In Edgar Allen Poe’s The Mask of the Red Death, Prince Prospero hosts a hedonistic masquerade while outside his ramparts the population succumb to a gruesome plague. The prince installs garish, grotesque décor in his castle’s seven interconnected halls. He provides revelers with music and wine, dancers, clowns, buffoons, and “dreams.” As far as the prince and the nobility are concerned, beyond their debauched bacchanalia “The external world could take care of itself. Meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.”
It’s a classic trope, Nero fiddling while Rome burns. Literature and history are replete with let-them-eat-cake moments. In the 21st century California’s political class has joined the sad cortège. They have their own Prosperos in the likes of Gavin Newsom and Eric Garcetti, les élues whose keeps are gated communities in Marin County, bastioned manses in Palo Alto, compounds in Bel Air and Malibu. They most assuredly aren’t thinking about, much less grieving for, the external world.
While hundreds of thousands of homeless decay on the streets of the state’s once-great cities, California’s elites cloister in their rarified confines, perversely feting themselves for their enlightened benevolence. While some 6 million of their fellow Californians languish in poverty they refuse to return so much as a farthing; indeed, the extract ever-more tribute. While millions of children languish in some of the country’s worst schools they host fundraisers for their own children’s exclusive acadamae, lavish events at which they auction gold earrings and Tahoe vacations. Their concern for the commoners is but a pretext.
All the while they assure themselves that thanks to their sagacity, outside the battlements all is prosperity and contentment. And why would they not? Their own vaults runneth over.
At least, in theory. In reality California already is bankrupt. The state has at least $1.5 trillion in outstanding bonds, loans, and other long-term liabilities, along with unfunded liabilities for post-employment benefits (primarily public sector retiree healthcare), as well as unfunded pension liabilities. And that’s just amount we know about: California politicians are infamous for flubbing numbers. The “bullet” train is Exhibit A. Add to that number the hundreds of billions that will be necessary to repair and maintain the state’s crumbling infrastructure. Meanwhile the state’s tax receipts have been declining for years. Maybe that’s why Prince Gavin is proposing that the state tax drinking water.
These are not the qualities of a prosperous, successful state. They are harbingers of horrible things to come. Not that the political class notices.
Newsom’s patrons are among the eldest of California’s nobility: the Gettys, the Fishers, the Pritzkers. He wasn’t born rich, but his family was well-connected. His father William was a state appellate judge and trustee of the Getty family fortune. When John Paul Getty III was kidnapped in 1973, William Newsom served as bag man with the ransom. Gavin was raised safe within the palace. As a consequence, his contact with average Californians always is fleeting, ephemeral, a sort of half baked, modern day noblesse oblige. He plays his part with a cheery gusto that is gruesome in light of reality. Like Prospero he is “happy and dauntless and sagacious.”
We have our Prosperos. The plagues outside their walls are Poverty, Addiction, Mental Illness, Ignorance, Hopelessness, Helplessness. The first victims already are dying in the streets – Los Angeles has experienced more than 1,200 homeless deaths since 2017. The victims are addicts wasting away before your eyes, lunatics being devoured from within by demons only they can see and hear, people who have given up on life. They live in mile after mile of tent cities, from Skid Row to Santa Monica and all points in between Unreported crime is rampant. We’ll never know how many homeless women will be raped. Broad swaths of L.A. and San Francisco have been reduced to near-anarchy. Entire neighborhoods resemble ghost towns and entire towns resemble the End of Days. In such places Third World conditions would be an improvement. Unimaginably, conditions are even worse in the Central Valley and northern counties.
The plagues afflicting California are not just metaphorical: Typhoid fever, typhus, hepatitis, and tuberculosis all have been identified on our streets. There are increasing fears of a full blown outbreak of bubonic plague.
You see the first victims also in our public schools: The thousand-yard stare on the face of a South L.A. middle schooler whose best friend was shot in a drive-by when they were children. The high school graduate wandering lost through a world she was never taught to navigate, lacking so much as the ability to fill out a fast food job application. In 2018 alone child homelessness spiked by 50% in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Outside California’s one-great cities, entire counties are being consumed as people sickened by one or more of California’s plagues abandon their neighborhoods. As the older generation passes no one is there to take their place. In the Central Valley hundreds of communities resemble shantytowns. So too in places farther south like Palmdale, and in the far north like Siskiyou; these places are previews.
The political class whisk past and tut-tut and remind their minders to remind them to mention it in their next address.
Poe’s tale has a final, crucial element: A clock. Within one of the chambers in the castle is an enormous ebony clock that on the hour chimes a peculiar, and peculiarly chilling chime that freezes the revelers in place: “While the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation.”
reminds them that the whole garish, phantasmagoric affair is a lie. They are
going to die the same agonizing death as the commoners.
We’ve begun to hear the chimes of Prospero’s clock in California. We hear it in a hundred car windows being smashed by vagrants every night in San Francisco. We hear it in the screams of the insane in the streets, the wail of a siren in the middle of the night racing to resuscitate a drug overdose victim.
In the end,
of course, the Red Death reaches the nobility. In the end the only difference
between Prince Prospero and the lowest commoner is the opulence of his demise
(and, perhaps, his ultimate destination).
change, Prospero’s clock will soon be tolling for every Californian.
After a. brush fire broke out near an illegal homeless encampment in Lake Balboa Park last Tuesday, Mayor Eric Garcetti claimed it hadn’t been hot and dry enough to order the camp cleared. It was a curious assertion, considering that during the summer months the mercury regularly passes 100 degrees in Van Nuys. It was doubly curious given that Councilwoman Nurey Martinez, whose district includes the park, claimed today that her office had planned a cleanup of part of the park before the fire. Regardless, to call the park a tinderbox is an understatement. Considering the homeless population with their illegal gasoline generators, electric wires, propane tanks, and camp and cook fires, the city is setting up yet another potential disaster area.
On Sunday afternoon it was somewhat cooler in the ravine along Bull Creek, where homeless people have set up not so much an encampment as a small town. It’s completely separate from the camp where the fire started. It’s a quarter mile away, on the other side of Balboa Boulevard. It is one of at least four distinct camps that remain scattered throughout the park. So far, the city has only tackled one, during a sweep this week in which workers are collecting and hauling out garbage and refuse by the truckload.
Only a chain link fence separates bucolic Lake Balboa, where people fish for tilapia, bass, and carp, from Bull Creek, where an encampment of roughly 100 homeless people sprawls across roughly a square mile of what was once a stream teeming with fish itself. Unfortunately, some of the people who live in the encampment all too often use it as a trash dump or toilet. A man who gave his name only as Roberto was raking the ground in front of his camps site, which like most of the sites around the creek was cleaner than others you routinely see around Los Angeles. Indeed, some people spoke proudly of the relative orderliness of their own camp sites. A woman named Leanne said, “If the city would provide some dumpsters or something, we’d clean this place up ourselves. Most of the trash and stuff is from people who were here before.”
Roberto has been homeless for two years, since arriving in L.A. from Utah. He spends his days collecting recyclables. For eight to ten hours of rooting through garbage cans he earns $15-$20 a day, enough to buy food. He’s 38 but looks ten years younger with a lean, tattooed frame. He has family in Jalisco but prefers living here, even though his illegal status makes it difficult to find work. When asked if living in a homeless camp next to a fetid creek surrounded by trash was better than his life in Mexico, he instantly replied, “Yes.”
Fires are “a fact of life” in the camps
Last week’s fire didn’t faze the folks in the ravine. They’re making a life here, and they take fires in stride. “It didn’t get close enough to bother us,” said a woman who has lived here for two years, who declined to give her name. “We keep an eye out. Fires are just a fact of life around here.”
Roberto says that folks in the camp often put out fires themselves. He describes how a tent caught fire a few weeks ago in the middle of the night. He and several others grabbed a hose and attached it to a spigot in the park. They had the flames doused before the fire department even arrived. He said there are fires once or twice a week, and that, “Most of the time we get them out pretty quickly,” he said. It was not exactly reassuring.
Suffice it to say, relying on homeless people to extinguish their own fires is not a sustainable long-term solution. A walk through the encampment revealed hundreds of yards of electrical wires running through bone dry grass and undergrowth. Wires ran past propane tanks, through the middle of garbage heaps, and directly into tents and other makeshift dwellings. Outlets lay in overgrown weeds. The next fire is not a matter of if, but when. As a firefighter said to The All Aspect Report last week about the situation throughout California, it’s a game of Russian roulette.
The reality in Lake Balboa Park also raises troubling questions, in particular about the efficacy of cleanup efforts. Clearing one camp often just scatters inhabitants to nearby locations. As has been widely reported in local media a huge proportion of L.A.’s chronically homeless population simply refuse services and shelter. What good does it do to clear a camp when the practical effect is to disperse people to other places where they maintain the same lifestyle and living conditions? How does it address the massive threats to public safety posed by these illegal encampments and activities?
The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t.
A sense of order, of sorts
The colony at Bull Creek is relatively orderly, by the standards of illegal homeless encampments. Unlike the sheer anarchy of Skid Row homeless camps and the lawlessness of the ones in Venice and Santa Monica, it exudes a sort of order. A walk around the perimeter of the camp triggers the camp’s sentries. A half dozen men on bicycles shadow anyone who isn’t known to the community.
In a loop of the entire camp and its scores of individual campsites (one man called his place a “homestead”) there weren’t hypodermic needles, which are of course a staple of other camps. There were no signs of other drug paraphernalia, and only a handful of empty liquor bottles. There was no evidence of rats or other rodents, though ants crawled everywhere. With the except of a single, tragic looking young woman whose skin was covered by meth scabies, no one was openly intoxicated. Indeed, everyone seemed to be in decent health. Several people had dogs who also seemed healthy, in contrast to the flea and mange covered specimens in camps elsewhere.
It’s the sort of place where people know each other, socialize with each other, and look out for each other. They refer to each other as neighbors. Many of the camp’s inhabitants are undocumented, illegal immigrants. Leanne, one of the few native Angelenos encountered in the camp, said, “The folks along this stretch of the wash, they’re pretty good. We look out for each other.” Another person said, “These are good people. They’re not the stereotype of homeless. I wish people knew that.”
If fires are regular occurrences in a relatively stable community, what can Angelenos expect elsewhere?
Moreover, the order doesn’t suggest the camp is not filthy – it is, relentlessly so, despairingly so. The creek, which feeds into Balboa Creek on its way to the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant, is fetid beyond saving. Yet compared to other camps around Los Angeles, in terms of personal safety it feels almost out of harm’s way – so long as you don’t do anything that attracts the sentries’ attention.
The camp – and the three others like it that remain in Lake Balboa Park – is a hazard to the park, the neighborhood, the community, and perhaps most of all to the people who live in it. As noted, the city cleared the first camp starting on Monday. Under the relentless sun city workers loaded and trucked out several loads of garbage.
The cleanups are notoriously ineffective. Similar efforts in Venice Beach, Mar Vista, and Skid Row have yielded no permanent improvements. Indeed, camps usually reappear within hours of a cleanup. As soon as the police and city employees are gone, the streets return to the vagrants’ domain.
All of which raises a question for Mayor Garcetti and the City Council: If one camp is enough of a hazard to clear, why not all the rest? Will it take more fires, more loss, more risk? Will it take innocent lives before the city’s political class get serious about solving the crisis once and for all?
These questions have many Angelenos wondering when the heat will rise enough for our political class to get serious about the crisis. So, Mayor Garcetti and Councilwoman Martinez: Is it hot enough for ya’?
Note: More than three dozen current and retired firefighters around California in city and county departments, as well as Cal Fire, were interviewed for this story. Citing official policy as well as political pressure, many were not willing to go on the record and requested that potentially identifying information be withheld.
On a recent tour of their facilities and equipment, the crew at a fire station in Los Angeles showed off their trucks, engines, ladder, and other vehicles. They described the equipment’s capabilities while rattling off a head-spinning litany of statistics (the newest engines, for example, can deliver a total of nearly 2,000 gallons per minute, or 33 gallons per second, on a blaze). Then the topic turned to L.A.’s homeless crisis, which was when the tour and interview turned into something of a therapy session for a clearly frustrated crew. The captain, who like the rest of the team would not go on the record because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the issue, said they get multiple calls every day to put out homeless fires.
When asked to estimate what proportion of fires his crew extinguishes are attributable to the homeless, he shook his head and replied, “At least 90%.” He explained that thanks to modern fire safety and suppression measures structure fires are actually quite rare. However, the number of overall blazes in Los Angeles has increased exponentially, a direct result of the city’s homeless crisis. (Calls to the LAFD Public Information Officer were not returned).
Identical stories statewide
The therapeutic aspect of the interview became a recurring theme in conversations with firefighters across the City of Los Angeles and around the state. When first approached, the crew at another station in L.A. County said they couldn’t answer a journalist’s questions about homeless fires in the city. However, their initial reluctance turned into a 45 minute conversation in which they revealed terrifying details and the implications for public safety. They said it’s common for them to get more than ten calls per day for homeless fires, from dumpsters in alleyways behind apartments and houses to grass fires in parks. Another member of the crew described how they regularly witness homeless people smoking near gas mains, setting camp fires in piles of garbage, and cooking over open flames next to apartments and homes.
Homeless fires are starting to have catastrophic consequences statewide. According to Contra Costa Fire District Public Information Officer Steve Hill, “A lot of our fires end up starting in and around homeless encampments.” Residents of Oakland are calling homeless fires in that city a “crisis.” And just two weeks ago, a family of five in South Los Angeles lost their home to a blaze attributed to a homeless encampment in an adjacent alley. According to local reports, neighbors had contacted the city’s 311 hotline for months to report the camp as well as previous fires, to no avail.
Illegal encampments causing blazes in wildfire zones
The crisis isn’t limited to the large metropolitan areas people generally associate with homelessness. Frighteningly, homeless fires are now commonplace in some of the state’s highest fire hazard zones. Lydia Grant, a former Los Angeles city commissioner and current member of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council in the San Fernando Valley, says that there are dozens of illegal encampments in the mountain just outside her community. “They start fires every single day. Our firefighters are at their limit. And yet our city councilmember, Monica Rodriguez, hasn’t done anything.” In 2017 the area endured two of the worst fires in L.A. history, the Creek and La Tuna Fires. Ms. Grant spoke to The All Aspect Report in her capacity as a concerned citizen.
Like the crews in Los Angeles County, a firefighter in Ventura said that his county is experiencing a dramatic increase in its homeless population, and along with it an increase in the number of fires. On a sweltering Saturday afternoon he pointed to the 8,000 foot mountains that encircle the bucolic town of Ojai. In December 2017 the Thomas Fire burned more than 280,000 acres of those mountains, destroying 1,087 buildings and killing a firefighter. He explained how it was “dumb luck” that Ojai itself was spared: Ironically, the Santa Ana winds that helped create the inferno pushed the flames to the southeast, away from the city. The fire burned in a ring along the mountains instead of consuming the populated valley. “Next time we might not be as fortunate,” he said.
His warning is frighteningly prophetic, as there already have been several fires in the area this year started in homeless camps, including one last week in Oxnard.
According to a senior official in the Los Angeles Fire Department, there are hundreds of abandoned buildings in L.A. that are unfit for human habitation but where people nevertheless are squatting. The official, who declined to go on the record, said, “We can’t inspect buildings we don’t know about. We can’t warn people or get them out.” Homeless people routinely cook over open flames inside tents and abandoned buildings. “It’s like a game of Russian roulette,” said the official. The combination of rampant homeless fires, abandoned and uninspected buildings, and squatters is a recipe for disaster. It’s only a matter of time before the next conflagration claims lives.
Another crew likened the abandoned buildings to the Ghost Ship in Oakland, where a December 2016 fire killed 36 people. While that fire was caused by the managers’ potentially criminally negligent maintenance, the comparison nevertheless is apt: When asked if there are potential Ghost Ships in L.A. occupied by homeless people or squatters one firefighter replied, “Dozens. Maybe hundreds. We just don’t know.”
What’s more, like so many other official statistics the number of reported homeless fires almost certainly is an undercount. That’s because many fire departments and agencies don’t specifically track homeless fires. For example, Scott Mclean, the Public Information Officer for Cal Fire, said that while the number of has increased the agency doesn’t keep count. Cal Fire is responsible for some 31 million acres of land in the state, all of it privately owned. Mclean said that California’s fire seasons are getting worse, due to factors including drought cycles, increased fuel loads, development, and population growth.
Despite spending billions of dollars at the state and local levels the homeless crisis in California continues to deteriorate. In this year’s annual homeless count, virtually every community in the state reported substantial increases in their populations. And as previously reported in these pages and elsewhere, those official numbers are massive underestimates.
At the same time, many policies are exacerbating the problems. Laws and court decisions increasingly tie firefighters’ and police officers’ hands. The notorious Prop 47 (deceptively titled the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act”) freed tens of thousands of allegedly nonviolent offenders from state prisons. But the same lawmakers who saw fit to release those felons failed to provide services such as job training and transitional housing, meaning that many of those released ended up on the streets. At the same time, Prop 47 downgraded a range of felonies to misdemeanors, meaning police cannot make arrests. Even when they do, offenders are often back on the streets within hours. And the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision in Jones v. City of Los Angeles prevents cities from issuing citations or arresting people for vagrancy. Many observers attribute the explosion in the state’s homeless population to that decision.
For the foreseeable future, then, it seems the crisis is only going to spiral. Nero is fiddling while Rome burns. Until elected and appointed officials can show they are serious about solutions, millions of Californians will remain in harm’s way.
How much does a bed cost? In Los Angeles, it’s more than $50,000. Having defeated a lawsuit brought by residents of Venice Beach, the city will startconstruction as early as this week of a so-called “bridge housing” facility located at a former Metro bus yard at 100 Sunset Avenue. The facility, which when finished will provide beds and some services to 100 adults and 54 children, costs $8,000,000, which works out to $51,948 per person. That’s in addition to the annual cost of maintaining and operating the facility.
The per bed cost is consistent in bridge facilities citywide. The Schraeder shelter in Hollywood cost $3.3 million to construct and has 72 beds, or $45,833 per bed. The first bridge housing facility to open, in downtown L.A.’s historic El Pueblo district, contains 45 beds and cost $2.4 million, which works out to $53,333 per bed. And a recently-opened bridge housing facility for 100 homeless veterans on the West Side cost $5 million, or $50,000 per bed. What’s more, that facility is temporary and consists of two “tension membrane structures” as well as modular trailers. Translation: Los Angeles spent $5 million on two tents and some campers.
The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) recently released the results of the 2019 homeless count. To the surprise of no one besides Mayor Eric Garcetti and the city council (who were shocked, shocked!) the number of homeless people in the city increased over last year, by 16%. Officially that means there are nearly 36,300 homeless in the city, though the actual number is much higher. If studies from organizations like the Economic Roundtable are accurate, the number of people experiencing homelessness – and therefore needing a bed – over the course of a year in Los Angeles is closer to 100,000 (even that number may be low; according to a 2014 report from the American Institutes for Research, that year as many as 130,000 children may have experienced homelessness in L.A.).
Even accepting the official number, existing bridge housing projects reveal how utterly unserious L.A.’s political class is about solving the homeless crisis. Assume the average cost per bed is $50,000. To provide $50,000 beds for 36,300 people would cost more than $1.8 billion. And if the Economic Roundtable is correct it would cost $5 billion to provide beds to everyone who will experience homelessness for any amount of time in L.A.
Bridge housing by definition provides temporary shelter for people awaiting permanent supportive housing, meaning that $1.8 (or $5) billion would fund only an interim solution. Which is bad enough. But where you really see the rub is in the city’s approach to permanent housing for the homeless. Contrary to politicians’ promises during the campaigns for Measure H and HHH, the city is spending between $400,000 and $500,000 per unit of permanent supportive housing. To provide housing to 36,300 people at an average of $450,000 per unit would cost $16.5 billion.
Construction costs are only the beginning of the tally. While annual operating costs are difficult to come by – perhaps by design – the L.A. Daily Newsreported in 2016 that permanent supportive housing costs $22,000 per resident annually, meaning that annual costs to support 36,300 people would be $800 million. Once again that number may be on the low side: Last month L.A. Downtown News reported that the cost of LAPD patrols at the El Pueblo facility run to $96,171 per month, or more than $1.15 million annually, in addition to annual operating costs of $1.3 million. And that’s just one, small facility with 43 temporary beds. That works out to $56,976 per bed per year. Annual operating costs at the Schraeder shelter are $4.7 million, or $65,277 per bed. For perspective, that’s nearly two and a half times the average annual rent in the City of Los Angeles. It works out to $5,440 per month. That’s how much it costs to rent a 1,500 square foot, two bedroom new construction apartment four blocks from the beach in Venice.
These aren’t real numbers. Only in the bureaucracy-addled imaginations of politicians do they even begin to make sense. To be sure, bridge facilities offer general services for the homeless, not just to the people staying there. Nevertheless, the construction and operating costs are eye-watering. Yet no one seems to be asking where the money is going to come from.
Not every one of the city’s homeless people will need permanent supportive housing. But given that the city’s official count is a massive underestimate it’s reasonable to use 36,300 as a working number. If the real number is closer to 100,000 it’s fair to assume that a third will need some form of permanent support in perpetuity. Indeed, according to the Economic Roundtable’s report, of the 100,000 people estimated to experience homelessness in L.A. in a given year, a third will remain homeless for a year or more, meaning they likely will need a permanent solution.
Like so much of life in Eric Garcetti’s Los Angeles, the more the city spends on homelessness the worse the problem gets. Two and a half years after voters did their part by overwhelmingly approving Measure HHH, not a single unit of supportive housing has opened. The first are expected in December, which will be more than three years since the vote.
Then again, perhaps we should have read Measure HHH more carefully: It promises to deliver 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing over the next ten years, for $1.8 billion. A thousand units a year won’t even staunch the bleeding. 10,000 units is enough housing for less than a third of the city’s current chronic and hardcore homeless population (the real number, not the city’s fanciful official one) over a decade. Apparently we’ll get to the other two thirds at some later date.
The numbers aren’t real. The money isn’t real. The time frame is utterly unrealistic. And all the while tens of thousands of people languish in post-apocalyptic conditions, with more joining them every single day. Thanks to Eric Garcetti and the feckless, corrupt city council this is life in the wealthiest city in wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history.
Leon* is going into seventh grade in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He’s 14 and loves music, computers, and video games. He dreams of a career as a music engineer. He’s got a mischievous side and is a bit of a prankster. He loves paper airplanes.
He also loves history. Whether it’s Genghis Khan or Easter Island, the American Revolution or the Industrial Revolution, he can’t get enough. He has a remarkable ability to focus. Give him a set of math problems and the world vanishes until the last one’s solved. It’s a thing to behold.
It’s all the more remarkable given the deafening noise in his world. He lives in a homeless shelter in Compton with his mom, three older sisters and older brother. Leon and his siblings are among the estimated 17,000 homeless students in the LAUSD, a number that has tripled in the last three years. Kids who when the 3pm bell rings go to emergency shelters, motels, even cars, RVs, and sidewalk tents.
The numbers are eye-watering.
While overall homelessness increased by 19% in L.A. County last year, child homelessness exploded by 50%. That’s on top of a 50% increase in 2018. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Education as many as 71,727 children experienced homelessness countywide. Even that number may be a significant undercount: According to a study by the nonpartisan American Institutes for Research, in 2014 as many as 130,000 children may have experienced homelessness that year. Moreover, that was five years ago, before the crisis truly began to spiral out of control.
130,000 homeless children, in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history. How does this happen? How have we allowed it to happen? Why do we continue electing the same politicians responsible for creating the crisis, in the vain hope they’ll solve their own mess?
Violence is a fact of life for children like Leon. He speaks with a pronounced stutter that started after his best friend was killed in a random drive-by when they were eight. The murder is among the nearly 50% of homicides that go unsolved each year in Los Angeles, the majority in South L.A. He and his siblings regularly alter the route they walk to and from school because patterns are dangerous. His school is relatively safe, but fights are common. His oldest sister has been suspended multiple times and is now home-schooled. It’s harrowing to imagine how many obstacles he faces just to be a normal little boy. He never will be.
He’s 12 years old, and as a society we’ve given up on him. This is life in Eric Garcetti’s Los Angeles.
It’s impossible to acclimatize to the new reality in Los Angeles, to normalize to the notion that for children like Leon life isn’t much different from that of a child in a war-torn developing country. For that matter, Leon is receiving a third world education. He’s going into the eighth grade and he can’t define a noun without prompting. He reads and writes at a third grade level, maybe. He can’t do multiplication tables beyond 5 without a calculator.
Yet Leon lives in the world’s fifth largest economy. His shelter is three miles from Playa Vista and the billions being invested in Silicon Beach. A twelve minute drive down Centinela Boulevard might as well be a twelve hour flight.
Again, Leon is tragically typical. LAUSD public education outcomes are among the worst in the state, making them among the very worst in the country. Though California is home to roughly 12% of the U.S. population, it has nearly half of the worst performing schools.
In 2017 barely a third of students met or exceeded math standards each year, and fewer than 40% did the same in English Language Arts. In poor areas like Compton the rates were 6.6% and 11.8%, respectively. LAUSD graduates thousands of high school seniors annually who are functionally illiterate – young adults who lack the skills to fill out a fast food job application.
The state of public education in Los Angeles is all the more troubling given the direct connections between education and poverty. Ending poverty starts with the next generation, with kids who are three and four years old. The public school is the foundation for the community and where you find good schools you find strong communities. Where you see bad schools, you see broken ones. If our city is to ever see a decrease in poverty and homelessness, it will follow a reemergence of our schools in a very profound way.
There are reasons for cautious hope. Even as officials dither, individuals are realizing this is an all-hands moment. People are having conversations they weren’t having even a couple years ago. Hundreds of private organizations, nonprofits, and faith groups are putting resources into the fight. They’re leveraging technology and modern behavioral and cognitive science. They crowdsource and harness social media.
Gerald is a father whose seventh grade daughter is enrolled in a program called School on Wheels, which provides tutors and mentors to homeless children in southern California shelters, libraries, schools, and other places homeless families gather (full disclosure: I volunteer with the program). He says that in the last year or so, services have been more visible.
Time will tell if these efforts will coalesce meaningfully. Whether California writ large will heed a call to action. The futures of millions of children like Leon depend on it.
* Not his real name. Details of Leon’s life have been changed to protect his privacy.
The video out of Brooklyn, New York on July 1 is as gut wrenching as it is heart wrenching. A cyclist speeds down the sidewalk and into a blind intersection, against the light, without slowing down. Tragically, she tries to cross the street just as a cement truck enters the intersection. She swerves at the last second, but it’s too late – she hits the front of the truck, falls off her bike, and is crushed under the truck’s back wheels. A surveillance camera caught the accident (warning, the video is extremely graphic and will be disturbing to some readers). The victim was a 28-year-old woman named Devra Freelander, an artist who lived in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood.
In Manhattan on June 24th, a
20-year-old bicycle messenger collided with a delivery truck in morning
traffic. Robyn Hightman was riding in traffic when they* hit the truck from
behind. The driver, who continued to drive several more blocks before being
flagged by a taxi driver, claimed he never saw them.
The accident occurred near the intersection of Sixth Avenue (aka Avenue of the Americas) and 24th Street in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. Ironically, in response to pressure from bike activists, in 2016 the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) installed a protected bike lane on Sixth Avenue between 8th and 33rd Streets. In December of that year Streetsblog NYC gushed that “the new protected bike lane on Sixth Avenue … has turned one of the city’s most stress-inducing bike routes into one of its best.”
According to CBS affiliate WKTR, “police determined [Hightman] was not in the bike lane and was traveling between vehicles when they were struck.” Likewise, the New York Post reported Hightman “was pedaling between cars” when the crash occurred. Eyewitnesses, including the cab driver who stopped the truck driver, confirmed that Hightman struck the Freightliner truck from behind. Images of the scene show a mangled bicycle in the middle of the street, several dozen feet from the bike lane.
The response to the accident was predictable to anyone familiar with bike activists and their radical agenda. Rather than using the tragedies of Freelander’s and Highman’s deaths as a teachable moment New York’s bike activists (all 37 of them) went into full outrage mode. Instead of taking a hard look at the circumstances, they raged about “reckless truck drivers,” “dangerous drivers,” and of course, “traffic violence.” These are the same cohorts who gleefully boast about bike rage, and howl about evil school bus drivers (seriously). They even claim to be an “oppressed class” (again, seriously).
In short, they do everything but
take responsibility for their own lives.
Yet the simple fact is that
cyclists often are their own worst enemies. They routinely blow through red
lights and stop signs. They lane split in rush hour traffic while listening to
music and checking texts. They ride the wrong way down one-way streets. They
ride at night with no lights or reflective gear. They bait and taunt motorists.
These are all incredibly risky actions yet they are the norm for far too many
cyclists. If cyclists don’t take responsibility for their own safety, there’s
little the rest of us can do. Indeed, in the name of speed and convenience many
riders routinely ignore roadway features specifically intended to protect them.
A memorial gathering for Hightman the night of the accident was a prime example of the activists’ warped ideology. What started as a (relatively) peaceful vigil quickly turned into a protest that ultimately erupted into an Antifa-style riot. Several activists dragged two men from their car and beat them in the street. They also damaged the men’s car along with multiple others. Nothing calls sympathy to a cause like intentionally, violently assaulting innocent individuals (not unlike the Antifa riot in Portland last weekend that left journalist Andy Ngo with a brain hemorrhage).
Despite the activists’ self-righteous outrage and violence, Freelander’s and Hightman’s deaths are tragic illustrations of how bike lanes cannot prevent every single accident and death, particularly when cyclists themselves don’t obey traffic rules. A reporter from the New York Villager visited the scene of Hightman’s death a few days after the accident. He observed, “several cyclists…veering out into car lanes near the intersection to avoid heavy pedestrian traffic and slower bicycles, and then turning back into the bike lane midway up the block.” Cyclists swerve out into traffic in order to maintain their preferred speed rather than slowing for pedestrians (as required by law). That, in a word, is unsafe. If they won’t prioritize their own safety, Vision Zero and all the bike lanes in the world can’t help them.
Activists often point to
confounding factors like cars, trucks, and buses parked illegally in bike
lanes. They point out that some drivers are simply oblivious to bicycles and
sometimes overtly hostile, with dangerous consequences. Those are valid points.
Again, however, the law requires bicycle riders to observe the rules of the
road. If a driver encounters a double-parked car, the solution isn’t to swerve
into the oncoming lane without slowing down. Given their inherent vulnerability
cyclists should be even more cautious. If they encounter a slower rider ahead
of them they have to slow down themselves until it is safe to pass. These are
the rules of the road.
Alas, a drive through most any
downtown core these days involves navigating among a constant scrum of law
breaking velocipedians. As bike lanes and other “bike infrastructure”
proliferate nationwide, attitudes among cyclists have shifted from self
preservation to privilege. Even though they comprise a vanishingly small proportion
of road users (with the exception of few college towns no U.S. city has a
bicycling rate higher than 4%), they wield outsize influence in city planning
offices and even city halls. Groups like New York’s Transportation Alternatives
are extremely well-funded and dominate the narrative over traffic safety. In
their narrative, cyclists are never responsible for their own actions, much
less their own safety.
If someone decides to drive drunk
and ends up crashing into a tree and dying, we don’t blame the tree. Yet in
every single cyclist death the activists blame everyone and everything but the
cyclist, even when that cyclist flouted traffic laws intended to protect them.
The fact that riders like Freelander are responsible for their own accidents doesn’t make it their fault. Even when they’re 100% responsible, they’re still victims. Victims of an increasingly entitled and aggressive lobby of bike activists who blame everything on cars and drivers even when the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. It’s the only message young people like Hightman have ever heard. They have grown up in an era in which American cities collectively added tens of thousands of miles of bike lanes, routes, and paths, giving riders a sense of primacy. Cyclists are taught to ride aggressively rather than cautiously and defensively. The ultimate tragedy is that it’s the bike activists themselves who lure innocent people to their doom by imbuing them with a false sense of priority and safety.
The fact of the matter is, choosing
to ride a bicycle is choosing to take certain risks. Cycling on city streets,
particularly major thoroughfares, is an inherently dangerous act, one made
inestimably more dangerous by many cyclists’ own conduct and decisions. When it
comes down to it there’s nothing between a rider’s body and the pavement.
Unless and until the bike activists
are willing to acknowledge so much as a scintilla of these realities people
will continue dying on the streets.
Handing authority for the crisis to Donald Trump is likely too much for most Californians to stomach. They should consider it anyway.
One of the first things you see after a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis virtually anywhere on earth is the arrival of a United States Air National Guard C-17 Globemaster relief flight loaded with food, medical supplies, and personnel. Within 24 hours of the devastating 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia the United States dispatched C-17, C-5, and C-130 cargo planes to the region. National Guard and regular service personnel immediately began providing shelter, clean water, food, medicine, sanitation, and search and rescue operations from Indonesia to Madigascar. They were the first wave of what would become Operation Unified Assistance, the largest relief effort since the Berlin Airlift. It involved some 15,000 personnel, two aircraft carrier task forces, a Marine expeditionary unit, a U.S. Navy hospital ship, and countless vehicles and rotary and fixed wing aircraft. Within ten days of the earthquake the USS Lincoln aircraft carrier arrived in the region and began 24-hour-a-day flight operations, including search and rescue. At the peak of the operation the U.S. and a dozen other countries were delivering more than 100,000 pounds of supplies every 24 hours. Less than a year later, some of those same personnel and resources were on the ground in cities and towns throughout the southeastern U.S. providing relief to survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
The military has a long tradition of assisting in and coordinating humanitarian efforts in extreme circumstances, often performing heroically. Historians credit an Army general, Frederick Funston, for saving what was left of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fires. He was deputy commander of the division stationed at the Presidio. Within hours of the quake, his troops were throughout the city fighting fires, establishing relief camps, setting up kitchens to feed the survivors, providing medical aid to the injured, re-establishing sanitation, establishing security (there was a spate of looting), and assisting in rescue operations. They saved thousands of lives and prevented the complete annihilation of the city by fire and human mischief.
The military assist not just after disasters but in efforts to prevent them. This summer, the California National Guard has been assisting Cal Fire’s preparations for the 2019 fire season, which has the potential to be one of the worst on record. They’re using lessons learned from the devastating 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California, among others.
The military responds to human-caused disasters as well. Operation Tomodachiwas the U.S. response to the March 11, 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. It lasted two months and included 24,000 personnel, 189 aircraft, and the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier task force along with two amphibious carriers, two destroyers, an amphibious dock ship, and other surface vessels. U.S. service members assisted in everything from harbor cleanups to freshwater delivery, search and rescue to decontamination.
The military often is the only entity with the experience, human and material resources, and discipline to respond to major crises, and they often are the most effective resources on the ground. Even as the George W. Bush administration and FEMA bungled their responses to Hurricane Katrina, the disaster was hailed as one of the National Guard’s finest hours for its rescue efforts. Certainly there were hitches, but as with so many other examples the military saved countless lives and properties and prevented the outbreak of mass lawlessness.
The scale of the California homeless crisis demands a national response
It’s time to call in those resources to tackle California’s homeless crisis. The magnitude of the catastrophe, which state leadership has allowed to metastasize for at least a decade, is as dire as any of the examples mentioned above. Officially, some 130,000 people were homeless in the state last year. The official number likely is off by as much as an order of magnitude. According to an authoritative 2014 report by the American Institutes for Research, in 2013 as many as 526,000 children experienced homelessness in California. And that was six years ago, before the crisis truly began to spiral. The report also ranked the state 49th in planning and policies related to child homelessness.
Approximately 1,833 people lost their lives during and after Hurricane Katrina. In 2017, the last year for which numbers are available, at least 2,000 homeless people died in California. Last year 918 homeless people died in Los Angeles County alone. That’s a death every nine and half hours, in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history. It has been widely reported that diseases most people associate with the middle ages – typhus, typhoid, tuberculosis – are spreading in homeless camps across the state. There are legitimate fears of an outbreak of bubonic plague as soon as later this summer. Police officers, firefighters, and volunteers working in homeless communities routinely report all manner of ailments, ranging from inexplicable coughs to influenza and typhus. And it’s only getting worse.
Homeless encampments also present terrifying risks of fire. In December 2017 a homeless cook fire got out of control in West Los Angeles and sparked a brush fire that consumed seven houses in Bel Air and threatened the Getty Center and its priceless art collections and research centers. A fire captain in downtown Los Angeles recently told The All Aspect Report that his crews are called to douse dumpster fires several times a day. He said they refer to one of their trucks as “the dumpster fire tender.” Homeless fires are a daily occurrence from the San Fernando Valley to the Bay Area, the state capital to remote Butte County. It’s a literal version of Russian roulette, and it’s only a matter of time before one of those fires gets out of control and becomes the state’s next Camp Fire.
The fires are just one aspect of the lawlessness that California’s homeless crisis has created. Vandalism, assault, drug sales, public intoxication, disturbing the peace, public defecation, even prostitution and attempted murder all have become terrifyingly commonplace. Most crimes aren’t even reported anymore – why bother calling 911 when you know no one’s coming?
If the scope of these issues doesn’t justify federal intervention it’s hard to see what would. California has hit rock bottom.
Local and state services are overwhelmed, and officials aren’t up to the task
It has been clear for several years that state and local authorities are overwhelmed. As previously reported in these pages, under Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “bridge housing” plan the City of Los Angeles is spending an average of $55,000 per bed for temporary dormitory style housing. Accepting the official count of 36,900 homeless in the city, it would cost more than $2 billion to provide rudimentary shelter to all of them. The shelters also cost an average of $50,000 per bed per year to operate, meaning the city would spend $2 billion to construct the shelters and then $2 billion a year to maintain and operate them. These are not real numbers
The official response becomes even more absurd with permanent housing. When pitching Measure HHH to L.A. voters, Mayor Garcetti promised the city would build 10,000 units over the next ten years at a cost of $1.8 billion. That wouldn’t put so much as a dent in the crisis. Moreover, in reality those permanent units cost an average of $450,000 each. That’s $4.5 billion, two and a half times the mayor’s original promise, to house less than a third of the city’s current homeless population over a decade. These are not real solutions.
In contrast, consider that an Army mobile hospital and shelter can be set up for a few hundred thousand dollars in a matter of hours. These facilities provide a range of emergency and supportive services, including sanitary and medical facilities, triage, accommodation, security, kitchens, pharmacies, storage, and communal gathering places. In a fraction of the time that city and state governments spend dithering over what color to paint a new bridge facility, the National Guard and other military elements could have shelters up and running statewide, helping people, saving lives, and rescuing communities.
Moreover, the National Guard and regular military branches have facilities and bases all over California, meaning that much of the usual red tape, bureaucracy, and litigation could be avoided. The Guard could, for example, set up a relief camp at its recruiting station in West Los Angeles. That station is less than a mile from the Westwood VA Hospital, meaning it would be an attractive option for homeless veterans who are among the most underserved in the population.
The military branches collectively possess countless years of experience in confronting all manner of humanitarian disasters. Who better to solve California’s homeless crisis than the men and women who have been on the ground in places Paradise, New Orleans, Haiti, Indonesia, and hundreds of other crisis points? Would Californians rather continue to trust that the politicians will figure it out, eventually and given enough money? It is time to call in the professionals who have demonstrated time and again their capabilities under the most challenging circumstances.
Potential legal and constitutional questions
The President has authority to deploy military units domestically for certain purposes. Under the Posse Comitatus Act the military can conduct non-law enforcement operations including humanitarian missions so long as they do not act as a police or quasi-police force. Likewise, National Guard units can be activated by either their state government or the federal government. The differences are in who pays the bills and who’s in charge. When a state deploys its National Guard, the state pays and the governor serves as commander in chief. In contrast, the President or Secretary of Defense can call up units to support overseas military operations, in which case the federal government pays and is in command. Guard activation also can be a hybrid: Federally funded while remaining under state control, such as during Hurricane Katrina and the Camp Fire.
Suffice it to say it is highly unlikely that Governor Newsom will activate the Guard at the state level to respond to a homeless crisis he himself had a hand in creating. It would be to admit the failure of state and local efforts to address the crisis. Moreover, in the current environment of Democratic politics it simply would be untenable: Before the first tent was erected the cries of “concentration camps” would begin from the party’s newly dominant Left wing. There is, however, another alternative.
Precedents in the Civil Rights Era
There is at least some precedent for Presidents using the military and calling up the National Guard without a state declaration, under extraordinary circumstances and even in defiance of state government. For example, the President can use the military and activate a state’s Guard units when citizens’ civil rights are threatened by state action. The most famous examples were President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s use of the Guard to enforce public school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 and President John F. Kennedy use of the Alabama and Mississippi National Guard to enforce desegregation efforts in those states in the early 1960s. In all cases presidents acted over the strenuous objections of governors.
Perhaps the most salient example is President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to federalize the Alabama National Guard in 1965. Johnson had been deeply troubled by images of peaceful civil rights protestors being attacked by police dogs, doused with fire hoses, and tear gassed and beaten in the streets of Selma on March 7, 1965, known as “Bloody Sunday.” Infuriated after the state’s governor – the noxious Democrat segregationist George Wallace – reneged on a promise to use state authorities to protect the protests, Johnson unilaterally activated 10,000 Alabama Guard troops and dispatched them to the city. From March 20-25, 1965 some 3,000 Guard and regular Army troops escorted Martin Luther King, Jr. and 50,000 protesters on their march from Selma to Montgomery, where King delivered one of his most famous orations, “How Long, Not Long.”
The 1965 example is particularly applicable because Johnson’s legal and constitutional justification for taking control of the Alabama National Guard was civil rights. Albeit in a different context, today’s homeless are subject to routine civil rights and constitutional deprivations by the very authorities charged with preserving them. Hundreds of thousands of Californians live on the streets, in beat-up campers, in abandoned buildings unfit for human habitation. Hundreds of thousands of children languish in similar and sometimes worse conditions. Millions of innocent citizens also have their rights trammeled every day, from the handicapped little girl who can’t get down the sidewalk in Venice in her wheelchair because dozens of tents block her way to the average Jane or Joe who has to navigate sidewalks covered in human excrement while wondering if today will be the day the plague arrives.
It will require diligent research by constitutional scholars. A process may look something like this: President Trump could declare a national state of emergency over the homeless crisis (while California is by far the worst, states nationwide are grappling with their own versions of the catastrophe). He could demand that governors in the worst affected states call up their Guard units to begin immediate humanitarian operations. When those governors invariably refuse, the President could activate their National Guard units as a necessary to the preservation of millions of people’s civil rights and safety.
Of course, for many in this deep blue state the idea of giving Donald Trump authority to do anything is a non-starter. There would be inevitable comparisons to the President’s decision to send troops to the southern border. Then again, military professionals haven’t been shy about shutting down Trump’s more jingoistic tendencies in that arena. Moreover, Californians would do well to look at the Camp Fire as an example. Despite the occasional (and characteristic) inflammatory Tweet the President stayed out of the Guard’s way and let them do their job. That is what should be expected of federal efforts to deal with homelessness in the state.
It’s time for Californians to acknowledge the state’s abject failure to solve the homeless crisis. It’s time to acknowledge that the bureaucratic amateurs had their chance and only made things worse. It’s time for the President to declare a state of emergency in California.