We need to stop using the term “homeless crisis.” It’s wrong, it’s not backed up by the data, and it leads to bad policy

Homelessness is a symptom, not a cause — As long as we keep treating symptoms we’ll never cure the underlying maladies — The real crises are addiction, mental illness, and lack of opportunities — But for the Homeless Industrial Complex cures are less profitable than “services” and “treatments” that keep people half alive, helpless, and dependent

Part 1: Paul’s story

In the summer of 2017 a homeless man took up sporadic residence in front of my building in Santa Monica. Let’s call him Paul. Several days a week around the same time in the early evening, Paul had what I came to think of as his “6pm meltdown.” He would stand on the sidewalk screaming horrific things at top volume. He was particularly fond of the n-word, which is bad enough in any situation but particularly awful considering my neighbors are a Black family with two young children. There wasn’t enough soundproofing in the Southland to smother Paul’s eruptions, so after the second or third instance I confronted him (should things have gone sideways I figured I had less to lose than parents of two young children). It was tense, as people experiencing psychotic episodes can turn violent, but thankfully the encounter was enough to discourage him from using our block as his forum.

Afterward I saw him around town from time to time. When he wasn’t enduring an episode he was a nice enough guy. An artist from Michigan, he said he had a good family but his mental illness reached a point that, “they just couldn’t handle it anymore.” He decided on California because “it’s the easiest place in the world to live like this.” He loved the fact that he could spend one day on the beach, the next in the park, and the day after that exploring downtown L.A. via transit. We had conversations about the creative life. He liked my dogs and they wagged their tails when they saw him – confirmation that he was a decent human being. A decent human being wracked by the demons that mental illness and addiction unleash, demons that led him to a long list of crimes, many of them violent.

A supportive new home – or a barren jail cell?

On the morning of Thanksgiving 2019 I bumped into Paul at the grocery store. He looked different, with a fresh haircut, new shoes, and a nice clean set of clothes (he was never particularly dirty, but I’d never seen him quite so put together). His eyes lit up when he saw me. “Chris!” he exclaimed. “I got an apartment!”

He threw his arms around me, and invited me to see his new digs. I was genuinely happy for him. What had begun as an ugly confrontation six months earlier had resolved in the best way possible, and during the holidays to boot. Housing, goes the prevailing wisdom, is the first essential step toward escaping homelessness and recovering some semblance of life. It makes sense: The best way to solve homelessness is to give people, well, homes.

I visited Paul the following week at Step Up on Second, one of many nonprofits that have sprung up over the last decade to provide housing and services to homeless people. Step Up owns an apartment building in downtown Santa Monica that provides permanent supportive housing to approximately 50 people. Residents, also called “clients,” receive an apartment and a food stipend and are offered services. Indeed the entire concept of permanent supportive housing rests on the availability of “wrap around” services, ranging from substance abuse treatment to talk therapy, group therapy, job assistance, even help navigating L.A.’s Byzantine social services network. Those services are the critical epoxy that holds the system together: Get people indoors and immediately address their underlying issues.

At least, that’s the theory. I visited Paul on a Wednesday afternoon. The Step Up on Second building is, as its name suggests, on Second Street in the heart of Santa Monica. On one side is a luxury apartment development, and other other are a trendy restaurant and bar. Across the street are two salons where you can get $80 Brazilian blow-outs, and Equinox gym, and law offices. In short, Sept Up on Second is in a seriously high rent district. You’d expect it to be a model of top notch professional care and services. You would be disappointed, just like I was.

I wasn’t exactly expecting Promises at Malibu, the infamous $80,000+ a month luxury detox resort to the one percent. I expected a bare modicum of resources and support available to society’s most vulnerable. The first thing I noticed was the absence of anyone at the door. I punched Paul’s number into the callbox and he buzzed me in. There was no attendant in the lobby, no one to check me in or out or even note my presence. I could have been carrying a backpack full of drugs, weapons, any sort of contraband into the facility and it would have gone unnoticed. I took the elevator up to the fourth floor, and walking to Paul’s apartment passed an individual I recognized from the streets, a man who spent his days hanging out, and often passing out, in front of the local 7-11. A jetstream of stale whiskey followed in his wake. So much for sober living.

All too often, “permanent supportive housing” is not supportive, rarely permanent, and barely qualifies as housing

Paul’s room was reminiscent of a county jail cell, albeit one with a galley kitchen and half bathroom. By “half bathroom” I mean a toilet and standing shower were directly adjacent the kitchen, with a curtain that you pulled around it for, oh, let’s call it privacy. There was a mini fridge, hot pot, and microwave (“they don’t want people here to have access to fire or gas,” Paul told me, explaining the absence of a stove top and oven). The walls were stark white, not so much as a Motel 6 style print to break up the monotony. Paul had taped a few of his own pencil sketches to the walls as decor, which somehow only accentuated the bleakness.

The worst part was that the only window was a small slit in the top corner, literally like a jail cell, and it looked out onto the rooftop deck of a restaurant and bar next door. Paul, an alcoholic who downed an entire six pack in the hour I visited, described how hard it was to fall asleep on weekend nights because of the noise.

My immediate thought was this was the kind of place you would put a homeless person if you wanted to drive them even more insane, to break them. What kind of monsters house a homeless schizophrenic alcoholic in a room overlooking a bar? Here was a man trying to recover some semblance of life, forced to live alone in a box and listen to people party and drink five nights a week. It would drive nearly anyone out of their minds. It reminded me of A Clockwork Orange’s Ludovico technique, when the main character Alex is forced to watch hours of ultraviolence in order to cure his ultraviolence.

The Homeless Industrial Complex’s approach to “treatment.”

For that matter, what perverse city licensing process approved a bar next door to a homeless recovery facility in the first place? It was almost as if they were trying to torture him. Paul said that while Step Up offered “some services” they weren’t mandatory and he had not availed himself. I can’t say that I blamed him – who wants to subject themselves to do-gooder social workers of the sorts who work for places like Step Up on Second? Even a schizophrenic knows better.

Ultimately, the end of Paul’s story was as sad as it was inevitable. He lasted less than four months at Step Up. In February I saw his picture in the crime section of the Santa Monica Daily Press. He had assaulted a woman on the street in broad daylight and was being held on $20,000 bail. The paper didn’t provide details but details aren’t necessary. He lost his apartment, and I have not seen him since. Wherever he is today I fervently hope he is finally getting the treatment and services he so desperately needs. Maybe he made it back to his family in Michigan and maybe they found a way to reconcile. I’d like to think so.

Part 2. Paul’s story is the story of homelessness in Los Angeles

Homeless activists say there are a million paths to homelessness. They’re absolutely right. Why do they insist there’s only one path out?

Paul is not a “homeless man.” Paul is an extremely sick person whose multiple illnesses ultimately resulted in a life of crime and homelessness. That’s not semantics or spin. Those are two fundamentally different paradigms that demand fundamentally different solutions. It isn’t abstract Algebra: A mental health and addiction crisis simply requires different resources than a homeless crisis. A homeless crisis can (in theory) be addressed by building long-term, permanent homes. In contrast, mentally ill and addicted people need immediate triage, regardless of what shape the roof over their head happens to take at the time. Waiting for tends of thousands of apartments that cost between half and three quarters of a million dollars to become available is like trying to solve California’s energy crisis by banking on cold fusion.

This is what the “housing first” model produces: The Missouri Place development in West L.A. received $40 million in public funding. “Low income” units will be offered to individuals making up to $70,000 a year.

Paul is an object lesson in the limitations of the “housing first” approach to homelessness. More than half of L.A.’s street homeless population suffer from mental illness, and half suffer from addiction. What’s more, it’s well-documented that just living on the street causes enough anxiety and stress to break people down emotionally. It’s safe to conclude that the vast majority of the people on the streets cannot care for themselves. A cell-like apartment won’t change that underlying fact.

Make no mistake: The only people benefiting from the “build, baby, build” approach are developers, nonprofits, lawyers, and bureaucrats. Just putting a roof over someone’s head accomplishes little to nothing. Indeed, as Paul’s case illustrates in many cases “permanent supportive housing” options are as bad or worse than living on the street. The longer an individual lives on the street the more difficult it is for them to re-acclimate to living indoors. Imagine how your far the average person’s mind has to stretch to adapt to life on the street in the first place. It’s delusional to believe a switch can be flipped just because they’re back indoors.

Paul is not an outlier, not by a sight. If anything he is the archetype of the modern Angeleno homeless person: From out of state, suffering from multiple mental illnesses exacerbated by addiction. He is often delusional, frequently violent, occasionally dangerous. He long ago lost the ability to live on his own, much less for an extended period. He is for all intents and purposes unemployable. Sticking him in a box with a roof didn’t help him one bit.

The lack of anything resembling home decoration in Paul’s apartment is what poker players might call a tell. For a couple hundred bucks they could have at least hung a couple of calming nature prints, maybe a Monet haystack. Apparently that’s a financial bridge too far for an organization whose CEO made nearly $350,000 in 2019. Two hundred dollars to marginally improve a vulnerable person’s mental state was beyond the reach of an outfit that took in $22 million in government funding last year. Another tell: $14.5 million of that $22 million went to officer, board, and staff salaries, with another $1.7 going to lawyers and other professional services. In fact, accounting for all expenditures on staff including travel and transportation, office space, supplies, Step Up spends the vast majority of its revenue taking care of officers and staff.

If the “housing first” approach is a failure, a lot of people are going to have to find new jobs

People increasingly talk about the Homeless Industrial Complex, and it is very real. It’s an unholy alliance of parasitic nonprofits, faceless bureaucrats, and grasping politicians. Put differently, it’s quite possibly the worst combination of resources to solve the problem. As a local business owner in Venice told the UK Telegraph, “The people camped out front my store are not looking for housing, they are looking for drugs and have made this place their permanent home. They sit out on lounge chairs during the day and ask people for a dollar so they can buy crack. These people are in need of help, help to overcome their addictions and help with learning basic life skills. You can’t just put street people in a home and think that’s it, that’s the answer.” Yet that is exactly what L.A.’s political class has spent some $3 billion of the people’s money doing.

Unless and until we wake up and start treating the underlying causes of homelessness, developers will keep getting richer, politicians will amass more power, and everyday folks will continue to suffer – both housed and unhoused.

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The Typewriter: An Exaltation

Tick-tick. Tick-tack-tick. Thunk-tacka-tick-tack. Ding! Ticka-ticka-ticka. Schwip!

For my twelfth birthday a family friend – who apparently had better insight into my calling than I would for another 25 years – gave me a 1951 Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter. It was a unique and wonderful gift for an 80s kid who was otherwise living at the dawn of the digital era, a time when digital beeps produced an increasingly permanent sort of white noise that has come to characterize our daily lives. Had I known the machine’s life story I’d have realized that my friend also gave me a piece of history, not to mention a piece of her own soul.

Alas, twelve-year-old Christopher had about as much use for a forty-year old typewriter as he might have had for a wind-up Victrola. Even our family’s modern Smith-Corona electric typewriter (so advanced it had a white-out key) had been relegated to the bottom shelf, for we had just gotten our first home computer. I was busy learning to work the Apple II+ word processor, turning my thoughts into green letters, then print-out’s I handed into my teachers. It was 1987 and dot matrix reigned supreme.

Designed in Italy by Marcello Nizzoli, Olivetti was a popular portable brand in the 50s and 60s. In 1951 a brand-new Lettera 22 lightened your wallet by $75 to $90 (roughly $700 to $800 in today’s dollars), making it something of a luxury product at a time when an IBM Selectric only set you back ten bucks. Present-day Olivetti aficionados include Cormac McCarthy, Tom Hanks, and the late Leonard Cohen.

Sleek Olivetti typewriters were unusual in an age when most of their brethren were all angles and black-and-white practicality. In contrast to the stern, colorless façade of a Remington Soundless or the blank institutional stare of an Underwood Touchmaster, the Olivetti 22’s curved, almost sensual metal sheathing evoked the world’s growing fascination with all things aerodynamic. After all, it was the dawn of the jet age and even Buicks were getting vertical stabilizers. As the opulence of the Art Deco era gave way to Modernism’s sleek lines the Olivetti 22 was one of the machines for the moment.

It’s not just a looker: Even by today’s standards its mechanisms are wonderfully balanced, each keystroke producing a precise snap from finger to page. It’s a sublime linkage of thought and expression, a tactile echo of the synaptic sparks that create words (or at least midwife them into the real world).

A couple of years later we moved from Los Angeles to the Bay Area and the Olivetti vanished among boxes of books and clothes and model airplanes, packed with scrunched–up newspaper care then deposited in a corner of the basement.

Which, looking back, is a shame. Because even though I spent the first fifteen-odd years of my adult life in the practice of law my destiny was always with the written word. If I’d tried out the Olivetti sooner I might have discovered that fact and saved everyone a lot of trouble.

I’d also have discovered that it’s almost impossible not to get a good story out of the Olivetti. It’s not just any old typewriter. The friend who gave it to me was Steffi Duna, a Hungarian dancer, singer, and actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Her career read like movie script: Born in 1910 to a family of vintners in a village outside Budapest, by the time she was 20 she had danced in most of the capitals of Europe. At 22 she debuted on the London stage in Noel Coward’s Words and Music, becoming one of the four actresses who breathed life into Coward’s most famous song, “Mad About the Boy.” Before retiring in 1940 she had starred in numerous films and worked with actors including Lucille Ball and William Boyd. She starred in the first Technicolor talkie, 1927’s La Cucaracha.

She was still using the Olivetti in the 1980s, eschewing technological advancement for the simple pleasures of the typewriter. It’s amazing to think how many thousands of letters she must have written over the years. How many did she compose to Lucy, with whom she starred in 1939’s Panama Lady and maintained a lifelong friendship?

Steffi’s husband was Dennis O’Keefe, an actor whom IMDB describes as a “Tall, cheerful outdoorsy leading man of Hollywood B movies,” and lists 278 movie and TV credits over his 30-year career. He was in some big films, too. In 1944 he was in a pair of war pictures, alongside John Wayne and Carol Lombard in The Fighting Seabees and with Gary Cooper and Laraine Day in Cecile B. DeMille’s The Story of Dr. Wassell. In the 1950s he wrote and co-wrote screenplays and teleplays, composing many on the Olivetti, often with Steffi’s help. My humble little typewriter may once have put words in Alan Ladd’s mouth. O’Keefe also was known to be generous with friends and co-stars. Maybe The Duke himself borrowed the Olivetti on the Seabees set to dash off a letter home. It’s portable, after all.

The typewriter weighs 4.5 pounds and comes in a rugged, steel-framed canvas carrying case with a leather-wrapped steel handle and a heavy zipper. The case itself is a sort of Greatest Generation khaki, the handles and stitching saddle-colored. There’s a water ring on the back-left corner, smudges of what may be charcoal, grease, or mascara on the back, and faded immigration stamps across the top including Cuba, Italy, The Maldives, and Mexico. It’s vaguely redolent of an incense hard to place.

It might have remained in storage for years or decades more had fate not intervened. My father died in 2006, and when I visited my mother in the ensuing years I often took time to sort through some of the accumulated family ephemera in the basement. It was during one of those dusty, spider-intensive, beer-assisted forays into the past that I opened the box containing the Olivetti, like a domestic Indiana Jones unearthing a long-lost treasure.

The first thing I noticed was the smell: Incense, metal, canvas, oil, and history.

I think the smell of history peaks between 50 and 100 years. It’s the smell of an old room in an old building where something once happened, the smell of memories being freed. The smell when you went down into your grandparents’ basement full of boxes of old books and toys, the wooden skis leaning against the wall, the sewing machine encased in dust. My dad’s high school yearbook still smelled of Salinas summers and Chevy axle grease fifty years after he graduated.

After a century the essences begin to depart. That’s why when the wind is right you can still catch whiffs of cordite and internal combustion on the Normandy beaches, while Antietam smells only of chestnut pollen and dry wheat.

The Olivetti is 66 years old. A history-minded sommelier might say its bouquet is in its prime. For me it’s the smell of my own grandparents’ basement in Puyallup, Washington on a rainy day. It’s the smell of old books, real books, books that told stories apart from the ones in their pages. The smell of everything the color of childhood, a cartoon of Snoopy typing It was a dark and stormy night in the 40-year-old book that belonged to my aunt, a stain from a lollipop or Popsicle on the cover smack in the middle of Charlie Brown’s bald head. A dark and stormy night can mean anything to a child, and lead anywhere.

The smell is also one of the secrets that makes writing on a typewriter unlike any other form of composition. It’s magical, because a typewriter engages all five senses. It’s a total physical immersion in the written word.

There are the smells of the particular machine’s unique history, along with ink, oil, metal, and paper. After a while the scents accumulate as a vague taste on the tip of your tongue and the roof of your mouth. You may find that your next meal is tinged slightly with ink dust (a dish featuring tomato sauce is recommended, primed with a vodka-based cocktail and assisted by plenty of garlic). There are the sounds: The type bar mechanism, carriage movement, spaces, shifts, inserting and removing pages, and of course the keystrokes and the ding! at the end of each line. The rattle of the table. So many vibrations in a single letter!

The sense of touch is acute with a mechanical typewriter. The paper itself is different, lighter and rougher than soulless laser printer stock. It’s more like – well, paper. The Olivetti requires moderate key pressure such that typing with all five fingers is impractical unless you’re Dwayne Johnson. I find myself typing Hemingway-style, middle fingers reinforced by index fingers, my right hand handling carriage return. The task is visually engaging, eyes shifting constantly among page, keyboard, and machine. The Olivetti’s European-style QZERTY arrangement keeps the American writer alert; it also lacks “1” and “0” keys, requiring a lowercase l and an uppercase O. The motion of the type bars and carriage is hypnotic, choreographed to the action and movement on the page.

The sensory immersion creates a meditative state ideal for creativity. Each keystroke requires particular attention, since there’s no delete key and white-out is a time-consuming thought-killer. Freed from the tyranny of constant electronic revision the additional mental engagement focuses the mind. It gives the conscious and ego something to do and lets the writing id take over. 

Which is the most magical thing of all about the Olivetti: It’s a fool-proof cure for writer’s block.

Composing drafts in different media allows the writer to experience a story from a variety of vantages, different nuances and facets emerging in the progression from storyboard to handwriting to computer screen and finally print copy. At any point in the process, when I come to a stumbling point, when an outline isn’t coming together or I can’t quite seem to hear a character’s voice, I sit down at the little wooden desk occupied by the typewriter, a ream of (real) paper, an ash tray, and a few hardcovers between a pair of antique bronze bookends shaped like elephant heads.

Sometimes I light a cigarette because sometimes a writer has to, Surgeons General and healthy old age be damned. What of the troublesome character, scene, or moment that brought me here? It recedes, ceding consciousness to the thrill of inspiration. A drag on the cigarette, the smoke pinches the lungs and nicotine tickles the brain.

A question, then, to my trusty old friend: Where were you, fifty years ago today? Who was spilling their guts to you? What did the traffic sound like that night?

Where did she sleep?

The Olivetti has stories to tell, if the writer will listen. Listen I do and it begins to answer my queries. Slowly at first, one letter at a time, Ouija-like. A scene never beheld or a character never encountered emerges from the void between me and the machine, assumes shape and form and action. I’ve been here before, though we’re here for the first time. 

She leaps the railroad tracks and runs through thick fog beneath an orange streetlight, pursued by a faceless man in a blue trench coat. She clutches a package wrapped in newspaper under her arm, holding it like it’s her own child. Beneath the distant wail of a locomotive, out of the corner of her eye at the edge of the light she sees me watching her. She brushes her red hair aside. We make eye contact, and in an instant I know everything.

Or, if you prefer, more simply: It was a dark and stormy night….

Thunk-tack-tack-tick. Tick-tick-tacka-tacka. Tick-tick. Tack-ding!

Is Mike Bonin really housing the homeless of the Venice Boardwalk – or just hustling them out of sight?

Interviews in Westchester, Santa Monica, elsewhere confirm what residents suspected — Homeless moving to those communities from Venice — Not offered services or housing — But Mr. Bonin’s senior staffer demanded a homeless person be removed from in front of her office

Meanwhile, a homeless person was injured in a shooting in Westchester Park in front of Mr. Bonin’s office on Saturday night — Witnesses, including homeless themselves, live in fear — Mr. Bonin’s staffers caught on camera assaulting a news crew

An all-too-familiar sight in West L.A. on Mike Bonin’s watch. Photo courtesy KTLA

L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin’s last ditch effort to clean up the homeless encampments on the Venice Boardwalk appears to be floundering. Under intense pressure from constituents, his peers on council, and most recently Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, late last month Mr. Bonin launched the “Encampments to Homes” program. He promised to house 200 people from the boardwalk for $5 million (for the mathematically inclined that’s $25,000 per person for temporary shelter with no guarantee – for that matter no mention – of long term solutions). For the last two weeks he’s posted regularly on social media about the number of people allegedly removed so far. As of this he claimed that 110 people were “sleeping indoors” (again, doing a little math, at a rate of 110 people every three weeks it will take 54 weeks to house all 2,000 estimated homeless in that part of Venice alone).

While it’s impossible to verify the numbers, interviews, research, news, and common sense suggest a very different scenario is unfolding. According to a story in the Washington Examiner over the weekend, many Boardwalk homeless are not accepting services and moving indoors but simply are relocating to new illegal encampments elsewhere. Ira Koslow, the president of the Venice Neighborhood Council’s (VNC) Board of Directors, said, “There are empty spaces now, but if you go to the north…that’s now doubled and jammed. They moved from one end to the other, and there’s no repercussions.”

More than a few Venice residents share his hunch. VNC Public Safety Committee Chair Soledad Ursua told the all aspect report, “We knew this was coming when Bonin announced the initiative. He’s had seven years to clean the boardwalk and now he expects people to believe he can do it in six weeks? Now we learn that he’s essentially rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. And no one in CD 11 should be surprised. He’s not solving the crisis, he’s running for his political life.”

Mr. Bonin’s track record justifies residents’ skepticism that “Encampments to Homes” will prove any less of a failure than Mr. Bonin’s many other broken promises. There are still links to videos on his council website in which he boasts that the Rose Street Bridge facility, which he rammed through over vehement local concerns, would shelter the homeless living in the immediate neighborhood. In its first year and a half the facility had the opposite impact, turning the area into what many describe as a veritable war zone.

In all of this, of course, it is most often the homeless themselves who suffer the worst and longest. Every day living in a tent on the Boardwalk or on a sidewalk is one day farther from home, hope, and even sanity. It is well-documented that extended periods of street living can inflict permanent mental and emotional damage. Coupled with the mental illness and addiction that are homelessness’s cause and handmaiden and the depths of their hell become unimaginable. Yet that is precisely the place Mr. Bonin has consigned thousands of his “unhoused neighbors.” People in CD 11 and across L.A. can be forgiven their skepticism that his new effort will help people who need it most.

Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic

On Sunday I joined Jessica Rogers, Communications Director for EnvisionLA, and a camera crew as they visited locations in Mr. Bonin’s district (disclosure: I’m on the board of EnvisionLA). We spoke with homeless people living in Westchester Park, where Mr. Bonin coincidentally has a field office, and confirmed people had arrived from the Boardwalk in the last few days. A woman who asked that her name not be used because she lives in fear of an abusive ex-boyfriend told Ms. Rogers that she knows about a dozen people in her immediate area of the park who previously lived at the Boardwalk encampment.

We meet up with Westchester resident and advocate Julie Zahler. She regularly checks on folks living in the park, has gotten to know many of them and established a degree of trust. She brings food, clothing and other essentials. In a videotaped interview she confirmed to Ms. Rogers that she had just met with “a group of new individuals to the park who all have moved from Venice Beach with the clearings and found their way up to the park.” She had just spoken with four individuals who witnessed last weekend’s shootings and were understandably reluctant to give their names or appear on camera. All had just arrived from the Boardwalk.

Later that afternoon we visited Ocean Park Beach, just over the border from Venice in Santa Monica. One of the first things we noticed in the parking lot was a battered old school bus with a badly faded American flag paint job. Venice residents came to know that bus all too well as it was parked near the Whole Foods on Lincoln Avenue for several months. It’s another indication of the migration of Venice’s homeless population to other areas and even other cities. Walking along the bike path we encountered an individual in a tent who identified himself as Matt. He was in a sort of stupor, whether psychological or drug-induced it was impossible to tell. Sprawled on a filthy mattress he said, “Just came up here. Was just down there, now I’m here. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be over there.”

Mr. Bonin has even abandoned is own back yard

Miguel Centeno keeps his orange van parked about 50 feet from the front door to Mr. Bonin’s field office. A graduate of nearby Loyola Marymount University, where he recently applied for a Masters program, he’s dubbed himself “The Mayor of Mike Bonin’s Parking Lot.” Asked if he had been offered housing or services he echoes what the others told Ms. Rogers: “I’ve been here two to three months, and no one has ever approached me.” He even tried walking into Mr. Bonin’s office and was told no one could help him “immediately.” Given that he has lived fifty feet from the office door for months one wonders how Mr. Bonin and his staff define that concept.

It’s bad enough that Mr. Bonin hasn’t offered services to the homeless people living literally within feet of his own office. It’s even worse when you learn that his senior staff actually sought to have them removed. Two weeks ago The Venice Current and other outlets obtained a copy of an email from Hannah Levein, Mr. Bonin’s “Acting District Director” for Westchester, to another city department in which she sought the removal of a homeless person from the doorway. Again, it cannot be emphasized enough: Even though neither Mr. Bonin nor his staff have lifted a finger to assist the homeless people outside the office, they demanded that at least one of them be removed. Because “my office looks directly at the entrance” and apparently actually seeing a homeless person caused her some personal discomfort. She demanded a response ‘as soon as possible.” Mind you, this was at 10:28am on the first Monday she was back in the office. Of all the issues confronting CD 11 and the city of L.A. her own personal discomfort was paramount.

PLEASE let that sink in for a long, long moment. Because at this point it’s really all anyone needs to know about Mike Bonin and the sorts of individuals he chooses to employ.

From the “You can’t make this stuff up” file. Document courtesy of The Venice Current.

Even that isn’t the whole story – with apologies to every late night commercial ever, but wait, there’s more. Last week a news crew from Fox11 Los Angeles approached Ms. Levien as she walked to her car. The reporter was trying to ask about the email, but another of Mr. Bonin’s staffers physically accosted the reporter – a woman barely half his size – even brandishing an object to push her away. Based on the footage Mr. Bonin’s staffer committed felony assault, battery, and false imprisonment, while violating a journalists’ First Amendment rights. He initiated physical contact and forced the woman out of his way, even brandishing an object at her. He used his height advantage to intimidate her. Real tough guy.

As of today he remains on the city payroll.

So Mike Bonin is failing yet again, even in his own backyard. He’s lying and dissembling again. And now his staff are assaulting and violating the rights of reporters. At this rate, Mike Bonin is going to recall himself.

So long, Mayor Garcetti, and good riddance.

Eric Garcetti’s departure is a rare moment of opportunity in L.A. Will his successor seize it or continue the same failed policies?

L.A.’s next mayor has a chance to take city hall apart down to the studs, and start to rebuild. Photo courtesy WikiCommons.

It’s difficult to conjure a more spectacular fall from political grace than the implosion Angelenos are witnessing of soon-to-be former mayor Eric Garcetti (it’s like music, that phrase: “former mayor Eric Garcetti”). The man who is about to accept the ultimate political consolation prize, an ambassadorship, once spent more time traveling around the country networking than running the metropolis of which he has been the titular leader for seven years. Two years ago he seriously believed he was going to be the next President. Even six months ago he still held out hope for a respectable second tier cabinet position like Secretary of Transportation. Instead, a man who thought he was going to be charting national and international policy will be organizing cocktail parties for the sorts of people who populate consulates, which is to say, overwhelmingly people of little consequence.

He will leave a city in far worse shape than he found it. He will be remembered not for securing an Olympics no one wanted even before the COVID-19 pandemic, but for the meltdown in basic civic institutions that occurred on his watch and for which he bears ultimate responsibility.

Make no mistake: Los Angeles was in free fall long before 2020 unleashed the one-two punch of pandemic and mass civil unrest, and no one was more responsible than the mayor. To be sure, the City Council isn’t exactly a bunch of slouches when it comes to their preternatural ability to screw things up and hurt people. But Garcetti has been around the longest, from two terms in council, three years as its president, and seven years as mayor. This is his Los Angeles, a place where people already were living a looking class existence in which officialdom consistently proclaimed new accomplishments while conditions for actual people continued deteriorating. Garcetti boasted about new lows in crime even as streets from Venice Beach to Wilmington devolved into post-apocalyptic nightmares. He trotted out “road diets” and “complete streets’ for nonexistent bicyclists even as Angelnos languished literally in the world’s worst traffic. It became downright Orwellian at times.

Historians will require neologisms to describe the new circle of Hell into which the City of Angels descended during the Garcetti Era. Indeed, a lexicon emerged to express the contours of what many have come to call the Homeless Industrial Complex. That, not Olympics or prosperity, is his legacy.

Eric Garcetti at a press conference in 2019.

Mr. Garcetti departs his hometown, the city he sought to lead, in the midst of a out-of-control homeless crisis, a historic crime wave, thoroughly demoralized police and fire departments, and an entrenched bureaucracy of patronage that renders terms like Byzantine laughably superfluous. As zombies roam the streets the backrooms of 200 North Spring Street are choked with vape smoke as cronies, ideologues, and useful idiots divy up the spoils of voter approved initiatives to the tune of billions of dollars. At least, the rooms that aren’t boarded up or quarantined due to rat, cockroach, and termite infestations. The capital of a great city no longer.

The Garcetti chapter ends not with a bang, much less an oath of presidential office, but with the feeblest of whimpers. Should this post find its way to our friends and allies in India, a country I’ve twice visited and for which I have great fondness, I can only say I’m sorry. For America is sending you a schemer, a chameleon, a nakedly ambitious narcissist. A person so fundamentally dishonest that he lies about essential aspects of who he is. He is charming, no doubt, so much that even his adversaries sometimes find themselves beguiled in his presence. Do not be fooled. Remember how little time his ambition left for him to run Los Angeles, the place he was born and raised and where his father previously served as district attorney, and ask whether you can have confidence that he will treat a foreign nation any better. Look at the pictures below and understand they portray his handiwork.

Hope for the future?

Garcetti’s abrupt, albeit widely anticipated, departure creates a rare moment of political opportunity in L.A. His successor could be the most consequential interim mayor in the city’s history, maybe the country’s. Angelenos are desperate for new solutions to homelessness, crime, poverty, traffic, sustainability, and a host of other issues that languished under this administration. We know that the current approaches are not failing – they have failed. We are ready to try new things, to take chances and risks to save our city. Like our counterparts in that weird vertical city on the east coast we’re ready to embrace a law and order candidate so long as they’re not too extreme.

On their first day in office this “17 monther” could chart a bold new course. The first thing the next mayor must do is to declare a state of emergency over the homeless crisis. There is no longer any excuse. By any reasonable standard the situation qualifies as a humanitarian crisis. It’s that simple. City and county resources are overwhelmed: Despite (or more accurately, because of) the city spending some $6 billion over the last fifteen years the homeless population has exploded. The city/county homeless agency, LASHA is in chaos and can barely even keep an emergency shelter telephone number connected. A state of emergency will allow state and federal resources to be brought to bear. Instead of homeless encampments we’ll have Red Cross and National Guard humanitarian relief camps.

The models are out there. Look at Venice Beach. Councilman Mike Bonin sat on his ample haunches claiming impotence for seven years as the crisis spiraled and people suffered and died. No matter how you feel about L.A. Sheriff Alex Villaneuva it’s indisputable that he has forced long overdue action on the Boardwalk, in a short window of time. Within a week of the Sheriff’s visit Mr. Bonin started to clean up the boardwalk for the first time in his term. That’s no accident.

The question is, can an interim mayor learn those kinds of lessons? In the early stages Joe Buscaino has certainly said many of the right things. Showing up in Mr. Bonin’s backyard in Venice Beach at 7:30am on a Monday morning was a baller move. Assuming he can sustain, and that he can muster real support, starting in his own district, he’ll contend. Angelenos will be watching him, as well as City Council President Nury Martinez. One would like to think that Mr. Garcetti took the right steps behind the scenes to ensure a smooth transition of power, such as communicating with Ms. Martinez and her staff. Then again, over the last decade Angelenos have learned not to expect even basic competence from their elected and appointed officials.

If the interim mayor plays it right, Garcetti’s departure will mark the close one of the darkest chapters in the history of Los Angeles. The city is on the brink, and we can only hope and pray that Mr. Yoga Pants’s successor is smarter, more competent, more honest, and more forthright. It isn’t just right, it’s one of the biggest political opportunities in recent memory.

Will they seize it?

California is terrifyingly unprepared for the coming conflagrations

Analysis of grand jury investigations from around the state reveals aging equipment, personnel shortages, outdated procedures, and massive gaps in evacuation planning and emergency notification networks

Meanwhile, a recent report caught Governor Gavin Newsom lying about promised funding increases

When it comes to wildfires California’s political class are playing Russian roulette with 40 million lives. An analysis of more than 200 civil grand jury investigations from all of the state’s 58 counties reveals catastrophically flawed, and in many places nonexistent, emergency response plans affecting hundreds of cities. Many of those investigations also expose the extent to which policymakers are engaging in what can only be described as willful ignorance.

It’s bad enough to realize that California isn’t even playing catch-up. It’s positively devastating to listen to a report last week by Scott Rodd of Sacramento Capital Public Radio and NPR’s California Newsroom. The headline reads, “Newsom Misled The Public About Wildfire Prevention Efforts Ahead Of Worst Fire Season On Record.” According to the report, the governor has addressed only 13% of his own list of highest priority projects.” Even that isn’t the worst part. Mr. Rodd reported that in 2020, the worst fire season on record, funding for such projects actually “dropped by half compared to the previous year, and Newsom cut funding for wildfire prevention in the budget by more than $100 million.”

Indeed, in many ways California is moving backward, at top speed. Californians need to know that their state government doesn’t have their back as communities confront unprecedented fuel loads, severely constrained evacuation routes, and ongoing overdevelopment in fire zones and wildland urban interface (WUI) areas that increase the dangers literally every day. Even as the governor cuts the firefighting budget, pending legislation in Sacramento would radically accelerate and expand residential development in those areas, while failing to fund essential infrastructure upgrades including fire protection.

The state’s spiraling homeless crisis is a literal accelerant: The number of fires and conflagrations attributable to illegal encampments increases by the thousands annually. Nor are those fires limited to urban areas. Last month a homeless man intentionally set a series of brush fires in the upscale Pacific Palisades neighborhood in Los Angeles. Fortunately fire crews prevented the blaze from endangering homes, but it burned more than 1,500 acres directly adjacent the Palisades Highlands community some 5,000 residents call home. It was far from an isolated incident, as L.A. endures dozens of homeless fires every day, many in high fire danger areas.

A large illegal encampment with a firepit, cookstove, and dozens of butane bottles was discovered less than 100 yards from the official start point of the 2019 Saddleridge Fire in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. The fire burned 9,000 acres and resulted in a death. Photograph and captions by Christopher D. LeGras.

The Palisades fire was a harbinger of things to come as we enter what will likely be another record setting fire season. Among the biggest concerns are evacuations. During the catastrophic 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County thousands of people became trapped in their cars as the flames raced toward them. Many fled on foot, literally running through an inferno that at its peak burned the equivalent of a football field every second. The fire obliterated the cities of Paradise, Magalia, and Upper Ridge, destroyed more than 14,000 structures, and killed at least 88 people (few survivors in the area accept the official death toll; everyone I spoke with in the days and weeks immediately after the fire believed it to be significantly higher, particularly considering how many people were living off the grid in the area).

Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide

In 2019 a firm called Streetlight Data compiled a national list of evacuation-constrained small cities. Their analysis reveals scores of smaller communities (fewer than 40,000 people) around California with evacuation constraints similar to and in many cases worse than Paradise. They made the results of the study public.

The 2018 wildfire season was particularly educational, to say the least. Both the Camp Fire and the Woolsey Fire in northern Los Angeles County ignited on the same day, within hours of each other. The Woolsey Fire after action report noted, “While the Los Angeles County Fire Department, the Los Angeles City Fire Department, and the Ventura County Fire Department regularly plan for and practice their response to a large fire in the region, they could not have planned for a complete exhaustion of California’s limited firefighting resources brought on by a regional wildfire weather threat in conjunction with the Camp Fire, a mass casualty shooting in Ventura County, and the Ventura County Hill Fire, which began just before the Woolsey Fire started.”

Phrased differently, prior to November 2018 officials could not have planned for the perfect firestorms that engulfed the state, but they have no excuse for their failure to plan since that awful year. The fact that so many areas in the state remain woefully under prepared in 2021 is unconscionable. Even as California continues to lead the nation and the world in the quality of our firefighting professionals, civil grand jury investigations over the last three years expose deficiencies at the policy level that place those heroes, and the millions of Californians they protect, at risk every minute of every day.

Among the common themes are: Lack of emergency planning, underfunding of emergency resources, poor or nonexistent communications to the public, and lack of political leadership. While those themes recur throughout the reports one of the especially disconcerting aspects is the sheer variety of problems. In some counties the issue is mismanagement or outright malfeasance on the part of officials, elsewhere it’s a matter of bureaucratic ossification, in still other places it’s outdated equipment or inconsistent training protocols.

For example, a 2018-2019 Santa Cruz County grand jury investigation found that that county’s emergency response framework was a hopelessly confusing web of bureaucracy, unclear chains of command, policy inconsistencies, and no accountability. Likewise, in San Francisco, where the next “Big One” is not a matter of if but when, “roughly one-third of the City’s developed area…[is] not adequately protected from fires after a major earthquake.” Worse, the city “still does not have concrete plans or a timeline to provide a more robust emergency firefighting water supply for all parts of the City that need one.” This, despite the fact that “City leaders have known about this issue for decades.”

Again, the reports consistently laud the quality and bravery of emergency responders – which in a sense makes the situations even worse, because it reminds the rest of us that the people most at risk are the very ones we ask to risk their lives to save ours. Here is a chart of the counties in which civil grand jury investigations have identified significant weaknesses in their emergency preparedness over the last three years (you can find links to all the reports at the bottom of this post):

The total population of those counties is more than 10 million people. Of all the grand jury reports reviewed, only one, a 2019-2020 report from Calaveras County, identified positive progress in emergency preparedness.

Not just voices in the wilderness

Of course, civil grand jury investigations aren’t dispositive, and there are variations in the quality and depth of the reports from the California’s 58 counties. Jurors are not experts but citizens selected randomly from a pool of applicants and nominees. Nevertheless, as a general rule the reports reflect diligent effort, and the citizens who serve as jurors clearly took their responsibilities seriously. Moreover the reports themselves are not the end of the matter but the beginning. Any citizen can request an investigation into most any subject of public policy, such that the existence of the investigation itself serves to raise awareness. Formal responses from cities and government agencies provide additional insight and perspective above and beyond the reports themselves, and often spur ameliorative action. Officials also point out that fire preparedness involves a high degree of individual responsibility. The most effective fire prevention resources in the world cannot force an individual to clear the deadwood from their property, for example.

Still, government is the only entity that can muster the resources (and tax dollars) to address the crisis head on. Unfortunately other sources bolster the grand jury investigations’ conclusions that policy level failures are critical. After all, a homeowner can take every precaution to protect themselves but if the city in which they live hasn’t maintained its high pressure water systems those steps are all for naught.

In addition to the important Streetlight Data analysis, in 2019 the California State Auditor’s office investigatted emergency preparedness in three counties: Butte, Sonoma, and Ventura. The analysis concluded, “these three counties have not adequately implemented best practices for protecting vulnerable populations, which may place their residents at greater risk of harm during future natural disasters…. Before some of California’s most recent and significant wildfires, none of the three counties we reviewed had complete, up-to-date plans for alerting and warning their residents about danger from natural disasters, conducting evacuations, or sheltering evacuees.” Likewise, an in-depth 2019 investigation by USA Today concluded that less than a quarter – 22% – of California’s 27 most highly populated fire prone communities have robust evacuation plans. The story was updated in December of that year.

Despite the overwhelming documented and anecdotal evidence of the dangers policymakers at the state and local levels continue the grotesque game of Russian roulette. In many places policies are making the crisis worse, prioritizing things like bike lanes that no one uses and the removal traffic lanes even in the worst fire zones, reducing already overburdened evacuation routes even as new residential development continues apace.

In a word, it is madness.

Californians can only hope and pray that the grand jury investigations prompt desperately needed and long overdue changes. Unless and until policymakers starting with Governor Gavin Newsom take the crisis seriously as we enter what will almost certainly be another record setting fire season, it’s going to get a whole lot worse. With apologies to South Park, buckle up, buckaroos.

Links to grand jury investigations:

Alameda County, 2018-19 & 2019-2020 grand jury reportsContra Costa County, 2019-2020 grand jury reportEl Dorado County, 2019-2020 grand jury reportHumboldt County, 2017-2018 grand jury reportMarin County, 2018-2019 & 2019-2020 grand jury reportsMendocino County, 2019-2020 grand jury reportNevada County, 2018-2019 grand jury reportOrange County, 2018-2019 grand jury reportSan Francisco County, 2018-2019 grand jury reportSan Luis Obispo County, 2018-2019 & 2019-2020 grand jury reportsSan Mateo County, 2017-2018 & 2018-2019 & 2019-2020 grand jury reportsSanta Cruz County, 2019-2020 & 2020-2021 (two) grand jury reportsShasta County, 2019-2020 grand jury reportSonoma County, 2020-2021 grand jury reportSonoma County, 2020-2021 grand jury reportTuolumne County, 2019-2020 grand jury report

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The Los Angeles Times just made its last, futile, and thoroughly dishonest attempt to salvage Mike Bonin’s political career

Someone ought to tell the editors and writers at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times to stick with celebrity gossip from now on, because their efforts at journalism aren’t going well

The editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed today supporting L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin’s latest transparently political announcement that he’s going to “do something” about the homeless crisis in Venice Beach. The piece amounts to a piece of postmodern experimentation in which virtually every single word is inaccurate, misleading, or outright fraudulent. Like Mr. Bonin himself the editors and writers at (what’s left of) the Times occupy a parallel reality in which the homeless crisis appeared out of nowhere to consume the city. To wit, the headline refers to “campers” on the Venice Boardwalk, as though it’s just kids spending a summer at Camp Wakonda.

The piece opens with a rhetorical flourish: “Nowhere has the idyll of the California oceanfront collided with the grim reality of street homelessness more than on Venice Beach.”

First of all, “the idyll”? Put the pen down, Montesquieu, it’s just a local op-ed. Second, beware journalists deploying the passive voice, it’s very nearly always a tell that they are massaging reality. When it comes to homelessness and crime in Venice Beach there’s no “collision” of factors. The crisis is a direct and completely predictable result of consciously bad policy choices, primarily by the councilman himself, over many years. Period. It isn’t some random confluence of events in which Venice finds itself.

Next: “Following public health guidance not to disperse homeless people during the pandemic, the city wisely chose not to enforce its ordinances against camping in parks and other public places.”

This is a perfect example of a true lie. Yes, L.A. followed (constantly changing, confusing, inconsistent, often downright contradictory) state and county public health guidelines during the pandemic. But Venice had been in a death spiral for years before that. Blaming the pandemic for the homeless crisis is like blaming the planes for 9/11.

“As a result, campers settled in at Venice Beach, mostly on a one-mile swatch of ground between the concrete boardwalk and the bike path. Tents also sprang up on parts of the beach and on the shuttered handball courts.”

No, no, no. Not “As a result” of pandemic policies. This is another lie, bookended with the cheapest rhetorical sleight of hand in the piece, the passive voice claim that tents “sprang up.” As if homelessness is a natural occurrence, like tides or weed patches.

This bit of dishonesty paves the way for the final turn of the screw, in which the editors and writers at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times shift blame from the homeless criminals and vagrants to law-abiding citizens who simply want to be able to walk down the street without being assaulted and without witnessing the decline of civilization. “The unhoused residents of Venice Beach have not exactly been welcomed with open arms.”

Riddle me this: In what bizarro Opposite Land should hard working, law abiding citizens welcome homeless addicts and criminals “with open arms”? Only the editors and writers at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times still use and apparently believe the politically correct but utterly disingenuous term “unhoused residents.” That is, as anyone with a marginally functional frontal cortex knows, a contradiction in terms. As though the only difference between the guy laying on the sidewalk in his own filth with a needle sticking out of his arm and the woman working in her home office is the latter’s roof. As if some jerk who stumbles off a bus at the boardwalk with nothing to his name but a bag of meth and a sense of entitlement is magically transformed into a “resident” entitled to all the rights and privileges enjoyed by people who actually contribute to their community.

It’s baldersdash, and no one but fraudsters like Mike Bonin and the editors and writers at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times even both trying to use it anymore.

A few sentences later comes another whopper: “With virus rates low in Los Angeles and vaccination rates high, all of Venice Beach needs to be returned fully to public use and kept that way.”

See what the editors and writers at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times did there? In the lede they casually established the lie that homelessness in Venice is a result of “public health guidance not to disperse homeless people during the pandemic.” In the body of the piece the lie becomes the main thesis. It’s almost subliminal when you think about it. See, now that the pandemic is over we can finally get down to clearing the boardwalk.

This is how a newspaper shamelessly, transparently, and dishonestly covers for a failed politician like Mike Bonin. The editorial also makes sure to double (at this point they’re tripling and quadrupling) down on the ultimate lie: That the homeless industrial complex will solve the crisis: “The only army of people involved here should be outreach workers and case managers with offers of housing or shelter for homeless people, all of whom are suffering the effects of poverty — along with some combination of bad luck, mental illness or substance abuse.”

Again, the dishonesty of the passive voice. The city needs to deploy people “with offers of housing.” You see, even the editors at writers at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times know that pretty much every person living on the Venice boardwalk has been offered housing or shelter, many of them multiple times. And the overwhelming majority – in excess of 90% – consistently refuse it. And the notion that they are “suffering the effects of poverty” implies that none of them, not a single one, has any agency in their situation. They all just are “suffering,” not making atrocious decisions that ultimately land them in a filthy encampment.

See how they try and fool us? But we know better.

The editors and writers at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times shred the last of their credibility by calling on nonprofit profiteers like St. Joseph Center to lead the effort. St. Joseph Center, which has received in excess of $130 million in taxpayer funding over the last seven years and which has been caught red-handed dumping a disabled homeless woman behind a dumpster in a parking lot. St. Joseph Center, whose CEO makes nearly $300,000 a year. The fact that the paper has never, not once, investigated such a corrupt nonprofit before blindly opining that it deserves more of our money is pretty much all you need to know about (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times these days.

The rest of the piece isn’t worth the 0’s and 1’s it’s printed with. Because I value the few brain cells I have left I barely skimmed it. I did notice that the final sentence sets the stage for what everyone but the editors and writers at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times know: This latest move by Mr. Bonin is just the final, flailing rehash of his failed policies. It won’t do anything to help Venice, much less the rest of L.A., and least of all the homeless themselves who have suffered the worst under Mr. Bonin’s disgraceful tenure.

That’s why many people not just on the West Side but throughout the Southland are cautiously optimistic about recent efforts by Sheriff Alex Villanueva and even City Councilman Joe Buscaino. Both men have taken a harder line on enforcement and clearance than Mr. Bonin or the Times.

“The hurdles will be getting enough money and finding enough housing.” The idea that despite billions flushed into the homeless industrial complex we haven’t spent enough money, and that there isn’t enough space, is THE lie upon which irredeemable political failures like Michael J. Bonin stake their futures, indeed their souls. The difference these days is that everyone knows it’s a lie. No one believes Mr. Bonin or the Los Angeles Times. They are the failed old guard, and a new one is fast approaching to take their place and save our city – not to mention the long-suffering homeless population themselves.

It is long past time to admit L.A.’s homeless crisis is a humanitarian crisis, and bring in national resources

The human costs are on par with some of the worst disasters in history — local officials have proved they’re not up to the task — L.A. County Sheriff Villanueva has the right idea — time to declare a state of emergency

Just another Saturday in Venice Beach, and another victim of Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin’s incompetence and corruption. Photo courtesy of the Venice Current.

It is long past time that local and state leaders declare a state of emergency in Los Angeles County. The homeless crisis and crime wave have overwhelmed local resources. The proof is everywhere: If local resources were not overwhelmed Angelnoes wouldn’t witness human suffering on a historic scale on a daily basis. If they weren’t overwhelmed homeless people wouldn’t be dying on the streets every day. If they weren’t failing residents wouldn’t be terrorized by vagrant criminals, fires, assaults, rapes, and murders every day.

Local resources are overwhelmed and increasingly ineffectual

The proof is everywhere: If local resources were not overwhelmed Angelnoes wouldn’t witness human suffering on a historic scale every single day. If they weren’t overwhelmed homeless people wouldn’t be dying on the streets every day. If they weren’t failing residents wouldn’t be terrorized by homeless criminals, fires, assaults, rapes, and murders every day. If they weren’t overwhelmed the Los Angeles Police Department would not be standing down from enhanced patrols and services around homeless facilities.

The truth is that Mayor Eric Garcetti has been failing to solve the crisis since his earliest days in politics. He announced an ambitious ten year plan to end homelessness – in 2006, as president of the City Council. And on Mr. Bonin’s watch entire neighborhoods in Council District 11 have descended into mere anarchy. Meanwhile the homeless industrial complex they have created and funded lavishly with other people’s money thrives and prospers.

All of which is why there is something depraved about their recent efforts to spend even more money on corrupt nonprofits, the sorts that have been caught dumping disabled homeless people in parking lots. What possible confidence can people have in Mr. Bonin’s latest scheme to spend $5 million to house and serve 200 people from the Venice Boardwalk – the same man who not two months ago spent nearly $10 million to house 44 people in a converted motel? What math programs are they using at city hall?

And it’s positively grotesque to hear Mr. Bonin lash out at other local officials for “interfering” with his efforts. Interfering with what? More death, more rapes, more mayhem?

The people of L.A. – including the homeless themselves – deserve much better

One of the first things on the scene after a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis virtually anywhere on earth is an American C-17 Globemaster cargo plane loaded with supplies. Within a week of the devastating 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia U.S. military and volunteer personnel were providing shelter, clean water, food, medicine, sanitation, and search and rescue operations 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. The coordinated effort involved dozens of nations and private relief organizations.

The U.S. ultimately sent the USS Lincoln aircraft carrier, the USS Bonhomme Richard and USS Essex amphibious support ships, and the USNS Mercy hospital ship to the region, along with a dozen other vessels, dozens of support vessels, 160 helicopters, 100 fixed wing aircraft, 500 vehicles, and 25,000 personnel. The story is well worth reading. Examples of similar efforts include Operation Tomodachi after the Fukushima nuclear disaster and Operation Unified Assistance after the 2018 Haiti earthquake.

Angelenos ought to be asking themselves, why isn’t the USS Abraham Lincoln anchored in Santa Monica Bay as we speak? Why aren’t relief camps springing up across the Southland, supported by helicopter relief flights and a military-grade supply chain of food, shelter, medicine, and hope? Why aren’t we treating our own city’s crisis with the degree of urgency we treated a crisis on the other side of the world? Where’s the International Red Cross? Where are our international partners with an interest in the crisis, like Mexico and our Central and South American partners?

Better yet, Angelenos should be asking their elected and appointed officials why they’re content to let people suffer and die.

Greed is the only thing standing in the way of solutions

Of course, Angelenos know the answer to that question. If politicians like Mr. Garcetti and Mr. Bonin, along with fellow t like Mark Ridley-Thomas, Monica Rodriguez, and Mitch O’Farrell, were to solve the homeless crisis tens of thousands of bureaucrats, non-profit executives, lawyers, consultants, academics, researchers, and others would have to find real jobs. Real estate speculators would have to start building housing and communities people actually want to live in rather than hoovering tens of millions in free tax money for $900,000 units of “permanent supportive housing.”

Consider: Under Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “bridge home” plan the City of Los Angeles is spending an average of $55,000 per cot in temporary dormitory style housing, and again as much annually for services and maintenance. Even accepting the official count of 36,900 homeless in the city, it would cost more than $2 billion to provide rudimentary shelter. Those are not real numbers. These are not serious people.

In contrast, an Army mobile hospital and shelter (like in the TV show M*A*S*H) can be set up in a matter of hours for a few hundred thousand dollars. These facilities provide a full range of emergency and supportive services, including shelter, sanitary and medical facilities, triage, accommodation, security, kitchens, pharmacies, storage, and communal gathering places. They can even handle financial transactions and set up communication centers to assist homeless people with things like job searches, reconnecting with family, and obtaining additional outside services when they are warranted. Suffice it to say the sort of rampant lawlessness at illegal encampments is not tolerated. A few hysterical activists aside rational people know that sometimes the love has to be tough: An individual strung out on fentanyl in the middle of a psychotic break isn’t exercising free will, period. And drug dealers must be dealt with, not enabled.

In a fraction of the time that city and state governments spend dithering over what color to paint a new bridge shelter the National Guard and other military elements could have emergency shelters up and running citywide, helping people, saving lives, and restoring neighborhoods.

There may be hope

One local official, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, has started treating the crisis with the urgency and resolve it requires. Starting last week he began deploying teams to the Venice Beach boardwalk, one of the worst epicenters of homeless violence and mayhem. Deputies are offering shelter and services to the hundreds of people living on the beach in their own squalor.

As reported in the Venice Current and elsewhere, the Sheriff also is demanding that the county Board of Supervisors declare a state of emergency. That critical step would allow national resources, starting with FEMA, to begin providing services. Admittedly FEMA isn’t ideal, for a lot of reasons, but it would be a start. It would nationalize the crisis, largely removing Mr. Garcetti and Mr. Bonin – not to mention the noxious menagerie of nonprofits the enable – from the equation. That alone would be progress. With Donald Trump out of the White House and California native Kamala Harris serving as Vice President there should be no political bump for our Democratic local officials.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaks during a visit to Venice Beach. Photo courtesy of the Venice Current.

Sheriff Villanueva is the only official in the City and County of Los Angeles to start treating the crisis with the urgency it deserves, and as such he deserves the city’s support. Declaring a state of emergency is the humanitarian thing to do, and most Angelenos recognize that the solution has to be as much stick as carrot. Despite the protestations and bloviation of people like Mr. Bonin the fact is that most homeless people who actually live on the streets or in illegal encampments are hardcore. The overwhelming majority have mental health issues, substance abuse issues, or both. They will not be saved by $900,000 condos. The only thing those condos will accomplish is the further enrichment of the politicians, nonprofits, and other parasites for whom human suffering is succor

It is long past time for a new path forward. It’s time for a state of emergency. It’s time to bring in the military.

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I don’t understand anymore

I thought I at least grasped how horrific things have gotten in L.A. and California. Then I met the 88-year-old woman who lived in my alley for a few days.

Like most Angelenos these days I have become disconcertingly accustomed to witnessing scenes that just a few years ago would not have been tolerated in a civilized society, much less on the streets of the richest city in the richest state in the richest nation in human history. Most mornings when I’m in Santa Monica the first thing I see out walking the dogs is a homeless person. They’re often doing something unspeakable: Defecating against a building, injecting toxic drugs, screaming at demons they alone can see. Often combinations of various horrific actions. Most evenings when I’m in Santa Monica the last thing I see out walking the dogs at night is a homeless person, often doing something equally unspeakable.

We are desensitized – and that alone is a huge problem, a problem of nothing less than existential proportions. Hideousness is the new normal, human suffering on an historic scale. The casualties of the homeless crisis alone are measured in the tens of thousands. Thanks to the incomprehensible fraudulence of “leaders” (and at this point I actively throw up in my own mouth when applying the appellation to our city’s and state’s execrable excuse for a political class) like Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and the disreputable collection of dupes and crooks who comprise our city council, Los Angeles over the past decade has descended beyond third world squalor. We careened past the apocalypse at top speed and didn’t make so much as a whistle stop at Armageddon. The poets will have to compose neologisms to describe the conditions in which hundreds of thousands of people live, conditions that make a mockery of mere workaday morphemes like horrific, hideous, nightmarish, hellish, ghoulish. Those epithets don’t so much as approach the gates of the new circles of Hell rapidly metastasizing across the City of Angeles.

We need a whole goddamn new lexicon.

We don’t have leaders anymore in California, not even in name, nor have we for years, maybe decades. True leaders gone, replaced by contaminants. They spread poison and disease, hopelessness and despair, wherever they go. They are anti-Midases, everything they touch turns to something indescribable. As they fete themselves at perverse Read Death style orgies they allow the systems that support millions to collapse. Encourage the collapse, even. For out of the collapse emerges dependency and need. Only the need is no longer succored. Need unemployment benefits in the midst of a massive economic shutdown and historic pandemic? A shame, though the Gavin Newsoms of the world will surely tut-tut about it with deeply furrowed brows at their next relentlessly scripted presser.

These are things we know. These are the realities we have come to expect in the world’s fifth largest economy. We have long since grown accustomed to would-be leaders who garb themselves in the mantle of progress only to reveal themselves as charlatans available to the right bidder (and never forget: the “right” bidder is not always the highest, merely the one who offers the most baubles). We have resigned ourselves to a degree of deceit and corruption that once was relegated to dime store detective novels and b-movies.

What I cannot resign myself to, and what I will never be able to desensitize myself to, are scenes like the one I confronted a few days ago. An elderly woman was lying on the sidewalk propped up against a parking meter. Dressed in a blue-black coat and long black skirt, with a black scarf tied over her head, grey leggings, and black shoes she looked like nothing so much as a Nepalese sherpa, surrounded by a menagerie of bags and half-eaten foodstuffs. She alternately scribbled in a wire notebook with a broken pencil and rocked back and forth speaking a language I didn’t recognize. Not until I approached more closely did I realize how old she was, the skin on her face like a topographical map. The first time I tried talking to her it seemed she literally didn’t realize I was even there. She continued scribbling and talking like she was in a trance.

In a sane world, in a rational world, there’d be a number to call in situations like this. There’d be a three-digit city number a concerned citizen could call and on the first or second ring a courteous, attentive, well-trained city worker would answer the call and help said concerned citizen connect an elderly, mentally disabled homeless woman with the proper services. In a sane world, in a rational world, this three-digit city number is a no-brainer, the governmental equivalent of tying one’s shoes in the morning. The sort of fundamentals a government nails before tackling, say, climate change.

Of course Californians, and Angelenos in particular, don’t live in a sane or rational world. We live in a postmodern dystopia where elderly women routinely are left to fend for themselves alone on the streets. Many of them die. We live in a city where politicians make comfortable mid-six figure salaries (not to mention the gifts, perks, and outright payola) to keep tens of thousands in living conditions not fit for sewer rats. Indeed, a compelling case can be made that in Venice, Skid Row, and dozens of other locales the rodents have it better these days than the human beings.

I saw the woman a couple more times. One time she was reasonable coherent, and I managed to get her name (or a name, Emily) and her age: 88. I couldn’t tell if the language she had spoken was real or just gibberish from her fevered mind. I went upstairs and got a bottle of water, the absolute irreducible minimum of help, but by the time I got back to her spot she was shuffling down the block. For two nights I saw her set up a makeshift sleeping place in a doorway in the alleyway behind my building. That was the last I saw of her. For all I know she’s dead already.

Not that it matters. Not that any of it matters. For the truth is that there was – there is – absolutely nothing I could have done for Emily. There is nothing anyone can do for her. I say this having spent the better part of two months last year helping another elderly, disabled woman navigate L.A.’s positively labrynthine homeless care system. Or rather, I tried to help her. The system is so hopelessly broken that the emergency telephone number listed on the official city and county homeless website, the number people like Emily are supposed to call when they are in a life and death situation, was not even active. The most vulnerable and helpless people are left with a recording telling them to try again later.

Again, there are no superlatives left. We are living them. Horrible things elsewhere in the world are compared to Los Angeles. Mogadishu, Somalia’s new slogan could be “Safer than Venice Beach!”

Emily is not just Santa Monica’s failure, or Los Angeles County’s failure, or even California’s failure. She’s not just Eric Garcetti’s fault, or Gavin Newsom’s. In fact the actual figures ii charge are largely interchangeable, as are the Emilys dying on our streets. No, Emily is our failure – mine, yours, eveyone’s. Just as Gavin Newsom is our failure, and Garcetti, and Bonin, and Gascon, and all the rest of the pathetic rouges’ gallery that passes for leadership (*hurl*) these days.

And that’s why I no longer understand. I no longer understand how an 88-year-old woman is left for dead on the streets of Los Angeles. A meth tweaker from Minneapolis who shows up with a pocketful of drugs and a sense of entitlement? Sure, that makes sense. The criminal class that preys on said tweakers, sure. None of it is remotely acceptable, but at least the average brain can process those examples of decay and decline on our streets.

I don’t understand Emily – or rather, I don’t understand how we reached the point that Emily is even a possibility. She’s not bashing in windows or assaulting neighbors or starting fires. She’s not addicted to fentanyl or black tar heroin. She’s just an old lady we collectively decided to leave behind. All of us – obviously we’re all perfectly okay with it, because we’re not taking to the streets. Obviously we’re okay, because no one’s manning the battlements. Eric Garcetti will get an excellent night’s sleep tonight, while four or five more Emilys die on the streets of the city he allegedly governs.

But Emily is our failure. Never forget that. Think about her the next time one of L.A.’s or California’s political class spews about compassion. Remember her picture when they talk about service and community and progress.

Remember well, because if things don’t change, and fast, we’re all going to be Emily.

The writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times still don’t understand the homeless crisis

Don’t look now, but they tried to do journalism. It didn’t go well, as they didn’t even grasp the basics.

In today’s Los Angeles Times, a picture of Dr. Courtney Gillwater, whose home was destroyed and dog killed by a suspected homeless fire. Unfortunately, the picture is about the only display of empathy the Times showed her.

Today the writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times published a very long story about homeless fires that does nothing to increase the public’s understanding and everything to reveal that the writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times apparently live under a rock. They are shocked, you see – shocked! – to discover that the number of homeless fires has increased dramatically around the city and that with the increase has come increased damage, loss, and even death. In their El Segundo offices this fact, which pretty much everyone else in the city of Los Angeles not to mention the state of California has known for several years, qualifies as breaking news.

It is lost on them that the story does not come anywhere near qualifying as news to the vast majority of Angelenos, even in previously unaffected areas like Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, and Beverly Hills (don’t rest on the Garcetti Machine, Bel-Air, the homeless are headed your way, too). The only people who need a full color, illustrated, 5,000-plus word essay on the subject are, again, the writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times themselves (as per all aspect report policy I won’t link to the story because I will not sully even a simple blog with inferior prose).

If the only sin committed by the writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times was discovering reality a few years late, the story wouldn’t be noteworthy. Unfortunately, today’s story rehashes many of the lies people like Mayor Eric Garcetti and councilman Mike Bonin have been shoveling about the crisis for literally decades now, with devastating consequences.

Right out of the gate: After telling the horrific story of Dr. Courtney Gillenwater and her dog Togo, the story’s very first substantive point is how the crisis is partly caused by Angelenos’ “indifference” to homeless human beings. Let that sink in a moment. The writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times apparently believe that their fellow Angelenos – who have voted on three separate occasions to tax ourselves to the tune of more than $2 billion to help the homeless – are “indifferent” to the unspeakable human suffering on display on the streets of the richest city in the richest state in the richest country in human history. These news professionals believe we drive past the tens of thousands of human beings living in subhuman conditions in their own excrement and filth and think, “Meh.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the only reasonable response to the writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times is, “Screw you. You don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about and at this point you’re just embarrassing yourselves.”

Make sure you’re not sipping a beverage as you read the story because there are plenty of other spit-take inducing moments. We are told – lectured, really – that the crisis is difficult to solve because of the need to balance “residents’ rights” with homeless peoples’ “constitutional rights” to destroy themselves slowly and hideously in said feces and filth. I wasn’t valedictorian of my law school class but I’m still pretty sure I’d remember learning about that right being tucked somewhere in the Constitution. Maybe it’s hiding in one of Justice William O. Douglas’s penumbras. Also, writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times, don’t think for a second that we didn’t catch the fact that residents enjoy vaguely referenced “rights,” while homeless people have full “constitutional rights.” You’re journalists, you know those details matter. And if you don’t you really need to find new work.

The story is replete with such tergiversation: “Business owners are left wondering if a random blaze will scar or destroy their property. For homeless people, the fear is much starker, as a fire could swallow up what little they have left.” Left unanswered is why a law abiding business owner’s fear of losing their property is somehow less “stark” than a homeless person’s fear of losing their property. To read (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times the daily fears of people like Dr. Gillwater’s neighbors are just paranoia.

The story rehashes the ultimate political get-out-of-jail-free card: Litigation. The Homeless Industrial Complex and its armies of lawyers in California and national – people like execrable Carol Sobel, who profits off human misery while accepting millions in PPP relief, but I digress – have effectively ground to a halt the public’s ability to fight the crisis with anything besides continuing to tax ourselves to buy $900,000 units of “permanent supportive housing.” That L.A.’s version of housing first is a catastrophic failure is a secret to no one, yet here come the writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times, giving councilman Bonin a platform to shill for the developers who bankroll his political career.

Let’s be crystal on one very important subject: Any news outlet that quotes Mr. Bonin on the issue – for that matter, on any issue these days – has zero credibility. None. Mr. Bonin is the epicenter of the crisis, and his outright sociopathic responses – including most recently his bloodcurdlingly cold public response to Dr. Courtney – have been documented more times than could be so much as summarized in a blog post. His place in city history has long been secure, and it’s not a pretty place. Allowing him a platform is nothing less than journalistic malpractice.

At this point media outlets like (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times are doing far more harm than good with their coverage of the homeless crisis. Tellingly, the 5,000 word, illustrated, interactive story makes nary a mention of the addiction, mental health, and crime issues that are absolutely fundamental. The story mentions health only in passing and the word “addiction” doesn’t appear at all. Again, that’s malpractice. The homeless people starting fires are either suffering from mental breakdowns or addiction, or they’re criminals. Period. It’s common knowledge that criminals use homeless camps, and homeless people, as shields and cover. It’s equally well-known that many homeless fires are intentional acts of revenge or intimidation – messages from those criminals.

The writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times even flubbed the human interest angle: Dr. Gillenwater is straight out of central casting. She isn’t just a pediatrician, she spent years volunteering in relief camps in Africa, flew to Nepal after the 2015 earthquake, and is known around her neighborhood for helping homeless people. She rescued Togo barely half a year ago. Both she and her dog are extremely photogenic. Et cetera, et cetera. (What’s left of) the Los Angeles Times couldn’t be bothered with any of that.

Just like they couldn’t be bothered to learn the truth about homeless fires, they didn’t learn the full story behind the tragedy in Venice. And last but far from least, they accept the city’s numbers at face value, unquestioningly. Again, I’m a ocassional bordering on infrequent journalist, and I’ve learned more through interviews than the full-time (allegedly) professionals at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times. One of the first thing I learned that the official number of homeless fires, like the official number of homeless themselves, is off by as much as a couple orders of magnitude. For example, I interviewed a LAFD crew on the west side several months ago. It was a Sunday afternoon around 5pm. Off the record I asked them how many calls they’d responded to so far that day. The number was nine. How many were fires? Eight. How many of those were caused by or related to homeless? Eight. At one station, in less than one day.

The death of local media is one of the great tragedies in recent American history. Today’s embarrassment from (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times is another sad chapter.

In defense of Van Morrison

Attempts to destroy the legendary rocker say more about the people engaging in them than the man himself

Particularly for a writer, I’m oddly dispassionate about most art. I’m a hard stone to move. I rarely finish a novel and have virtually no tolerance for the garbage that comprises the vast majority of movies and T.V. The only areas where I’m truly open-minded are visual (non-movie) arts and music, and within those admittedly narrow confines one of the very few artists for whom I would die on pretty much any hill is Van Morrison.

The first time I heard “Brown Eyed Girl” was in 1991 or 1992. I was in the passenger seat of a VW Rabbit convertible, top down crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on a glorious blue sky summer afternoon with a beautiful girl named Daisy, upon whom I had a life-threatening crush, at the wheel. Given all the time in the world a roomful of Hollywood pros couldn’t come up with a better moment for a 16-year-old kid, particularly in the context of my life in those years. Later, Astral Weeks and Moondance were essential to the soundtracks of the two greatest road trips of my life, a week long epic from Boston to New Orleans and back with four best friends and a 12-day cross-country odyssey with another. Van Morrison’s music is as integral to my soul as the coyote cries in the sagebrush canyon where I grew up. I’ve seen him live three times, at the ages of 21, 33, and 40. He positively blew away Bob Dylan at double billing at the Boston Garden in ’97. His longevity and energy are rightly the stuff of legend, and at the age of 75 his voice has lost nary a note. In 2016, at the age of 69, he put out a single with legendary Dire Straits guitarist/singer/songwriter Mark Knopfler called “Irish Heartbeat.” If you can find a sweeter song I’m all ears. As recently as 2019 he put out a small jazz masterpiece called You’re Driving Me Crazy.

All of which is why, seeing him fall under attack for a late career addition to his repertoire – well, I can’t help but take it personally.

So overwhelming has been the pile-on, so utterly relentless, so completely out of proportion to the remarkable act of a man pushing 80 composing, performing, recording, and releasing nearly 30 brand-new songs, that even I approached his most recent work with trepidation. Cancel culture – which more properly ought to be called Memoryhole culture – has taken such hold of our nation’s collective consciousness that despite that three decade artistic relationship even I was rattled by the reviews of his most recent work, a 28-song double album simply called Latest Record Project. To hear the old hands at establishment outlets like Rolling Stone, Newsweek, and the Los Angeles Times you’d think Van has completely gone of the rails, lost forever to some sort of Q-anon alternate reality (I really still don’t know what Q-anon is, by the way, nor do I particularly care to find out). The under-30 woke battalions have tossed him in the dumpster fire with no less than the likes of David Duke. I won’t link to any of the stories because I refuse to sully even a simple blog with bad prose, suffice it to say an internet search reveals several pages of roughly identical screeds against Morrison.

It is, in a word, insane.

Out of control vitriol

A mere sampling of the online rage being directed at the artist who gave the world Moondance: This morning the Los Angeles Times ran a particularly – if unintentionally – revealing polemic by someone called Ryan Walsh, who really ought to find something more productive to do with his time. He opened his fusillade with examples of songs that he called “eyebrow raising,” including “Where Have All the Rebels Gone,” “Why Are You on Facebook?” and “Stop Bitching, Do Something.”

Pause right out of the gate: At what bizarre crossroads in American cultural history did a rock and roller penning a song called “Where Have All the Rebels Gone” become so much as worthy of remark much less condemnation? On the contrary, it’s remarkable to find a rock artist who hasn’t sung a rebel song. A web search for “rock songs about rebels” yields work by, among many others, David Bowie, They Might Be Giants, Ashlee Simpson, U2, even Billie Holiday, and entire Ranker-style lists of such songs. Yet in the perverse alternate reality echo chamber of the modern woke, such lyrics are downright transgressive. Which raises yet another issue: The vitriol being smeared on Morrison boils down to a single bleat: He’s not conforming. The ultimate, essential role of a rock and roller is to do just that, and in our modern parallel reality for that he must be destroyed for his Wrongthink. It’s chilling, when you think about it.

Van Morrison’s sin is questioning the UK government’s COVID-19 policies. He believes the government’s emergency actions went too far and that the government impinged on civil rights. That’s pretty much it. He dares point out that certain millionaires and billionaires – himself, as he made clear in an interview with GQ Magazine (linked below), have done quite well while millions of average people have suffered. This is what transgressive artists do, challenge authority. Questioning authority was the hallmark of the counterculture. That Van Morrison is doing it at his age, when he could phone it in, is doubly remarkable. The fact that Rolling Stone magazine, once the vanguard of progressive alternative viewpoints, has unabashedly jumped on the corportist bandwagon, is triply remarkable. It’s also pretty much all you need to know.

I needn’t have worried – Van’s doing just fine

All of which I breathed a massive sigh of relief within the first thirty seconds of the intro title track. Not that I was worried about Van the Conspiracy Nut but because I was concerned Latest Record Project might just be bad. To be sure, it’s no Astral Weeks or Tupelo Honey, or even a minor masterpiece like Sorcerer’s Stone (currently playing in my office), but that’s like complaining that Picasso didn’t paint 500 versions of Guernica or The Old Guitarist. A couple tracks are duds. The title track is not terrible but it is forgettable, and songs like “Stop Bitching, Do Something” and “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” would have been better left on the proverbial cutting room floor or reserved for a deep-cut collection of oddities along the lines of Tom Waits’s three album Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards, of interest only to the most committed fans. A few songs are little more than spleen venting against various real and perceived adversaries.

But these are hardly mortal sins, much less severe enough transgressions to, as one particularly batty column claimed, sully his entire career and reputation as an artist. If we memoryholed every rocker who ever released a dud or engaged in self-indulgent self-pity the only bands we’d have left would be the likes of the Spin Doctors and 3 Doors Down, and no one wants to live in that world. The tracks on Latest Record Project are just not the great songs we have come (rather entitledly) to expect from Van Morrison. They’re not “embarrassments” or “depressing rants” that reveal him as a “male Karen,” to rattle off just a few of the more unhinged reactions. Even the normally staid Wall Street Journal got in on the throw-down, calling Latest Record Project (with a straight face) “songs in the key of conspiracy.” Whichever editor allowed the tired “songs in the key of” cliche past their desk ought to be fired.

What’s more, quite a few tracks, including “Only a Song,” “Upcountry Down,” “The Big Lie,” “A Few Bars Early,” “Diabolic Pressure,” “Deadbeat Saturday Night,” “Blue Funk,” “Double Agent,” and, yes, “Where Have All the Rebels Gone,” swing. “Duper’s Delight” is a sweet heartbreaker. I defy you to find a better track about the pandemic lockdowns than “Deadbeat Saturday Night” (The Rolling Stones’s effort, Livin’ in a Ghost Town, is a very close second and loses only because “Deadbeat” is less self-serious). The biggest beef with the album is that a lot of the lyrics are mundane. Some are downright lazy: “Stop bitching, do something” is hardly “If I ventured in the slipstream, between the viaducts of your dream.” Artistically speaking many of the lyrics are too on the nose. There’s not much poetry in lines like “Why are you on Facebook? / Why do you need second-hand friends? / Why do you really care who’s trending? / Or is there something you’re defending?” And the track “Western Man” does appear to flirt with some dicey territory with lyrics like “Western Man has no plan / ‘Cause he became complacent / Stopped believing in himself / Let others steal his rewards / While he was dreaming.”

Van can do better, much, much better. But at 75 who cares? He’s more than earned the right to vent his spleen at the state of the world, even if he’s wrong, and there’s plenty to vent about these days. He’s earned the right to phone in a few lyrics. And if he seems to dance with some dangerous ideas in “Western Man,” he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Yes, yes, the concept of “Western Man” is a dog whistle in some alt-right circles. But in a well-worth-five-minutes-of-your-time interview with GQ he explains his views on among other things the UK government’s coronavirus policies. In context even his more out there lyrics and statements assume a sort of logic:

The thing is, there are people much worse off than me, people who are never going to come back. I mean, who decides what’s essential? Apparently TV actors are essential, but theatre actors aren’t, musicians aren’t, but television luvvies, they are essential. Are you trying to tell me that they’re essential and I’m not? Why is John Cooper Clarke not essential? It doesn’t fly with me. It’s absurd.

I’ve definitely been anti-lockdown. I think if you don’t know the government’s lying by now, then where have you been? When they announced this lockdown, it said on their website – the government website – that Covid-19 was not a threat. It was still on their website a week later, because I told people to look it up. It may even still be up there. You can research this stuff, it’s dead easy. There is so much stuff concerning Sage [Scientific Advisory Group For Emergencies] that has been redacted; it’s all about politics. Anybody can look this stuff up, but I simply put it into song. There’s a song on my new album called “Where Have All The Rebels Gone?”, which is all about this.

You can disagree with his perspective, but you cannot deny that it is clearly couched in terms of impacts on real people, people “much worse off than me, people who are never going to come back.” He’s speaking from a place of empathy for the tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of people around the world whose lives have been permanently altered and in all too many cases destroyed by policies that in retrospect even some political figures concede were unnecessary. On top of it all he shows the sort of self-awareness of his own privilege that is so glaringly absent in so many of the woke lunatics attacking him. When I hear his perspective I think of things like Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s announcement less than 48 hours before Easter Sunday that all city parks would be closed, a move that directly targeted the city’s Mexican Catholic people. As Van said, that doesn’t fly. In that context, if he tosses in a conspiracy-ish reference to redacted government documents or sings about a song about “others” he gets the benefit of the doubt seven days a week and twice on Sundays.

It’s only if you’re a blind political sycophant to the modern lunatic Left that you see some dark conspiracy in Latest Record Project. I’m sorry, but if you believe Van Morrison has secretly been a Q-anon (again, don’t know don’t care) racist conspiracy nut who for more than half a century consciously cultivated the persona of an eccentric, prickly, at times downright unpleasantly mercurial artist to obscure his inner white nationalist, you are the conspiracy nut. Ditto if you hear something malevolent lurking in a line like “It’s only a song, nothing set in stone, it’s only a song.”

We’ve been down this road many times before

So a guy who spent his artistic life challenging authority has done it again. Who cares? Oh, but the woke hordes howl how he’s influential, he’s famous. Which is where I draw people’s attention to another insane spate of political attacks on the arts: Remember in the 1980s when millions of Boomer parents allowed a few nuts to convince them that heavy metal bands whose members sported mascara, eye liner, and permanented hair were hiding pro-suicide and other messages in their music, driving thousands of teens to kill themselves? That one got the attention of none other than the United States Congress, who decided at the height of the late Cold War and in the midst of a growing national crime wave to spend months subpoenaing rock stars to answer questions like, “Did you ever bite the head off a bat during a live performance?”

The woke war on Van Morrison is precisely the same thing. Nothing more, nothing less. If a kid offed himself in 1986 it wasn’t because Ozzy Osborne told him to. And if you base your opinions about the science behind a global pandemic on a rock star’s songs and tweets, that’s entirely on you. Rock stars are crazy, it’s practically in their job description. Are you going to live your life according to the Book of Courtney Love? Again, that’s on you.

Hey, woke brigade: Come cancel this out of my record collection.

One, necessary, substantive argument

There is one place Morrison’s legions of antagonistes – the vast majority of whom I’ll guarantee you had never heard anything other than “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Moondance” before they decided they hated him and knew enough about his work and life to act as judge, jury, and executioner – could have had even the scintilla of a point. Some (like the execrable piece at the L.A. Times) have gone so far as to claim that Latest Record Project reveals Van Morrison as anti-Semitic. Of course if that were remotely true it would be one of the few facts that could actually change my opinion of the man, for the same reasons I cannot watch some of the few movies I do truly love anymore because they were made by the likes of Roman Polanski or Kevin Spacey. Suffice it to say, rape is on that list of things that fundamentally changes one’s opinion of another person. So is anti-Semitism.

The claim, however, is ludicrous to the point of slander. It’s based primarily on one song in the man’s fifty-plus year career, on Latest Record Project, called “They Control the Media.” In the context of Morrison’s lifelong, open distrust of anything resembling authority figures and his well-publicized feuds with reporters over the years, this song is utterly unremarkable. It’s only if you buy into the Evil Van Morrison mania that it takes on a darker – and let’s call it what it is – conspiratorial hue. The notion of Jews “controlling” global media is an old anti-Semitic trope. Given that nothing in Morrison’s career so much as suggests racism or anti-Semitism it stretches credulity to absurdity to suggest he suddenly discovered his inner Joseph Goebbles at the age of 75. The fact that it even has to be argued reflects just how bonkers wokeness has gone.

That doesn’t stop the L.A. Times and others from engaging in guilt-by-association to bolster the case against him, such pointing out that there are 4Chan boards (a final time, don’t know don’t care) celebrating Morrison. The only reasonable reaction is a giant yawn.

The arguments are so nutty that the only thing they reveal is the mindset of the people making them. Van Morrison deserves the last word, and he nails it:

You thought you knew me
But you were wrong
There’s more to me than my song
I don’t blame you
You’re not the first
There’s more than one way to call your bluff.

Amen. Rock on, Van.