the elites cloister in gated communities, fete themselves at self-congratulatory fundraisers, and send their children to private schools that cost more than most universities?

The very building blocks of civilization are crumbling

Human beings learned the basic elements of civilization thousands of years ago: Clean water, stable food supplies, roads, education, public health, waste disposal. In modern times we added electricity, communications, modern medicine, and mass transportation. Thanks to decades of official neglect, incompetence, corruption, and waste, those fundamental building blocks are crumbling in California.

Crumbling schools

This part is personal. When I first started tutoring Leon*, he was living with his mom, older sister, and two older brothers in a homeless shelter in Inglewood. He was 14 and going into seventh grade in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Leon loves music, computers, and video games. He dreams of a career as a music engineer. He’s got a mischievous side and is a bit of a prankster. He loves paper airplanes. He also loves history. Whether it’s Genghis Khan or Easter Island, the American Revolution or the Industrial Revolution, he can’t get enough. He has a remarkable ability to focus. Give him a set of math problems and the world vanishes until he’s solved the last one. It’s a thing to behold. One day I gave him a set of 10 math problems on the computer. After nearly ten minutes passed I asked him how many he had left. “Only eight,” he replied. My heart sank into the floor until I glanced at the screen and realized I’d made a mistake: I’d given him 50 problems, not 10. He was grinding away with fierce determination.

Leon’s ability to focus is all the more remarkable given the deafening noise in his world. He speaks with a pronounced stutter that started after his best friend was killed in a random drive-by when he was eight (the murder is among the 50% of homicides that go unsolved each year in Los Angeles, the majority in South L.A.). He talks about the demons he sometimes sees in the walls at night, which he says are the ones that killed his friend. They crawl out of the air ducts and window cracks. He keeps them at bay by praying.

(LOS ANGELES, CA) A decrepit hallway in a LAUSD building. Photograph by Mark Lewis.

Leon’s life is similar to that of the more than 17,000 homeless students in the LAUSD, a number that has tripled in the last three years. Kids who when the 3pm bell rings go to emergency shelters, motels, even cars and sidewalk tents. Overall the Los Angeles Office of Education estimates there are 72,272 homeless children in the county. That number has jumped by 25% in the last three years.

California has among the very worst schools in the country. Though the state is home to roughly 12% of the U.S. population, it has nearly half of the worst performing schools. In 2017 barely a third of students met or exceeded math standards each year, and fewer than 40% did the same in English Language Arts. In poor areas like Compton the rates were 6.6% and 11.8%, respectively. High schools routinely graduate thousands of high school seniors who are functionally illiterate – young adults who lack the skills to fill out a fast food job application. This is reality for kids like Leon in California’s public schools.

Crumbling roads, bridges, and dams

Over this year’s July 4th weekend millions of people in Southern California were reminded how perilous our existence really is: An earthquake swarm culminated in a July 4 foreshock that measured 6.4 on the Richter Scale and a main quake of 7.1 in the early hours of July 6. Fortunately the tremblers were remote enough and deep enough that they did not cause major damage.

(OROVILLE, CA) The scene in a first world country. Photo courtesy Associated Press.

Which was profoundly lucky, because California – the birthplace of the freeway – has some of the worst roads, bridges, and overpasses in the country. Politicians have thrown billions of dollars on a bullet train to nowhere, light rail no one rides, and “multi-modal urban transit networks” (whatever those are) while utterly neglecting the actual streets, roads, and highways that actual Californians use. As a direct result of the political class’s neglect it will cost $150 billion over the next ten years just to “to bring the system back to a state of good repair.” Deficient roads costs Californians $61 billion annually due to congestion-related delays, accidents, and increased vehicle wear and tear caused by poor road conditions.

In February 2017 the spillway of the Oroville Dam in Butte County partially collapsed, prompting the evacuation of nearly 200,000 Californians. Not to worry, though: State officials sprang into action and saved millions of fish. We’ve reached a point where salmon rank higher than children on state officials’ list of priorities.

Crumbling water supply

A May 2019 infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state an overall C-. The report also noted, “Googling ‘water main breaks’ in California will unfortunately yield a very long list of infrastructure failure stories covered by the media, and many more occur every day that don’t receive media attention.”

(LITTLEROCK, CA) Don’t drink the water: A section of the California Aqueduct. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

State testing has found lead in the drinking water of 17% of public schools. Overall, according to a previously undisclosed report by senior officials at the California State Water Resources Control Board more than 1,000 water districts, accounting for more than one in three, may be failing to deliver potable drinking water. These reports come on the heels of stories last year out of south Los Angeles, where the Sativa Water District in Compton became California’s very own Flint, Michigan. Meanwhile, at least 678 dams are considered to be high-hazard potential. In February 2017 the Oroville Dam collapsed, forcing the evacuation of more than 180,000 people.

An economic time bomb

Yet in 2019 this state, with its abundant natural resources, enormous reserves of human capital and creativity, and ideal climate is on the brink of collapse. Decades of political mismanagement and malfeasance have decimated the state’s budget and business environments. More than half of Californians (and nearly two thirds of Millennials) say they would leave if they had the chance. If not for immigration, much of it illegal, the state would have lost population over the last 20 years. Unchecked spending, particularly in the form of generous pay, benefits, and retirement packages for government employees, has put the state on the hook for some $1.5 trillion in unfunded future liabilities. No one has the slightest idea where the money will come from, yet that isn’t stopping the state’s political class from spending more.

The list goes on and on. When will we acknowledge the inescapable truth, that thanks to decades of progressive experimentation, mismanagement, corruption, and basic incompetence, California is in a death spiral?

Then again, perhaps a more salient question: Is it too late to save us? As of the summer of 2019, the answer may well be yes.

*Not his real name. Details of Leon’s life have been changed to protect his privacy as a minor.

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