The annual homeless count is designed to produce outcomes officials want — Big enough numbers to shock the conscious and loosen taxpayer billfolds, but not so big as to expose the true scale of the humanitarian crisis in the world’s fifth largest economy
In 2020 there were 161,458 homeless people in California, officially. If that strikes you as a peculiarly precise number your spider senses are tuned up. The true number is much, much higher, like by an order of magnitude or more. That’s the conclusion of numerous studies going back decades, including data-driven analyses by the nonpartisan Economic Roundtable, the National Institutes for Research, scholars at Cornell University, and many others.
Consider: According to the California Department of Education, in 2018 more than 204,000 students experienced homelessness in the state, a number that has grown consistently over the last decade. Obviously, both of those numbers – 161,458 total homeless in a state where more than 200,000 children alone experience homelessness every year – cannot be true. And the Education Department’s numbers are based on actual reporting from school districts based on personal interaction with students. In contrast, official total numbers are based on what can only be described as glorified tea leaf reading.
That’s because pursuant to federal mandates, every year cities nationwide engage in an elaborate act of performance art called the homeless point in time (“PIT”) count. On the surface it’s a census of the unhoused, used to guide policy and – crucially – government spending on the crisis. In reality it’s designed to produce the numbers officials want, numbers big enough to shock the conscious and loosen taxpayer billfolds but not so big as to reveal the true scale of the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding every second of every day in the not-so-golden-anymore state.
Official counts are not just unreliable, they’re disastrously misleading
The PIT count fundamentally distorts our understanding of homelessness because it only captures a small and very specific subset of the population, those living openly outdoors. The so-called “hardcore homeless.” Given that the vast majority of homeless people – as many as three-quarters – have some form of shelter at any given time, the magnitude of this limitation can scarcely be overstated. The PIT count actually ignores most homeless people. Worse, it ignores the ones who can most benefit from early interventions to prevent them from falling into street life. And equally importantly, regardless of population dynamics there are monumental policy differences between assisting 161,000 people versus a million or more. We’re collecting the wrong data in support of the wrong policies.
There are other methodological problems with the count. The “raw” data – the chit sheets volunteers use to record their counts, about which more presently – passes through several levels of custody: Volunteers do the counts, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) employees collect and collate the data, then hand it over to experts at the USC School of Social work to crunch the actual numbers. And while the core methodology hasn’t changed procedures vary slightly from year to year and city to city, making comparisons all but impossible. That last fact is crucial: Without meaningful comparisons over time, it is literally impossible to know if billions in taxpayer dollars are having an impact. Of course, that sort of accountability is kryptonite to government bureaucracies like LAHSA.
Like the data the quality of volunteers also varies widely. I volunteered for the 2019 and 2020 counts. The experiences felt more like a matter of doing something for the sake of doing something than serious efforts to assess the population. There are no prerequisites, anyone can sign up. Consequently the vast majority have no experience with census-taking or any particular familiarity with the issue of homelessness. There were small numbers of “old hands” who had participated in multiple counts, as well as a couple of employees from a local homeless nonprofit. But most depended on a 45-minute training session.
The training was like a bad SNL sketch. Both years they started late and were comically mismanaged, to the point that in 2020 the city workers doing the training couldn’t agree on the rules. In the middle of the training in front of 50 or more people two of them got into an argument about the rules regarding counting disabled homeless people. I won’t describe the physical appearance of these two taxpayer-paid city employees, but trust me when I say your imagination doesn’t have the range. Mine certainly didn’t. You can’t make this stuff up.
The count itself was unserious, again feeling like doing something to do it. Teams of three people drove or walked around designated areas, at night. I was in a car group both times. The driver drove, the front passenger counted, and rear passenger made chit marks on the LAHSA form (apparently officials believe the average Angeleno would be overwhelmed by the dual tasks of counting and making pencil marks on a piece of paper; then again if their trainers are any indication of the general quality of LAHSA employees you can see where that concern might originate).
There are more restrictions on the process than in a TSA security line. Volunteers are told to have zero contact with the people they’re counting. Those in cars cannot get out of their cars and those on foot cannot look inside tents or knock on the doors of buildings or vehicles to assess how many people are inside. They are told to assume one to a tent or car and two to an RV. Buildings are completely off-limits, which means by definition people with temporary lodgings – a family member’s couch, an empty building – are missed. There could be a warehouse with 50 people squatting inside and not one would be counted. Likewise, entire areas are excluded from the count altogether, including national and state parks where many people camp.
As noted, the PIT count’s shortcomings are well-documented. It’s not some wacky conspiracy theory – it’s been studied by researchers and scholars for decades. That it continues to be used is an excellent example of the homeless industrial complex at work. At this point, after a half century of “fighting homelessness,” there’s simply too much money and too many jobs at stake for the establishment to admit they’re lying dog-faced pony soldiers when it comes to the true scale of the crisis. It’s a matter of producing the desired outcomes to sustain public sector jobs and billions in federal, state, and local spending.
We’ve been here before
The other agonizing truth is that we’ve been down this path before, with the so-called War on Drugs. That half-century effort did nothing to stem drug use and addiction but did produce millions of hideously unjustified, life-destroying prison sentences that support the multi-billion dollar public defender, bail bond, and incarceration industries. It also created a massive federal bureaucracy called the Drug Enforcement Agency as well as a new branch of the Justice Department, and birthed an entire industry that today employs hundreds of thousands of lawyers, administrative law judges, clerks, recordkeepers, analysts, and the rest of the usual bureaucratic rogues’ gallery. The one thing it most assuredly did not do was end the drug crisis.
Before the War on Drugs was the War on Poverty, which did reduce poverty somewhat in its first decade (though how much of even that success was due to governmental efforts versus the once-in-history postwar U.S. economy remains a matter of debate). In the decades since it has become another hydra-headed government patronage system, the precursor of the modern homeless industrial complex.
Anyone watching the homeless industrial complex metastasize should not be the least bit surprised. Homelessness is the new crack – that the government’s failed War on Poverty begat the failed War on Drugs which led directly to the current failing war on homelessness should, again, surprise no one. They’re the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan of domestic policy. Like those foreign failures these domestic disasters unequivocally are bipartisan (less so in California, where the other party – what are they called again? – has not the slightest relevance). Keep your eyes on the appropriately Byzantine-sounding United States Intergovernmental Council on Homelessness, which currently sports a mere $3.8 million budget and 20 employees. Check back in four or five years.
Unless and until policymakers begin dealing in reality when it comes to the true scope of the homeless crisis California – and the United States – will continue using bad data to support bad (and expensive) public policy. In a sense the political class has painted itself into a corner with the PIT count. They’ve relied on artificially low numbers for so long, at least two decades, that if the true number were to become widely known it would destroy their credibility on the issue that a majority of Californians rank as their single biggest concern.
Or would it? Californias are proving a shockingly apathetic lot. As our streets are handed over to mere anarchy, as crime spikes everywhere, as quality of life plummets by virtually every measure we keep electing the same people who got us into this mess, while the opposition party continues its death spiral into Trumpian irrelevance. So perhaps it doesn’t matter, in the end, what the true number of homeless is in California.
After all, at the rate we’re going the difference between housed and unhoused will soon be all but irrelevant.
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The state’s political class will never solve the homeless crisis. In fact, they depend on it.
History is replete with tragic examples of powerful rulers sending citizens to die in futile wars, often with little more at stake than the rulers’ own egos. The term “cannon fodder” was coined by François-René de Chateaubriand during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1814, as Napoleon Bonaparte grew ever more desperate to preserve his collapsing empire Chateaubriand wrote a pamphlet called “Bonaparte and The Bourbons” in which he excoriated the French dictator: “The contempt for the lives of men and for France herself has come to the point of calling conscripts ‘raw material’ and ‘cannon fodder.'” Thousands of young men were killed or wounded on the battlefields of Nivelle, Bayonne, and Toulouse in a vain effort to sustain a dying imperium. The most visceral example of cannon fodder is the World War II Battle of Stalingrad, in which the combined megalomania of Josef Stalin and Adolph Hitler led to the deaths of some two million combatants and tens of thousands of Soviet citizens in the bloodiest military confrontation in history. Two million deaths in the name of two men’s imperial ambitions.
In the twenty-first century California’s political class has created a new kind of human silage: Bureaucracy fodder. The state’s homeless population supports a head-spinning array of well-funded government agencies, nonprofits, charities, foundations, think tanks, law firms, consultants, and developers, all funded and enabled by the state’s (allegedly progressive) political class. As people suffer and die on the streets by the thousands these Brahmins rake in the paychecks, plan scores of multimillion dollar “affordable” and “low income” development projects, hold extravagant galas, and attend posh retreats and “team building” events while clothing themselves in the guise of altruism and community.
While developers vie for literally billions in project funds, many executives on both the public and private side of this archipelago make handsome six-figure salaries, such as disgraced former Congresswoman Katie Hill. Before leaving to run for office she was making nearly $200,000 a year as deputy CEO of a nonprofit called People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) – at the age of 27. That organization itself has grown its revenue from $8.3 million in fiscal year 2012 to $45.8 million last year. The organization’s CEO, Joel Roberts, made $241,370.
In Los Angeles County, homeless services are coordinated by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). According to Transparent California, in 2014 LAHSA had 118 employees, nine of whom made over $100,000 a year. As the homeless population grew so did LAHSA’s staff: By 2018, the agency had grown to 424 employees, with 31 earning six figures and another 16 earning more than $90,000. The Director pulled down $242,242 (coincidentally nearly identical to Mr. Roberts’s salary at PATH). Assuming an average salary of $50,000 LAHSA spends $21.5 million annually on salaries alone. As LAHSA has grown so has the county’s homeless crisis. Coincidence?
At the state level, the Department of Social Services employs more than 4,200 people whose jobs – theoretically – are to help California’s poorest residents get back on their feet. Nearly 100 employees make more than $200,000 a year, with the Director, William Lightbourne, receiving $313,760. And the state’s homeless crisis grows. Coincidence?
These numbers, which are just a few of myriad examples, raise obvious questions: What would those 424 LAHSA employees do for a living if they were to actually end homelessness in Los Angeles? The answer is equally obvious: If they were to eliminate homelessness and poverty, they’d have to find new jobs. And no one in their right mind intentionally puts themselves out of work.
It’s important to understand that these people are not contractors, nor consultants hired to solve a problem and then move on to the next one. They are full-time, salaried employees. Public employees also receive generous benefits packages and as many as 45 days of paid vacation annually (many take even more time off). Presumably most of them expect to have their jobs for years and decades, and many will retire with their nonprofit or government agency. For that to happen the homeless crisis must continue in perpetuity.
Equally important is the fact that the public employees are dues paying union members. LAHSA’s employees are part of the Service Employees International Union, one of the most powerful in the country (their most recent collective bargaining agreement is quite the read). Those unions are among the most important sources of campaign contributions for California’s Democrat majority, adding yet another layer of self-interest.
The famed economist William Niskanen developed the budget maximizing theory of bureaucracies. He showed how bureaucrats acting in their own rational self-interest seek to increase their budgets in order to increase their power. It’s axiomatic that success in government is a matter of raising your department’s budget and headcount. In the context of homeless services this phenomenon creates the ultimate paradox: The only way for an agency whose mission is to end homelessness can justify increasing its staff and budget is if there are ever increasing numbers of homeless people in the state. Perhaps that’s why Governor Newsom said during a recent tour of a homeless shelter in L.A. that, “Many [homeless people] see California as a place of compassion. If that’s the case, we match our values with action, and as people of faith, we have a responsibility to all of them, regardless of whether they got here last week, last month, or were born here 30 years ago.” That statement amounts to a blank check thrown at the feet of bureaucrats and nonprofit executives.
As barbaric as tyrants’ use of human beings as cannon fodder was, it arguably was more humane than California’s bureaucratic fodder. Soldiers died relatively quickly from combat wounds or – more frequently – illness and exposure. In contrast, California’s bureaucratic fodder suffer excruciating circumstances for months, years, even decades. So long as the solutions are in the hands of self-interested bureaucrats, nothing will change.
Officials including Governor Gavin Newsom were behind outrageously expensive efforts that only made the crisis worse
“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.” San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, June 30, 2004
“This crisis has been more than a half century in the making, and this Administration is just getting started on solutions.” Governor Gavin Newsom, October 19, 2019
“This Bring L.A. Home plan initiates a 10 year plan to end homelessness in Los Angeles County.” Bring L.A. Home final report, co-authored by Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti, April 2006
“We can cut this problem in half in five years. And in 10 years we can end life on the street.” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, March 2018
Advocates for changes to California’s approach to homelessness were disappointed last year when the Supreme Court denied certiorari in City of Boise v. Martin. The petitioners in that case sought to challenge a 2018 Ninth Circuit ruling preventing cities from citing or fining people for camping in public spaces overnight unless alternative shelter is available. In reality, even though more than a dozen cities in the western U.S. urged the Court to take the case, like all petitions to the high court review was always a long shot.
Nevertheless, it was viewed as another setback as California’s homeless crisis continued to spiral with no end in sight. In Los Angeles public anger erupts routinely and with increasing frequency on social media, at community events, and at town halls hosted by city councilmembers. It spawned an effort to recall Mayor Eric Garcetti and prompted calls for the resignations of Councilmembers including Mike Bonin and Paul Kerkorian. Mr. Bonin has all but stopped appearing in public outside of carefully stage-managed events.
In fact, officials in Los Angeles and across California have been failing for far longer than most people realize. In 2018 Mayor Garcetti promised to end chronic homelessness in ten years. The pledge came on the heels of his 2014 pledge to house all of the city’s homeless veterans, first by 2015 and then 2016 (he eventually scrapped the timeline). Back in 2013, during his first mayoral run, Garcetti vowed to end chronic homelessness in ten years. Likewise, upon assuming office as Mayor of San Francisco in 2004, Gavin Newsom pledged to end homelessness in that city within – wait for it – ten years.
California’s political class has not lacked for grand plans, all of which seem to fall under the ten year category. Mayor Newsom’s pledge was accompanied by the formation of a “Ten Year Plan Council” comprised of 33 local leaders. Advocates criticized the body for being too heavy on political insiders and light on subject matter experts. Nevertheless, they released their Ten Year Plan to Abolish Chronic Homelessness in July 2004.
Likewise in 2004, the City and County of Los Angeles convened their own “blue ribbon commission” called Bring L.A. Home, to study homelessness and recommend workable solutions. Like San Francisco’s Council the 60 members comprised a who’s who of ensconced city insiders and power brokers, including Eric Garcetti, Wendy Greuel, Jan Perry, Mike Feuer, Cardinal Roger Mahoney, then LAPD Chief William Bratton, and Antonio Villaraigosa.
The result of Bring L.A. Home’s efforts was a report released in April 2006. As in San Francisco the authors promised “a 10-year campaign to end homelessness in Los Angeles County by setting forth a broad range of strategies that address a multitude of issues related to homelessness.” They declared, “Nothing of the magnitude proposed by this Plan has been attempted before in Los Angeles.”
It turned out that nothing proposed by the plan was attempted, either. Today the website https://www.bringlahome.org redirects to what appears to be an Indonesian consulting firm (caution: possibly unsafe website). Email and telephone inquiries to several members of the blue ribbon committee were not returned.
Officials like Messrs. Newsom and Garcetti have been failing for nearly two decades
When Bring L.A. Home released its report and recommendations, Eric Garcetti was president of the City Council. No one other than Mayor Villaraigosa himself was better positioned to turn words into action. Yet nothing happened. No new housing was built, no programs launched. Now, fifteen years later, Mayor Garcetti rarely goes a month without a new, equally grandiose plan.
The road to Hell, as the saying goes, is paved with good intentions. Bring L.A. Home and San Francisco’s Ten Year Plan were nothing if not ambitious. The Chair of San Francisco’s Council, the consummate insider Angela Alioto, declared, “For the first time in the twenty years that I have been in public life, I feel the united excitement, the electric energy, the profound intelligence, and the strong will to end chronic homelessness in our great City.”
Likewise, L.A.’s blue ribbon commission said, “In the last twenty years, bold initiatives to end homelessness have come and gone.” Ironically their plan quickly joined that sad retinue, as the city’s approach to the issue devolved into a money grab by officials complete with allegations of impropriety, nepotism, and outright fraud (an excellent 2012 article in CityWatch by then-mayoral candidate and current president of L.A.’s Public Works Commission Kevin James highlighted some of the abuses).
Then again there’s good cause to question whether the reports themselves, and the individuals behind them, were serious. L.A.’s plan was replete with gauzy lingo that belied an underlying lack of focus, much less specific actionable steps. Indeed, much of it consisted of virtually incomprehensible bureaucrat speak: We must build, support and develop funding and legislative strategies for 50,000 new units. As a matter of urgency, we must create at least 11,500 units of housing targeting homeless families and individuals earning less than 30% of the area median income (AMI) and 15% of AMI, including 4,900 units of housing linked to services and 2,845 units made affordable through tenant-based deep subsidies. We cannot be complacent, however, as we need to develop an additional 38,500 units of housing targeting homeless families and individuals earning less than 30% and 15% of AMI, including increasing from 4,900 to 21,000 the number of units of housing linked to services and from 2,845 to 12,452 the number of units made affordable through deep tenant-based subsidies.
If you can translate that, please email us.
Moreover, consider that over a decade later, with none of the units proposed in Bring L.A. Home having been built, voters in the City of Los Angeles approved Measure HHH, a $1.2 billion bond measure to support 10,000 new units in 10 years. That works out to $120,000 each, compared to the 2008 Plan’s anticipated $165,000. Apparently, officials thought that in ten years construction costs in L.A. had dropped by 30%. Of course, Angelenos know now that the actual costs are averaging more than $500,000 per unit, with some projects potentially exceeding $700,000 per unit.
Worse, in October of last year Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin released a damning report that concluded, “Not a single bond-funded unit of homeless housing has opened since voters approved the bond measure three years ago.” His office followed up with an update this summr. And if the units end up costing on the low end of $500,000 each it would require $18 billion to house all of the city’s 36,000 homeless. That’s nearly twice the city’s total annual budget. To house all 59,000 homeless people in the county would cost nearly $30 billion.
Suffice it to say, these are not real numbers. They are no more real than the math found in Bring L.A. Home all those years ago. Meanwhile, according to San Francisco’s 2004 Plan there were an estimated 15,000 homeless people in the city by the bay that year. Last year there were at least 17,500. And the conditions in which homeless people exist statewide continue to deteriorate, in many places reaching downright post-apocalyptic scenes on a regular basis.
While the political classes in L.A. and San Francisco are the worst offenders, they are tragically far from alone:
- In 2006 the City of Sacramento released a Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. The homeless population in that city has continued to increase, including a 20% spike in 2017 alone.
- In 2006 Marin County issued a report called “The Next Decade: Marin County’s Ten Year Homeless Plan.” Nearly ten years later the Marin County Grand Jury released a report entitled “Homelessness in Marin —A Call for Leadership.” That report concluded that County-wide efforts were “unfocused and disorganized due to a lack of collaboration between the County, the cities, and the service organizations.” A subsequent 2018 “progress report” concluded, “This Grand Jury sees homelessness as a continuing and urgent problem in the County worthy of reconsideration” (Marin did report a drop in its official homeless population last year).
- In 2006 Alameda County released a report called Everyone Home, which “outline[d] a reorientation of housing and service systems to end chronic homelessness within ten years and significantly reduce housing crises for these vulnerable populations in Alameda County over fifteen years.” Over the last three years Alameda has led the state in the rate of increase in its homeless population.
Numerous studies have concluded that California’s official homeless numbers, based on federally-mandated annual counts, are highly suspect. The true numbers are significantly higher. To cite one of myriad examples, a 2014 report from the National Center on Family Homelessness at the American Institutes for Research estimated that 526,708 children were homeless for any amount of time in California in 2013. One in four Californians live in Los Angeles County, suggesting that as many as 131,677 children experienced homelessness in L.A. that year, or more than three and a half times the total number of reported homeless that year.
As the cliche goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. While not strictly accurate it’s an excellent description of conditions in California. How many more chances will Californians give to the same failed leaders?
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Three days earlier, private city “ambassadors” attempted to break up a violent altercation
UPDATE (8/7/2020): The Santa Monica Daily Press reported this morning that Santa Monica police arrested an individual in connection with the stabbing. John James allegedly stabbed an individual who was lying on the ground and then fled. A Santa Monica “ambassador” called SMPD, who subdued Mr. James with a taser after a short chase. He has been charged with attempted murder. The victim was transported to a local hospital for surgery and is expected to survive.
Some Santa Monicans awoke this morning to the now-familiar sound of police cars speeding Code 3 through the city. Their destination was also familiar: Christine Emerson Reed Park, which has been transformed from a place of family gatherings and recreation to the city’s foremost vagrant hangout.
Even as city officials have literally physically disabled the park’s playground and basketball courts – because covid – scores of homeless, addicts, and criminals continue to make the park home, gathering in large groups in close quarters all day, every day. They shout, carouse, fight, and blast music at all hours. A continuous progression of people in busted up cars and motorcycles deliver food, alcohol, and drugs. Yesterday morning at around 9am a man was observed climbing out of a car with a bottle of bargain vodka. He took a long swig, walked over to the grass, and promptly passed out. Fights are near daily occurrences. Needless to say, none of them wear masks or practice social distancing.
In other words, Santa Monica’s Reed Park is a petri dish for what’s going to happen across Los Angeles and indeed the country if depolicing becomes accepted policy. Early results are frightening, indeed.
Untrained, unarmed “ambassadors” being asked to break up fights among mentally ill and intoxicated vagrants
A fight among homeless people broke out Monday afternoon. A woman who is a known aggressor among the park’s regulars started screaming at and hitting two men at a picnic table, one of whom already was bleeding. Two other homeless men several times her size tried to calm her down. She struck one of them and he restrained her, at which point two turquoise-shirted ambassadors attempted to intervene, resulting in a screaming argument between one of the ambassadors and the woman. The two other homeless men broke up the fight, one of them standing between the ambassadors and the woman to prevent escalation. This is how things work in Santa Monica these days. Fortunately, no one was hurt worse than the bleeding man.
This was no mere coincidence: Ambassadors are the city’s alternative to a full-time police presence at the park, which residents have requested for years. Moreover, ambassadors are not city employees: They work for a private company misleadingly called Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. The company deploys them in pairs during daylight hours. Inexplicably the contract costs Santa Monica more than $500,000 a year, meaning either they’re the best-paid park ambassadors in the world or someone’s running a scam.
The point is, the lack of a meaningful police presence at a known hive of criminal activity and violence puts everyone at risk, not least of all the homeless themselves. That risk unfortunately became reality less than three days after the fight: The police this morning were responding to a double stabbing in the park. Two homeless people got into a fight, and according to sources one was stabbed in the face and the other in the stomach. While early reports indicated both are expected to survive, homicide detectives arrived on the scene.
To be sure, police are not the ideal response to fights among intoxicated and insane vagrants. The problem is, right now they’re the only solution that even remotely works. As this week’s events prove, unarmed and untrained civilian workers simply are not effective, and often only make situations more dangerous. Unless and until the political classes in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and California craft policies that get the homeless the help they need and in many cases deserve, our streets will continue to devolve into mere anarchy.
This is what happens when a city telegraphs a message of tolerance, even indulgence, to violent lawbreakers. As usual, the people who suffer the most under those allegedly “progressive” policies are the homeless and the lawbreakers themselves. Of course the park’s inhabitants and regulars are a threat to the whole neighborhood, but unlike them other people at least can avoid Emerson Park and minimize the immediate danger.
For the homeless themselves, depolicing is just another fire in the Hell into which people like Gavin Newsom and Kevin McKeown have condemned them.
Inconsistent, contradictory orders and actions reveal a deeper and more troubling agenda, particularly in big cities
In the game of poker, it’s called a tell. In the heat of the moment, when they’re all in and holding a weak hand even the best players often reveal their bluff. A tell can be a quick sideways glance, an almost imperceptible change in their breathing, a change in the cadence of their speech. There are tells in business negotiations and legal proceedings as well: In a turn of phrase or an unconscious gesture even the most seasoned, Sphinx-like professionals can betray a crucial weakness or strength.
The coronavirus crisis is proving that much of America’s political class, particularly the progressives who occupy elected office in our larger metro ares, wouldn’t last very long in a game of Texas Hold ‘Em. Their tells reveal their that their orders and policies are about politics, not public health. That truth becomes more evident with each passing day, each irrational order, each insufferable press conference.
In California the political class’s tells have been obvious from the earliest days of the pandemic. As officials like Governor Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti effectively locked 40 million law-abiding citizens in their homes they allowed the state’s homeless population – officially 130,000 but in reality many times that – to continue their lives unaffected and unmolested. The same public places closed to everyone else remain gathering places for the unhoused, who continue to congregate in large and small groups in close quarters, sharing meals and bottles, pipes and needles, tents and sleeping bags.
In the scientific parlance Mr. Newsom is fond of invoking, albeit often wrongly, they have become the control group in the largest experiment on humanity in history (as such it’s worth noting that aside from a few isolated outbreaks the cohort exempted from draconian restrictions hasn’t experienced a spike in infections, much less deaths).
While California’s political class claim to be acting in the interest of public health they allow the homeless to continue their most dangerous behaviors. The homeless endanger themselves most of all, but also the communities in which they establish illegal encampments. They are exceptional potential vectors for the virus, roaming the streets at all hours, trespassing on private property, even breaking into houses and apartments. These behaviors are not exceptional, they are commonplace. If the political class truly was concerned about public health the homeless population would have been the first people they addressed. The same patterns are playing out in dozens of cities from Seattle to New York.
The political class’s treatment (or, more accurately, neglect) of the homeless is their biggest tell, but far from the only one. Four days before Easter Sunday Mr. Garcetti issued an order closing all public parks. His justification was that people gather in parks to celebrate and socialize the holiest day of the Christian calendar, and that in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic such gatherings could be, in his words, deadly. “We just can’t take any chances,” he intoned. The mayor’s order didn’t just target a specific religious group, there also was a strong whiff of racism to it: The tradition of gathering in parks to eat, drink, and celebrate on Easter Sunday is largely a Latino one. Suffice it to say, rich white people from Bel Air do not descend on Holmby Park to break cascarónes on the holy day. The order was a breathtaking violation of the constitutional protections of people’s freedom of religion, assembly, and speech as well as due process and equal protection. The mayor’s timing – he announced the closures less than 72 hours before Easter weekend – seemed specifically intended to avoid legal challenges. Otherwise why not announce it a week or a month ahead of time to give families time to organize alternatives?
Even as the mayor deprived millions of Angelenos of the opportunity to observe their religion in their chosen manner, he allowed liquor stores and pot shops to remain open all day for business. Apparently Mr. Garcetti believes that liquor store managers and pot shop owners are better qualified to look after their customers’ well-being than priests are to care for their parishioners. And of course homeless people continued to gather in the very parks forbidden to everyone else.
That’s not a policy, it’s a tell.
The most recent tell is a proposal from L.A. city councilman Mike Bonin, who wants the city to use federal coronavirus relief and other funds to purchase homes and businesses that will face foreclosure as a result of the economic shutdown. As first reported here, Mr. Bonin intends to use the crisis to evict untold numbers of people from their homes in order to, perversely, create new homeless and low income housing. Again, swapping one cohort of homeless people for another isn’t a policy, it’s a tell.
There are many other examples. According to attorney Mark Geragos Mayor Garcetti has declared liquor stores to be “essential businesses” while forbidding Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Last week a mentally disturbed homeless woman who had tested positive for covid-19 was allowed to leave a homeless shelter and return to the streets. An LAPD spokesman said that the city cannot “force” homeless people to remain in shelters, even those who are known to have the virus. This is the same police force that has arrested healthy people for paddle boarding, protesting, and even walking in the wrong place.
Not policies, tells.
What, then, are these policies and orders intended to accomplish, if not the protection of public health? All signs point to a power grab by the political class that is unprecedented outside of wartime. Moreover, unlike emergency war powers this move will be permanent unless Americans start fighting back. And make no mistake: The window is closing. Every day people remain in lockdown is another step toward normalizing the extraordinary. Every time a constitutional violation goes unchallenged, another nail is driven into the coffin of Americans’ freedoms.
The political class’s agenda is increasingly clear everyday. What remains to be seen is how much more the people are willing to accept. A moment of reckoning is fast approaching.
In a world of scarce resources they’re turning a short-term public health crisis into a long-term national catastrophe
As the United States enters the second month of a historic government-ordered lockdown a few realities are emerging into relief. The first and most inexorable is the fact that the nation’s political class were utterly unprepared for this – “this” being an entirely foreseeable, indeed inevitable public health crisis. In an era of mass travel and global commerce it is inexcusable for officials and bureaucrats in urban centers like New York City and Los Angeles to have been caught so flat-footed. The consequence is the grim spectacle of politicians making it up as they go along. Americans in every demographic are suffering the consequences of the political class’s maladministration.
Ignore the glowing headlines about what a great job we’re doing here in California. Everyone should be watching the official response the Golden State with a combination of disgust and horror. As reported earlier this month in The All Aspect Report parts of L.A. are verging on anarchy as officials have effectively shut down civil society while simultaneously hamstringing law enforcement (the reality on the streets makes laughable the official claims by LAPD Chief Michael Moore and others that crime is “plummeting” as a result of stay at home orders).
This is a state that closes churches, synagogues, and other places of worship while allowing marijuana shops and liquor stores to remain open for business. A state that closes parks and beaches to families while allowing vagrants and drunks to occupy those very places by the thousand. These are warped priorities.
California, a place where the next major natural disaster is not a question of if but when, doesn’t have sufficient hospital capacity to handle a moderate pandemic. Officials at the state and local level failed to establish substantive plans in place to surge emergency services in a crisis. For example, the official San Francisco earthquake response plan from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services contains a single sentence about fire response and overall is impossibly vague. Likewise, the City and County of San Francisco’s official Emergency Response Plan is not a plan but an 89-page compendium of org charts and bureaucrat speak that would be useless in an actual emergency.
The results are obvious in the misallocation of scarce resources and manpower. Two weeks ago a dozen law enforcement officers from three different agencies arrested a man for paddle boarding in Malibu, even as city officials ignore countless crimes committed daily by the city’s homeless population. A man boasted to The All Aspect Report that he’d been pulled over by LAPD last week with an open beer in his cup holder, and was let go without so much as a warning. Meanwhile, Mayor Garcetti urges Angelenos to snitch on each other for violating city orders (he actually said, “snitches get rewards”) while vagrants congregate in close quarters on the steps of City Hall a few feet away from his press conference. So much for California’s “leadership.”
The only place where the official response has been worse is New York City. Like their suntanned counterparts on the Left Coast everyone in the Big Apple ought to be appalled. The leadership of a city that experienced 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy failed to plan for this kind of emergency. Maybe they were too busy building bike lanes. The city so far has the highest number of coronavirus deaths in the country, with more than 11,000 to date. With less than six percent of the nation’s population the state of New York accounts for a third of all coronavirus deaths. It’s gotten so bad that the media and pundit class are rewarding Governor Andrew Cuomo for giving entertaining press conferences with his brother (who staged his own coronavirus quarantine). Not for handling the crisis, but for looking good on TV. Let that sink in.
The official response doesn’t just amount to political malpractice, it’s an existential failure that calls into question fundamental assumptions about the modern neo-liberal state. The relentless expansion of public bureaucracies since the Great Depression was based on a contract between the people and their governments (plural, because the contract is in effect at the local, county, state, and national levels). The people accept the proposition that the complexities of modern political, economic, and social systems demand the commitment of full-time subject matter experts (technocrats) who receive salaries from the taxpayers. In return the people/taxpayers expect those employees to dedicate their careers to sustaining, protecting, and improving those systems. That contract was fraying long before coronavirus as government at every level failed on issues including education, housing, health care, homelessness, infrastructure, and mobility.
Now, as official responses to the pandemic prove more chaotic and perhaps more destructive than the disease, Americans’ remaining faith in the political class is being shaken to its core. Tens of millions have lost work and income, their futures cast into doubt. All because of bungled responses to a public health crisis that every mayor, governor, legislator, and bureaucrat should have seen coming. In an era when the next terror attack, natural disaster, or public health crisis was a matter of time the political class was bickering about pronouns.
If government were like any other industry it would already be in receivership, its executives terminated, its rank and file radically reshuffled, its budgets slashed. Yet in the perverse logic of the public sector many officials see their coronavirus failures as opportunity. As Mr. Newsom said two weeks ago, it’s a chance for “re-imagining a more progressive future.”
Only in the realm of public policy does failure respawn stronger. Only in politics does one fail upward so spectacularly.
A second realization is emerging in the form of a question, albeit a clichéd one: When does the official cure become worse than the disease? The same political class who bungled the nation’s response to a crisis they should have seen coming is in the process of cratering the U.S. and global economies. As a direct result of their actions millions of Americans have lost their jobs in a matter of days while millions more have seen their incomes plummet or disappear. The stock market has erased more than $5 trillion in gains from the last four years. The unemployment rate is making the Great Depression look like the Roaring 80s, and it’s just getting started. Former Fed Chair Janet Yellen has estimated that unemployment rate reached 13% by early April, and some observers suggest that it could exceed 30% before the crisis is over. Countless thousands of small businesses have been shuttered, many never to reopen. Lives are being shattered, livelihoods destroyed, college and retirement savings gutted.
As they continue to collect their own six figure, taxpayer funded salaries the political class that failed so thoroughly is warning everyone else that the worst is yet to come.
In a sense we are in another “9/11 moment” in which reality is obscured by the fog of the crisis (of course, many people have argued that the political class should have seen 9/11 coming as well). In response to the attacks the political class hurled the country into the catastrophic Iraq War. An attack that cost 2,996 lives triggered a response that killed as many as 600,000. In economic terms the hijackers spent roughly $500,000 to carry out their acts of cowardice. The total U.S. military response cost some $6 trillion.
In the fog the political class also convinced Americans that national security necessitated unprecedented governmental invasions of privacy – an “emergency measure,” of course. Nearly two decades later every email Americans send remains subject to scrutiny, every credit card transaction, stock purchase, telephone call, and doctor visit. County and local governments introduced mass surveillance of their populations in the form of cameras and drones, while even suburban police departments obtained military-grade equipment. All of this, said the political class, was necessary to protect us, just like the current national shutdown. The political class was profoundly, dangerously, fatally wrong then. Why should Americans trust them now?
A pandemic by its nature arrives, spreads, peaks, and declines. In contrast, the effects of mass unemployment grind on a populace for years or decades. Make no mistake: Unemployment and poverty are deadly. How many Americans already are sinking into depression, substance abuse, and lethargy because of lost hours, social distancing, and lockdown orders? New York governor Andrew Cuomo was dismissive this week of domestic violence, but how many are being victimized? How many addicts, no longer able to attend in-person meetings, are relapsing? How many people will resort to alcohol or drugs for the first time? How many will contemplate suicide? These are not rhetorical questions: Calls to suicide hotlines around the country are up substantially. A line covering North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota has seen calls spike by 300%.
Suffice it to say, if the political class’s panicked responses to the coronavirus pandemic triggers a long-term recession or even a depression, it will kill many more people than the disease itself. It will invariably result in higher crime rates, more domestic violence, more suicides.
In a world of uncertain choices and imperfect information, America’s political class so far has taken the most imperfect route imaginable.
*Yes, that sentence is an example of the old adage that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. Comparing a viral pandemic to chronic conditions linked to genetics and behavior is apples and oranges. However, the metric officials are using to justify the massive response is the number of deaths. The current worst case scenario for coronavirus is around 200,000 deaths. Annually, nearly 700,000 Americans die of heart disease.
A government that prioritizes prosecuting surfers and beer drinkers over pimps and drug dealers is a government adrift
Since the first states issued self-isolation orders in early March Americans have surrendered a shocking portion of their rights to the political class. In a matter of weeks 250 years of constitutional law has collapsed upon itself like a spectacular legalistic quasar. Like an imploding star the collapse has generated a massive release of energy, only instead of electromagnetic radiation the energy here is frenzied governmental activity.
To be sure, a pandemic like coronavirus requires robust public sector action. But the brute force of the official response is deeply disconcerting, more so in light of history: Governments that seize control rarely relinquish it.
At the same time, two months into the emergency people are discovering that every level of their government was utterly unprepared for a 21st century public health crisis that wasn’t just foreseeable but inevitable. The precursors were SARS, H1N1, and avian flu. To not have seen something like coronavirus coming amounts to willful ignorance bordering on criminal negligence.
Of course the very officials and bureaucrats whittling away at civil liberties (while continuing to collect their taxpayer funded paychecks) are the ones who failed to prepare in the first place. In late January the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – an agency whose $5 billion annual existence is predicated on preparing for and responding to public health issues – was still reassuring Americans that coronavirus was not transmittable between people. In March, with the crisis in full bloom, the agency still was fumbling its response. So much for disease control and prevention.
The political class is proving that while they can’t contain a virus they can extinguish constitutional rights. Much easier for a governor or mayor to sign a one-page order written by staffers than to spend the months and years necessary to actually prepare for something like this in the first place. Much easier to bloviate at daily pressers than to devise a strategic response.
The price of their incompetence has been lost lives, lost jobs, lost wages, and lost futures. These countless individual tragedies have been compounded by a sudden, massive deprivation of civil liberties. In places like New York and California the deprivation has become virtually absolute.
With few exceptions people have accepted the diminution of cherished rights willingly, voluntarily, even enthusiastically. They’ve surrendered rights for which millions sacrificed, fought, and died over the course of two and a half centuries at the behest of a political class that in the best of times can’t keep the streets paved.
Virtually no one blinked last Thursday when Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the city was closing all public parks for 36 hours, from Saturday afternoon to Monday morning, specifically to prevent people from gathering to celebrate Easter mass. The order effectively suspended two of the Constitution’s most precious protections, freedom of religion and assembly. Churches, of course, have been closed for weeks already.
People convening for a few hours to observe the holiest day of the Christian calendar warranted draconian measures and the full force of the state’s police powers to suspend core constitutional rights. Mr. Garcetti said, “I know this is a time of the year when many of our families and friends celebrate Easter by getting together outdoors –– and we just can’t take any chances right now.”
Yet he’s been taking chances with tens of thousands of homeless people since the crisis started, which in turn threatens the well-being of every single Angeleno. Make no mistake: Mr. Garcetti, like California’s entire political class, has concluded that homelessness, prostitution, drug dealing, addiction, crime, and public disturbances are acceptable exceptions to self isolation orders.
As millions of Angelenos shelter in place public parks have remained havens for homeless, vagrants, and criminals. Dealers openly sell meth, opiods, fentanyl, even home-brewed liquor without the slightest fear of consequence. Open-air drug deals go down in plain view of law enforcement. The All Aspect Report observed a resident of L.A.’s “A Bridge Home” shelter in Venice yesterday dancing on a sidewalk screaming, “It’s corona time, baby!” A few minutes later shelter staff allowed him back inside, no questions asked.
Homeless people gather in close quarters and in small and large groups without any law enforcement response. Quite the opposite, in fact: The Los Angeles City Council ordered that illegal encampments and entire tent cities will remain in place 24 hours a day, indefinitely. Council’s tortured logic is that homeless people are safer in filthy, vermin infested, crime ridden camps. In reality they’ve simply given up. San Francisco quickly followed suit. Meanwhile, across California politicians’ bold plans to house tens of thousands of homeless in hotels, motels, and recreation centers has quietly fallen apart. And just today the Los Angeles Times reported that the LAPD has all but ceased enforcement of sex trafficking laws, exposing the most vulnerable girls and women to new levels of danger and exploitation.
In one of the more infamous examples a man paddle boarding near the Malibu Pier was arrested two weeks ago for refusing to comply with orders that he leave the water. While the man behaved foolishly in defying law enforcement’s orders, it beggars belief that a single individual in the middle of the breakers required two lifeguard boats, a half dozen Sheriff’s cruisers, and two dozen personnel. He was literally the only person for hundreds of yards in any direction.
When people (again, foolishly) crowded L.A. County hiking trails last month the official response was to close all trails completely. Instead of such drastic measures perhaps some of those Sheriff’s deputies who spent time arresting an errant wave enthusiast could instead have been dispatched to enforce social distancing on trails. Then again that would require planning, strategy, and creative thinking, all of which are in dangerously short supply among our city’s and state’s electeds. Last weekend the Santa Cruz sheriff’s department handed out $7,000 worth of fines to a group of young people whose offense against the state consisted of purchasing beer.
Meanwhile, the county is dispatching enforcers to small businesses perceived as violating shut-down orders. Most of these visits are unannounced. The owners of a small print shop in north L.A. report that they have received visits on consecutive days, first by the Sheriff’s department and then by an city official who refused to identify himself (he also claimed to be “out of business cards”) but who left orders from the county health department related to the shop’s operations. The owners, who asked not to be identified for fear official retaliation (let that sink in, by the way), have been keeping the shop open to serve residents seeking, among other things, to apply for relief or small business loans under the CARE Act. If that isn’t an essential service it’s hard to imagine one, but it remains to be seen whether they will be allowed to continue.
People need to be demanding answers from the political class. Why are hundreds of thousands of vagrants and criminals allowed to roam free, their lives virtually unchanged, while everyone else is subject to virtually unlimited control? Why are some kids buying beer considered a greater threat than vagrants assaulting women and dealing drugs?
Stripped to the essentials government’s purpose is protect the populace. At every level, government has failed. Instead of protecting the people the political class is stripping them of basic civil liberties. A government that prioritizes prosecuting surfers and beer drinkers over pimps and drug dealers is a government adrift.
The most egregious of the violations is the virtual suspension of due process. Stay at home orders, orders banning business from operating, and orders forbidding people from assembling amount to an unprecedented intrusion by government into every single American’s life and an unprecedented use of the state’s powers – and it’s happened with zero due process. The many constitutional infringements include:
- First Amendment. Stay-at-home orders by definition violate the First Amendment’s protection of peaceable assembly. In a very real way that right has all but ceased to exist. Meanwhile, city and state governments nationwide banned religious gatherings over Easter weekend. Some places like Los Angeles banned all gatherings, while states like Kansas banned more than 10 people. Regardless these orders are fundamental violations of the constitutional protections of religious freedom.
- Fourth Amendment. State and local officials across the country are urging people to report violations of stay at home orders to law enforcement. Last Tuesday Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti openly encouraged Angelenos to “snitch” on each other, and this week Riverside County released and promoted a mobile app that allows neighbors to anonymously report one another. As the print shop case proves in stark relief officials have abandoned standards of probable cause or even reasonable suspicion, in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.
- Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Due process has virtually ceased to exist. Extraordinary government orders have deprived tens of millions of their civil liberties, not to mention their livelihoods, without notice, an opportunity to be heard, nor a chance to rebut the justifications behind the orders. Procedural due process is the guarantee of a fair legal process when the government tries to interfere with a citizen’s protected interests in life, liberty, or property. Substantive due process is the guarantee that the government will not encroach on fundamental rights of citizens. Government at all levels has abandoned these precious guarantees.
- Fifth Amendment, part 2. Official orders also are depriving millions of Americans of business income without any compensation. The shuttering of millions of businesses amounts to the biggest de facto public taking in American history, which under the Fifth Amendment requires due process and just compensation. A twelve hundred dollar check doesn’t count.
- Sixth Amendment. Many official orders arguably are tantamount to criminal prosecutions. Shuttering a business, putting dozens or hundreds of people out of work, and destroying people’s life’s savings is a profound exercise of governmental police power. Every affected business owner is effectively presumed guilty. They have been given no opportunity to be heard, no trial by jury, no opportunity to present contrary evidence or witnesses, and no legal representation.
- Eighth Amendment. The Excessive Fines Clause prohibits fines that are “so grossly excessive as to amount to a deprivation of property without due process of law.” While stay at home and other orders aren’t strictly “fines,” they have the same cumulative effect: Forcing businesses to close amounts to a fine, because the order deprives them of normal income. Moreover, to the extent the orders are enforced by government’s police power they may violate the amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
- Fourteenth Amendment. Again, many of the orders issued at the federal, state, county, municipal, and local levels have deprived Americans of fundamental rights. No one has been given notice or an opportunity to be heard.
It remains to be seen how many of these new restrictions will become permanent or semi-permanent. Yesterday Governor Gavin Newsom justified more stay-at-home orders by remarking, “Not only is the past not equal to the future, but we also have to recognize that we are not just along for the ride as it relates to experiencing the future. The future happens inside of us.”
Because, you see, we have always been at war with coronavirus.