Residents of the Golden State are trapped in a toxic relationship with the dominant Democratic Party — And we keep rewarding and empowering our abusers
To the surprise of absolutely no one with a functional frontal cortex California Governor Gavin Newsom has survived recall. As recently as mid-August tracking polls suggested he was in trouble, with voters expressing wide discontent on issues ranging from ongoing issues like homelessness and crime to specific ones like his $30 billion (at least) bungling of the state’s unemployment agency during the COVID pandemic. He and the rest of the state’s political class have routinely, brazenly flouted public health diktats they impose on 40 million other people. The infamous incident at the French Laundry will rightly go down in political history as a literal let-them-eat-cake moment, the princling giving the v-sign to the hoi polloi from inside the banquet hall. Nevertheless he won the election handily by an almost 2-to1 margin.
The question is, why? Why were so many Californians so eager to retain Mr. Newsom’s services? Even his own campaign couldn’t come up with reasons voters should keep him, relying instead on vicious, often racist attacks on the leading Republican candidate, Larry Elder. Only in California could a self-made black Ivy League graduate, son of a janitor, and lawyer be considered the racist alternative to the whitest and most privileged governor since Pat Brown. Only in the alternative looking glass world of the Left Coast could liberals get away with calling a black man the “blackface of white supremacy.” Only here could a protestor in a gorilla mask (!!!) assault Mr. Elder without eliciting so much as an indignant tweet from the Democrat political establishment.
The answer is: We have Stockholm Syndrome. The political class rub our faces in it and we say thank you may we have another. California Democrats in the 2020s are like New England Catholics in the 1990s: Deep down they know something is terribly wrong with the institution in which they are so deeply invested, that is so central to their identities. They know that something monstrous, quite possibly evil, has been gestating for a long time. But they’re in too deep, the institution is essential to their very sense of self, their place in this chaotic world. Their neighbors and family members belong. Besides, they tell themselves, their parish – excuse us, congressional district – is the exception. Their local clergy – again, excuse us, elected officials – aren’t commodified cogs in an irredeemably broken system. They are the good guys, fighting the good fight.
Actually, considering the number of pedophiles and other sex predators that seem to populate the upper echelons of the Democrat Party and its fundraising apparatus these days, the analogy is perhaps a little too on the nose – but we digress.
Meanwhile, the less said of the state’s hapless Republicans the better. At least Democrats can tell themselves that their people are in charge of the hostage situation, which perhaps offers a glimmer of hope to the traumatized (the church will change its ways, we just have to stick it out and have faith). The GOP hasn’t mattered in state politics since it alienated the fastest growing voter block with Prop 187 in 1991. The party never recovered from that self-inflicted political gunshot wound. In fact Republicans have spent those decades seemingly trying to lose elections. It’s as if they want the Democrats to retain their statewide supermajorities. Over the last five years they’ve accomplished the impressively unlikely feat of rendering themselves even less attractive to liberal state voters by fully embracing Donald Trump – a man most Californians hate slightly more than Charles Manson. Meanwhile you’ll hear Republicans empathize with Newsom, because “his job is really hard.” Well, sure, hostage situations always are. Again, Stockholm is the only explanation.
Let them eat cake — or drink Savignon blanc, as the case may be
During the eighteen months (and counting) of the COVID crisis the hostage takers consistently reminded people in the starkest terms that there are two Californias. There is the California of the political class where maskless (overwhelmingly white) millionaires and billionaires fete themselves at fundraisers whilst masked (overwhelmingly black and brown) servants tend to their every whim and megrim.
Life is good in this California, in some ways better than ever. Establishment politicians and their fellow travelers in places like Silicon Valley and Hollywood send their own offspring to exclusive academae while consigning millions of (overwhelmingly black and brown) children to remote learning at some of the nation’s worst public schools. A California where Mr. Newsom dines mask-free at a restaurant where meals start at $350 a plate sans wine – with healthcare lobbyists no less – while enforcing diktats that keep 40 million people masked and at home. A California where San Francisco Mayor London Breed, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Khuel, and countless others also have brazenly flouted those same orders at exclusive restaurants, spas, and vacation spots. It rankles yet more how many of these neo-Brahmans did not earn their privileged stations but were born into them.
Then there is the California in which 40 million actual people live, a state with some of the nation’s worst schools, roads, infrastructure, and social welfare systems. A state in which more than a million people experience homelessness every year (the official count of 161,840 statewide is the sort of too-precise number that government bureaucracies churn out). A state in which more than a quarter of a million children – children – experience homelessness every single year. A state in which hundreds of thousands more children are crippled every year by subpar public shooling.
In this California people often quite literally feel civilization crumbling beneath their feet. The sorts of catastrophes normally associated with third world countries – failing dams, collapsing roadways, unchecked natural disasters, human beings expiring in public places as if on public display – have become depressingly quotidian. In this California thousands of people die every year due to homelessness, poverty, and preventable disease.
These days in much of California it’s rare to make it through a day without seeing something truly horrific in the streets, on sidewalks, in parks.
….and this is the other.
“The plan produced by the Ten-Year Planning Council is both a blueprint and a bold step toward a new and revolutionary way to break the cycle of chronic homelessness….it’s a national disgrace.” San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, June 30, 2004
Establishment politicians like Gavin Newsom have been failing for decades. And still we continue voting for the same people. The silver lining in this recall was that voters clearly were voting against Mr. Elder, not for Mr. Newsom. Had the GOP mustered a more viable candidate the outcome may have been different. With every crime, with every atrocity in a homeless camp, with every wildfire, with every confusing, contradictory public health order more and more people perhaps break through their trauma. Whether that will ever be enough to change the state’s downward spiral remains to be seen. The fate of 40 million people in the world’s fifth largest economy depends on the answer.
A man who has been at the forefront of California politics for a quarter century remains unknown to much of the state — Never mastered retail politics — Establishment figure riddled with self-inflicted errors — Polls show that the more people hear from him, the less they approve of him
If there were a political supermarket, California Governor Gavin Newsom would be in the generics section. He has figured prominently in the state’s political class for a quarter century, since San Francisco mayor Willie Brown appointed him to the city’s Parking and Traffic Commission in 1996 and to a vacant Supervisor position a year later. Yet he remains virtually unknown to the vast majority of people in the state – not his name and face, of course, which are ubiquitous, but his convictions and politics, his vision. No one really knows what he stands for or believes in. Ask ten people and you’ll get ten incompatible answers. He’s a “business-friendly moderate” and a “progressive change maker,” which means he is neither and nothing. He is, literally, just a politician.
Politicians fall into one of two general categories, technocrats and evangelists. The former gain voters’ confidence through their (at least apparent) mastery of legislative and policy minutiae, a zest for rolling up their sleeves and spending long hours in the law library. Think Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren. Evangelicals lead from the heart with an alloy of personal conviction and near-religious fervor. The Ronald Reagans and Bill Clintons of the world.
Again, Newsom is neither. Despite his infamously tedious PowerPoint based speeches he’s no wonk, and he lacks the natural empathy that makes someone like Barack Obama come off as downright magical in certain settings. There’s a reason a San Francisco Chronicle columnist once referred to the former president as a “lightworker.” No one would tag Newsom with that appellation. He’s just there, for no other reason than that he has been for so long. He isn’t a leader, he’s part of the furniture. And in 2021 a lot of Californians want more than a handsome demilune in Sacramento.
It’s incongruous to refer to the rich, dashingly handsome chief executive of the world’s fifth largest economy as a wasted opportunity, but Newsom is just that. It’s hard to conjure a more charmed political career. His father, William A. Newsom III, was a state appellate court judge. More importantly, for three decades he was consigliere to the Getty family, in particular J. Paul Getty himself and later his son Gordon. When J. Paul Getty III was kidnapped in Italy in 1973 Judge Newsom was the bag man with the ransom money (delivered after the notoriously miserly J. Paul spent months negotiating the price down as his grandson was tortured, relenting only after the kidnappers cut off and mailed one of his ears to the tycoon, and even then only agreeing to pay an amount he could claim as a tax deduction – it’s worth keeping in mind that these are the sorts of people who formed Gavin’s worldview – and J. Paul certainly would have recognized and approved of his philandering over the years).
Starting when Gavin was a child the judge leveraged his position with the Gettys to craft his son’s business and political fortunes. Starting in middle school Newsom fils accompanied various Getty family members on traditional aristocratic grand tours of Europe, introducing him the cultural and political centers with which a future Establishment leader is expected to be at least conversant. A 2003 story from SF Weekly called “Bringing Up Baby Gavin” is well worth reading, if only for the portrait it paints of the world in which the embattled governor was raised:
Savvy Irish-American operator that he is, the judge continues to answer a reporter’s questions suavely and smoothly over lunch. His back goes up only when he discusses the San Francisco Chronicle‘s recent story detailing Getty loans to his 35-year-old son and Getty investments in Gavin’s “PlumpJack” businesses, including five restaurants, a Napa winery, a Squaw Valley hotel, and two retail clothing stores. The newspaper concluded that of the self-described entrepreneur’s 11 enterprises, Gordon Getty was the lead investor in 10. The article helped reinforce the view of some that the younger Newsom is a silver spooner who has grown wealthy not as a result of his own business moxie, but because of his connection to the ultrarich Gettys.
Suffice it to say, not many 35-year-olds have their own wineries, ski resorts, four star restaurants, and high end clothing boutiques. Judge Newsom’s financial and political savvy paid other dividends, and he wasn’t particularly discreet about the centrality of nepotism-by-proxy in his son’s nascent political and business careers. He boasted that Mayor Brown – one of California’s most legendary political operators in his own right – appointed Gavin to his first two political jobs based on their friendship. “Besides,” he told the Weekly, “they needed a straight white male on the board.”
Indeed, it is difficult to conjure a politician in modern times who ambled such a gilded path to power (soon to be former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo comes to mind, not the most flattering comparison). Along with the Gettys he enjoys the patronage of San Francisco establishment families like the Pritzkers, Fishers, and Trainas. The state and national Democratic parties have spent lavishly to secure his positions. In his first run for mayor of San Francisco the party spent more than $2 million and dispatched everyone from Nancy Pelosi, Jesse Jackson, and Bill Clinton to Bruce Springsteen to campaign on his behalf against a third tier Green Party candidate who at one point employed a “minister of propaganda” called h. brown.
Of course, politicians with abbreviated CVs and extensive financial statements have become commonplace not just in this country but around the world. Figures like Canada’s Justin Trudeau come to mind. However, in Newsom’s case that gilded but sparse resume may be coming back to haunt him.
A career marked by inevitability, invisibility, and unforced errors
Perhaps the fact that he entered politics was via nepotism and not by winning actual elections left an impression on Newsom that he was different, special. Despite his razor thin margin in his first real race against a political nobody, despite the fact that it took the biggest lights in his party and millions in outside spending to carry him across the finish line against that nobody, perhaps in the back of his mind he decided he didn’t really need the pesky voters in the first place. He certainly behaved accordingly.
Newsom quickly ensnared himself in multiple scandals and unforced errors, including an affair with his best friend’s and campaign manager’s wife, another affair with 19-year-old cocktail waitress to whom he was photographed handing a glass of wine at a taxpayer funded event (the girl’s name – you can’t make this stuff up – was Brittanie Mountz), a well-publicized and abbreviated stint in rehab he later claimed he “didn’t need,” and a near complete collapse of his relationship with city workers, especially the police and cable car operators. Local news was filled with stories about San Francisco’s crisis of confidence and downward spiral, with the Chronicle wondering “Where is Mayor McDreamy?” His first term was bereft of substance to the point that the paper observed “Searching ‘Gavin and Newsom and hair’ on Google reveals 86,900 articles. ‘Gavin and Newsom and Muni’ yields just 81,700” (then again that probably says as much about the media as the governor, but still).
As George W. Bush might have said, it was a heck of a first term. Meanwhile the city’s increasingly dystopian poverty, homelessness, addiction, and crime crises spiraled out of control throughout his mayorship even as the tech industry pushed living expenses to mind-numbing levels, presaging the statewide crises that metastasized on his watch as lieutenant governor and governor.
As Lieutenant Governor he was nearly invisible, a fact that has as much to do with the thankless nature of the job as with Newsom himself. Still, for eight years he seemed content to collect his taxpayer paychecks and spend his time building the necessary war chest and machinery to run for governor and, presumably, President. He didn’t make a name for himself, championed no causes, took no risks. It’s a safe bet that no one in California, including Newsom himself, can name a single accomplishment in those years, an unforced error of its own. Everyone knew he was going to run for governor, mostly just because he was there, and he was content to bide his time in the wings.
As Governor, well, choose a scandal de jure: His $30 billion EDD fiasco, his billion dollar deal for Chinese-manufactured coronavirus masks with a company that had been in existence for less than two weeks, his lies about increasing the state’s woeful wildfire prevention and fighting budget as conflagrations engulf the northern part of the state, allegations of another affair with a staffer, his Getty-supported winery receiving nearly a million dollars in federal coronavirus relief funds, and of course the infamous French Laundry incident.
Just this week, with millions of Californians still staring down the barrels of unemployment or reduced hours, decreased government assistance, and fast expiring eviction moratoriums, comes news that Newsom and his wife (beg pardon, “First Partner”) quietly sold their Marin County compound last month in an off-market transaction for a cool $6 million, a $4.5 million profit over barely two years. No word yet on the couple’s charitable donations over that period. At a certain point he’s just rubbing people’s faces in it. The truly sad part is, he doesn’t seem to realize it.
Lashing out at the wrong people
As the race tightens Newsom’s camp has run increasingly aggressive attack ads against the recall itself, and anyone who might even be possibly thinking about voting “YES.” It’s become all but impossible to avoid TV, radio, and online ads decrying “Trump Republicans” and the “Republican recall.” Last week a radio ad compared supporters of the recall to “January 6 insurrectionists.” This week the ads reached a hysterical pitch, calling the recall a “matter of life and death.”
It is a desperate politician who literally warns his constituents that they could perish if they commit the mortal sin of voting against him.
It’s also a curious tack when you consider that recall organizers working on a shoestring secured more than 2.1 million signatures in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-1 and a substantial proportion of independents swing liberal. It’s theoretically possible that only Republicans signed the petition (which would require a good proportion of the entire GOP population in the state) but it’s highly unlikely. Moreover, given that even a strong majority of Republicans swiftly condemned the riots in the capitol, it’s a safe bet that “January 6 insurrectionists” aren’t exactly a big cohort driving a recall in California. On the other hand, the ad risks alienating people still on the fence, the way Joe Biden’s “you ain’t Black” remark alienated moderate Black voters.
The administration’s closing strategy is also a perfect emblem of Gavin Newsom’s political career: As Establishment as they come, deaf and dumb to what actual human beings think and feel. That most voters, particularly in California, have moved on from Donald Trump is lost on his camp. The Donald was political gold for Democrats for more than four years, none less than Gavin Newsom. That’s a tough habit to break, and he doesn’t seem any more inclined to go to political rehab than he was to kick the sauce 15 years ago. He and his team seem oblivious to the fact that outside the Sacramento-Bay Area bubble people are far more concerned about wildfires, COVID-19, homelessness, crime, drought, and the state’s overall economic health after 18 months of economic upheaval. All of which are huge problems for Newsom: With the exception of the surprisingly – shockingly, when you think about it – robust economy, which has little to do with him, he earns low marks on the key issues. His margin of error is gone: One more major wildfire, one more hideous crime, one more well-intended but poorly executed COVID-19 mandate, one more let-them-eat-cake moment could well be the tipping point.
All of which helps explain why those increasingly strident attacks are decreasingly effective. Despite outspending recall proponents by a nearly 10-to-1 margin he has slipped in the polls, by a lot. According to the moving average of polls from fivethirtyeight.com, in just the last five weeks the recall swung from an 11% advantage for Newsom to a statistical dead heat. That is not the trend line anyone wants to ride into an election.
The above chart ought to cause cold sweats and fitful nights for his staff. It seems that the more Californians hear from and learn about Gavin Newsom, the less they like him. Many are listening to him for the very first time, and many don’t seem to like what they hear.
At the end of the day, of course, this is California. Democrats have indicated they’re willing to spend half a billion dollars to keep Newsom in the governor’s mansion for another 18 months (fun with math: That works out to almost exactly $1 million per day for the rest of his term, just to keep a warm Democrat in the capitol. Imagine what could be done with that kind of money for, say, the homeless crisis). If for no other reason than cold, hard cash it remains more likely than not that he will survive the September 14 recall election and remain governor of the world’s fifth largest economy.
Yet after 25 years of entitlement and privilege, after the French Laundry “let them eat cake” moment, after innumerable personal and political scandals compared to even a few months ago his position is far less secure. If he does ultimately lose, he will have plenty of time to reflect on what happened.
It will be one tough look in the mirror for the erstwhile Mayor McDreamy, who will have only himself to blame.
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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.
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.
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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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
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.
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.
Eric Garcetti’s departure is a rare moment of opportunity in L.A. Will his successor seize it or continue the same failed policies?
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.
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.
Analysis of grand jury investigations from around the state reveals aging equipment, personnel shortages, outdated procedures, andmassive gaps in evacuation planning and emergency notification networks
When it comes to natural disasters California is 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 badly flawed, and in many places nonexistent, emergency response plans affecting hundreds of cities. The grand jury reports also describe the extent to which many officials are engaging in what can only be described as willful ignorance.
In terms of wildfire preparedness in particular much of the state is moving backward, at top speed. Following a century in which fire suppression relied almost entirely on prevention communities statewide bear fuel loads that are historically unprecedented, at the precise moment in history when historic droughts and climate change add unprecedented variables. Coupled with constrained evacuation routes and overdevelopment in fire zones and wildland urban interface (WUI) areas the threats to life and property increase all the time.
Despite these realities legislation working its way through Sacramento would radically accelerate and expandresidential development without any exceptions for fire zones, much less the even larger swaths of the state that are not technically designated “high fired danger areas” (HFDAs) but for all practical purposes are equally at risk. The legislation fails to fund essential infrastructure upgrades, including fire protection, leaving it to already overstretched local budgets. If passed these bills would literally add fuel to the fire.
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.
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 listof 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 preparednessin 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.
A need for leadership
Californians can only hope that the grand jury investigations prompt badly needed and long overdue changes. In fact it should be a political no-brainer: Policymakers who prioritize and highlight wildfire prevention, adaptation, and response will become relevant statewide overnight. The Dixie Fire raging in the northern reaches of the state is the latest grim reminder of the stakes. Leadership should start with immediate boosts in funding for things like controlled burns, vegetation control, and especially assistance and enforcement of residential clearance. Over the longer term the legislature could convene a task force to review preparedness and evacuation plans statewide, starting with the grand jury investigations.
In any event, unless and until policymakers – starting with Governor Gavin Newsom – take the crisis seriously as we approach high noon of another record setting fire season, it’s going to get worse. With apologies to South Park, buckle up, buckaroos.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
Don’t look now, but they tried to do journalism. It didn’t go well, as they didn’t even grasp the basics.
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.