Governor Gavin Newsom and local leaders have failed. Only national, and even international, resources can meet the magnitude of their human-caused crisis.
[NOTE: A previous version of this story appeared on January 18, 2019. It has been updated, and is even more relevant and urgent two years later]
One of the first things you see after a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis virtually anywhere on earth is the arrival of a United States Air National Guard C-17 Globemaster loaded with food, medical supplies, and personnel. Within 24 hours of the devastating 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia the United States dispatched Globemasters along with C-5 Galaxy and C-130 Hercules strategic lifters to the region. National Guard and regular service personnel immediately began providing shelter, clean water, food, medicine, sanitation, and search and rescue operations for millions of people from Indonesia to Madagascar. They were the first wave of what would become Operation Unified Assistance, the largest humanitarian relief effort since the Berlin Airlift. Within ten days of the earthquake the USS Lincoln aircraft carrier arrived in the region and began 24-hour-a-day flight operations, including search and rescue. The effort involved some 30,000 personnel, two aircraft carrier task forces, a Marine expeditionary unit, a U.S. Navy hospital ship, and hundreds of rotary and fixed wing aircraft and vehicles. Along with the offshore resources they established more than 500 individual relief camps and other sites throughout the region. At the peak 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. The number of lives saved is well into the millions.
It would take a fraction of that response to aid virtually every single homeless person in California in a matter of weeks. If we could muster that kind of effort for strangers 10,000 miles away there literally is zero excuse to not do it for our own neighbors here at home. Of course, that’s not the profitable solution, nor the one that enables politicians to aggrandize ever more power over actual working people. So instead of taking the blindingly obvious course and declaring a national emergency, our political roll out multi-billion dollar plans for dozens of $9 million “bridge housing” and $900,000 units of “permanent supportive housing.” Governor Newsom’s current grand plan, the latest of many previous failures, is to throw another $2 billion at the problem, to go along with the billions already flushed away on what has become known as the Homeless Industrial Complex. Meanwhile, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti continues his Quixotic (but highly profitable) quest to spend a billion dollars to build 10,000 units in 10 years. In other words, housing sufficient for less than a third of the city’s current (official) chronic homeless population, in a decade.
These are not serious plans. These are not serious people.
In contrast, the military has a tradition of assisting in and coordinating humanitarian efforts in extreme circumstances, often performing heroically. Historians credit an Army general, Frederick Funston, for saving what was left of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fires. He was deputy commander of the division stationed at the Presidio. Within hours of the quake, his troops were throughout the city fighting fires, establishing relief camps, setting up kitchens to feed the survivors, providing medical aid to the injured, re-establishing sanitation, establishing security (there was a spate of looting), and assisting in rescue operations. They saved thousands of lives and prevented the complete annihilation of the city by fire and human mischief.
The military responds to human-caused disasters as well. Operation Tomodachi was the U.S. response to the March 11, 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. It lasted two months and included 24,000 personnel, 189 aircraft, and the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier task force along with two amphibious carriers, two destroyers, an amphibious dock ship, and other surface vessels. U.S. service members assisted in everything from harbor cleanups to freshwater delivery, search and rescue to decontamination.
The military often is the only entity with the experience, human and material resources, and discipline to respond to major crises, and they often are the most effective resources on the ground. Even as the George W. Bush administration and FEMA bungled their responses to Hurricane Katrina, the disaster was hailed as one of the National Guard’s finest hours for its rescue efforts. Certainly there were hitches, but as with so many other examples the military saved countless lives and properties and prevented the outbreak of mass lawlessness.
The scale of the California homeless crisis demands a national response
It’s time to call in those resources to tackle California’s homeless crisis. The magnitude of the catastrophe, which state leadership has allowed to metastasize for decades, is every bit as dire as any of the global examples mentioned above. The impacts on neighborhoods and communities are as devastating as anything you’ll see in actual war zones: Murder, rape, shootings, bombings, targeted assassinations, out of control fires, torture, disease, infestations, flesh eating bacteria, vandalism, assaults, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria. In places like San Francisco’s Tenderloin and Venice Beach in L.A. conditions have devolved to post-apocalyptic mayhem. Anarchy doesn’t begin to describe many places in the Golden State.
The death toll is in the hundreds of thousands. Since 2000 at least 10,000 homeless people have perished in Los Angeles County alone. Officially, some 130,000 people were homeless in the state last year. The official number likely is off by as much as an order of magnitude. According to an authoritative 2014 report by the American Institutes for Research, in 2013 as many as 526,000 children experienced homelessness in California. And that was six years ago, before the crisis truly began to spiral. The report also ranked the state 49th in planning and policies related to child homelessness.
Approximately 1,833 people lost their lives during and after Hurricane Katrina. In 2017, the last year for which numbers are available, at least 2,000 homeless people died in California. In 2019, more than 1,000 homeless people died in Los Angeles County alone. That’s a death every nine hours, in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history. And again, those are just the official numbers. The truth is certainly far more horrifying. Meanwhile it has been widely reported that diseases associated with the middle ages – typhus, typhoid, tuberculosis – are spreading in homeless camps across the state. There are legitimate fears of an outbreak of bubonic plague as soon as later this summer, and God help the Southland if coronavirus arrives. Police officers, firefighters, and volunteers working in homeless communities routinely report all manner of ailments, ranging from inexplicable coughs to influenza and typhus.
Homeless encampments also present terrifying risks of fire. In December 2017 a homeless cook fire got out of control in West Los Angeles and sparked a brush fire that consumed seven houses in Bel Air and threatened the Getty Center and its priceless art collections and research centers. A fire captain in downtown Los Angeles recently told The All Aspect Report that his crews are called to douse dumpster fires several times a day. He said they refer to one of their trucks as “the dumpster fire tender.” Homeless fires are a daily occurrence from the San Fernando Valley to the Bay Area, the state capital to remote Butte County. It’s a literal version of Russian roulette, and it’s only a matter of time before one of those fires gets out of control and becomes the state’s next Camp Fire.
The fires are just one aspect of the lawlessness that California’s homeless crisis has created. Vandalism, assault, drug sales, public intoxication, disturbing the peace, public defecation, even prostitution and attempted murder all have become terrifyingly commonplace. Meanwhile, thanks to laws like Prop 47, more than a dozen felonies including armed assault have been downgraded to misdemeanors. Prosecutors like San Francisco’s Chesea Boudin have all but stopped prosecuting so-called quality of life crimes. Even violent felons, attempted kidnappers, attempted rapists, routinely walk after a few hours in jail. As a result of these fundamental breakdowns in criminal law, many – perhaps most – crimes aren’t even reported anymore. Why bother calling 911 when you know no one’s coming, much less following up and prosecuting?
Local and state services are overwhelmed, and officials aren’t up to the task
If the scope of these issues doesn’t justify federal intervention it’s hard to see what would. California has hit rock bottom. It’s been clear for several years that state and local authorities are overwhelmed. As previously reported in these pages, under Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “bridge housing” plan the City of Los Angeles is spending an average of $55,000 per bed for temporary dormitory style housing. Accepting the official count of 36,900 homeless in the city, it would cost more than $2 billion to provide rudimentary shelter to all of them. The shelters also cost an average of $50,000 per bed per year to operate, meaning the city would spend $2 billion to construct the shelters and then $2 billion a year to maintain and operate them. These are not real numbers.
In contrast, consider that an Army mobile hospital and shelter can be set up for a few hundred thousand dollars in a matter of hours. These facilities provide a range of emergency and supportive services, including sanitary and medical facilities, triage, accommodation, security, kitchens, pharmacies, storage, and communal gathering places. In a fraction of the time that city and state governments spend dithering over what color to paint a new bridge facility, the National Guard and other military elements could have shelters up and running statewide, helping people, saving lives, and rescuing communities.
The military branches collectively possess countless years of experience in confronting all manner of humanitarian disasters. Who better to solve California’s homeless crisis than the men and women who have been on the ground in places Paradise, New Orleans, Haiti, Indonesia, and hundreds of other crisis points? Would Californians rather continue to trust that the politicians will figure it out, eventually and given enough money? It is time to call in the professionals who have demonstrated time and again their capabilities under the most challenging circumstances.
Potential legal and constitutional questions
The President has authority to deploy military units domestically for certain purposes. Under the Posse Comitatus Act the military can conduct non-law enforcement operations including humanitarian missions so long as they do not act as a police or quasi-police force. Likewise, National Guard units can be activated by either their state government or the federal government. The differences are in who pays the bills and who’s in charge. When a state deploys its National Guard, the state pays and the governor serves as commander in chief. In contrast, the President or Secretary of Defense can call up units to support overseas military operations, in which case the federal government pays and is in command. Guard activation also can be a hybrid: Federally funded while remaining under state control, such as during Hurricane Katrina and the Camp Fire.
Suffice it to say it is highly unlikely that Governor Newsom will activate the Guard at the state level to respond to a homeless crisis he himself had a hand in creating over the last twenty years. It would be to admit the failure of state and local efforts to address the crisis. Moreover, in the current environment of Democratic politics it simply would be untenable: Before the first tent was erected the cries of “concentration camps” would begin from the party’s newly dominant Sandersnista Left wing.
There is, however, another alternative.
Precedents in the Civil Rights Era
There is at least some precedent for Presidents using the military and calling up the National Guard without a state declaration, under extraordinary circumstances and even in defiance of state government. For example, the President can use the military and activate a state’s Guard units when citizens’ civil rights are threatened by state action. The most famous examples were President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s use of the Guard to enforce public school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 and President John F. Kennedy use of the Alabama and Mississippi National Guard to enforce desegregation efforts in those states in the early 1960s. In all cases presidents acted over the strenuous objections of governors.
Perhaps the most salient example is President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to federalize the Alabama National Guard in 1965. Johnson had been deeply troubled by images of peaceful civil rights protestors being attacked by police dogs, doused with fire hoses, and tear gassed and beaten in the streets of Selma on March 7, 1965, known as “Bloody Sunday.” Infuriated after the state’s governor – the noxious Democrat segregationist George Wallace – reneged on a promise to use state authorities to protect the protests, Johnson unilaterally activated 10,000 Alabama Guard troops and dispatched them to the city. From March 20-25, 1965 some 3,000 Guard and regular Army troops escorted Martin Luther King, Jr. and 50,000 protesters on their march from Selma to Montgomery, where King delivered one of his most famous orations, “How Long, Not Long.”
The 1965 example is particularly applicable because Johnson’s legal and constitutional justification for taking control of the Alabama National Guard was civil rights. Albeit in a different context, today’s homeless are subject to routine civil rights and constitutional deprivations by the very authorities charged with preserving them. Hundreds of thousands of Californians live on the streets, in beat-up campers, in abandoned buildings unfit for human habitation. Hundreds of thousands of children languish in similar and sometimes worse conditions. Millions of innocent citizens also have their rights trammeled every day, from the handicapped little girl who can’t get down the sidewalk in Venice in her wheelchair because dozens of tents block her way to the average Jane or Joe who has to navigate sidewalks covered in human excrement while wondering if today will be the day the plague arrives.
It will require diligent research by constitutional scholars. A process may look something like this: President Trump could declare a national state of emergency over the homeless crisis (while California is by far the worst, states nationwide are grappling with their own versions of the catastrophe). He could demand that governors in the worst affected states call up their Guard units to begin immediate humanitarian operations. When those governors invariably refuse, the President could activate their National Guard units as a necessary to the preservation of millions of people’s civil rights and safety.
Of course, for many in this deep blue state the idea of giving Donald Trump authority to do anything is a non-starter. There would be inevitable comparisons to the President’s decision to send troops to the southern border. Then again, military professionals haven’t been shy about shutting down Trump’s more jingoistic tendencies in that arena. Moreover, Californians would do well to look at the Camp Fire as an example. Despite the occasional (and characteristic) inflammatory Tweet the President stayed out of the Guard’s way and let them do their job. That is what should be expected of federal efforts to deal with homelessness in the state.
Greed is the only thing standing between California and help
It’s time for Californians to acknowledge the state’s abject failure to solve the homeless crisis. It’s time to acknowledge that the bureaucratic amateurs had their chance and only made things worse. Californians are starting to make those demands. Governor Newsom faces recall largely for his inept, corrupt response to COVID-19, but a lot of people who signed that petition were fit to be tied long before the pandemic. Mayors have lost control of their cities, and a new generation of ideologically insane district attorneys is ensuring that failure meets no consequences. These “leaders” have had literally decades to solve a problem of their own creation. At this point it’s a minor miracle when people like Gavin Newsom tie their own shoes on the first attempt.
It’s time to declare a state of emergency in California.
It’s time to send in the military, before it’s too late.