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.
Governor Gavin Newsom and local leaders have failed. Only national, and even international, resources can meet the magnitude of their human-caused crisis.
[NOTE: A previous version of this story appeared on January 18, 2019. It has been updated, and is even more relevant and urgent two years later]
One of the first things you see after a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis virtually anywhere on earth is the arrival of a United States Air National Guard C-17 Globemaster loaded with food, medical supplies, and personnel. Within 24 hours of the devastating 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia the United States dispatched Globemasters along with C-5 Galaxy and C-130 Hercules strategic lifters to the region. National Guard and regular service personnel immediately began providing shelter, clean water, food, medicine, sanitation, and search and rescue operations for millions of people from Indonesia to Madagascar. They were the first wave of what would become Operation Unified Assistance, the largest humanitarian relief effort since the Berlin Airlift. Within ten days of the earthquake the USS Lincoln aircraft carrier arrived in the region and began 24-hour-a-day flight operations, including search and rescue. The effort involved some 30,000 personnel, two aircraft carrier task forces, a Marine expeditionary unit, a U.S. Navy hospital ship, and hundreds of rotary and fixed wing aircraft and vehicles. Along with the offshore resources they established more than 500 individual relief camps and other sites throughout the region. At the peak the U.S. and a dozen other countries were delivering more than 100,000 pounds of supplies every 24 hours. Less than a year later, some of those same personnel and resources were on the ground in cities and towns throughout the southeastern U.S. providing relief to survivors of Hurricane Katrina. The number of lives saved is well into the millions.
It would take a fraction of that response to aid virtually every single homeless person in California in a matter of weeks. If we could muster that kind of effort for strangers 10,000 miles away there literally is zero excuse to not do it for our own neighbors here at home. Of course, that’s not the profitable solution, nor the one that enables politicians to aggrandize ever more power over actual working people. So instead of taking the blindingly obvious course and declaring a national emergency, our political roll out multi-billion dollar plans for dozens of $9 million “bridge housing” and $900,000 units of “permanent supportive housing.” Governor Newsom’s current grand plan, the latest of many previous failures, is to throw another $2 billion at the problem, to go along with the billions already flushed away on what has become known as the Homeless Industrial Complex. Meanwhile, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti continues his Quixotic (but highly profitable) quest to spend a billion dollars to build 10,000 units in 10 years. In other words, housing sufficient for less than a third of the city’s current (official) chronic homeless population, in a decade.
These are not serious plans. These are not serious people.
In contrast, the military has a tradition of assisting in and coordinating humanitarian efforts in extreme circumstances, often performing heroically. Historians credit an Army general, Frederick Funston, for saving what was left of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fires. He was deputy commander of the division stationed at the Presidio. Within hours of the quake, his troops were throughout the city fighting fires, establishing relief camps, setting up kitchens to feed the survivors, providing medical aid to the injured, re-establishing sanitation, establishing security (there was a spate of looting), and assisting in rescue operations. They saved thousands of lives and prevented the complete annihilation of the city by fire and human mischief.
The military responds to human-caused disasters as well. Operation Tomodachiwas the U.S. response to the March 11, 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. It lasted two months and included 24,000 personnel, 189 aircraft, and the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier task force along with two amphibious carriers, two destroyers, an amphibious dock ship, and other surface vessels. U.S. service members assisted in everything from harbor cleanups to freshwater delivery, search and rescue to decontamination.
The military often is the only entity with the experience, human and material resources, and discipline to respond to major crises, and they often are the most effective resources on the ground. Even as the George W. Bush administration and FEMA bungled their responses to Hurricane Katrina, the disaster was hailed as one of the National Guard’s finest hours for its rescue efforts. Certainly there were hitches, but as with so many other examples the military saved countless lives and properties and prevented the outbreak of mass lawlessness.
The scale of the California homeless crisis demands a national response
It’s time to call in those resources to tackle California’s homeless crisis. The magnitude of the catastrophe, which state leadership has allowed to metastasize for decades, is every bit as dire as any of the global examples mentioned above. The impacts on neighborhoods and communities are as devastating as anything you’ll see in actual war zones: Murder, rape, shootings, bombings, targeted assassinations, out of control fires, torture, disease, infestations, flesh eating bacteria, vandalism, assaults, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria. In places like San Francisco’s Tenderloin and Venice Beach in L.A. conditions have devolved to post-apocalyptic mayhem. Anarchy doesn’t begin to describe many places in the Golden State.
The death toll is in the hundreds of thousands. Since 2000 at least 10,000 homeless people have perished in Los Angeles County alone. Officially, some 130,000 people were homeless in the state last year. The official number likely is off by as much as an order of magnitude. According to an authoritative 2014 report by the American Institutes for Research, in 2013 as many as 526,000 children experienced homelessness in California. And that was six years ago, before the crisis truly began to spiral. The report also ranked the state 49th in planning and policies related to child homelessness.
Approximately 1,833 people lost their lives during and after Hurricane Katrina. In 2017, the last year for which numbers are available, at least 2,000 homeless people died in California. In 2019, more than 1,000 homeless people died in Los Angeles County alone. That’s a death every nine hours, in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history. And again, those are just the official numbers. The truth is certainly far more horrifying. Meanwhile it has been widely reported that diseases associated with the middle ages – typhus, typhoid, tuberculosis – are spreading in homeless camps across the state. There are legitimate fears of an outbreak of bubonic plague as soon as later this summer, and God help the Southland if coronavirus arrives. Police officers, firefighters, and volunteers working in homeless communities routinely report all manner of ailments, ranging from inexplicable coughs to influenza and typhus.
Homeless encampments also present terrifying risks of fire. In December 2017 a homeless cook fire got out of control in West Los Angeles and sparked a brush fire that consumed seven houses in Bel Air and threatened the Getty Center and its priceless art collections and research centers. A fire captain in downtown Los Angeles recently told The All Aspect Report that his crews are called to douse dumpster fires several times a day. He said they refer to one of their trucks as “the dumpster fire tender.” Homeless fires are a daily occurrence from the San Fernando Valley to the Bay Area, the state capital to remote Butte County. It’s a literal version of Russian roulette, and it’s only a matter of time before one of those fires gets out of control and becomes the state’s next Camp Fire.
The fires are just one aspect of the lawlessness that California’s homeless crisis has created. Vandalism, assault, drug sales, public intoxication, disturbing the peace, public defecation, even prostitution and attempted murder all have become terrifyingly commonplace. Meanwhile, thanks to laws like Prop 47, more than a dozen felonies including armed assault have been downgraded to misdemeanors. Prosecutors like San Francisco’s Chesea Boudin have all but stopped prosecuting so-called quality of life crimes. Even violent felons, attempted kidnappers, attempted rapists, routinely walk after a few hours in jail. As a result of these fundamental breakdowns in criminal law, many – perhaps most – crimes aren’t even reported anymore. Why bother calling 911 when you know no one’s coming, much less following up and prosecuting?
Local and state services are overwhelmed, and officials aren’t up to the task
If the scope of these issues doesn’t justify federal intervention it’s hard to see what would. California has hit rock bottom. It’s been clear for several years that state and local authorities are overwhelmed. As previously reported in these pages, under Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “bridge housing” plan the City of Los Angeles is spending an average of $55,000 per bed for temporary dormitory style housing. Accepting the official count of 36,900 homeless in the city, it would cost more than $2 billion to provide rudimentary shelter to all of them. The shelters also cost an average of $50,000 per bed per year to operate, meaning the city would spend $2 billion to construct the shelters and then $2 billion a year to maintain and operate them. These are not real numbers.
In contrast, consider that an Army mobile hospital and shelter can be set up for a few hundred thousand dollars in a matter of hours. These facilities provide a range of emergency and supportive services, including sanitary and medical facilities, triage, accommodation, security, kitchens, pharmacies, storage, and communal gathering places. In a fraction of the time that city and state governments spend dithering over what color to paint a new bridge facility, the National Guard and other military elements could have shelters up and running statewide, helping people, saving lives, and rescuing communities.
The military branches collectively possess countless years of experience in confronting all manner of humanitarian disasters. Who better to solve California’s homeless crisis than the men and women who have been on the ground in places Paradise, New Orleans, Haiti, Indonesia, and hundreds of other crisis points? Would Californians rather continue to trust that the politicians will figure it out, eventually and given enough money? It is time to call in the professionals who have demonstrated time and again their capabilities under the most challenging circumstances.
Potential legal and constitutional questions
The President has authority to deploy military units domestically for certain purposes. Under the Posse Comitatus Act the military can conduct non-law enforcement operations including humanitarian missions so long as they do not act as a police or quasi-police force. Likewise, National Guard units can be activated by either their state government or the federal government. The differences are in who pays the bills and who’s in charge. When a state deploys its National Guard, the state pays and the governor serves as commander in chief. In contrast, the President or Secretary of Defense can call up units to support overseas military operations, in which case the federal government pays and is in command. Guard activation also can be a hybrid: Federally funded while remaining under state control, such as during Hurricane Katrina and the Camp Fire.
Suffice it to say it is highly unlikely that Governor Newsom will activate the Guard at the state level to respond to a homeless crisis he himself had a hand in creating over the last twenty years. It would be to admit the failure of state and local efforts to address the crisis. Moreover, in the current environment of Democratic politics it simply would be untenable: Before the first tent was erected the cries of “concentration camps” would begin from the party’s newly dominant Sandersnista Left wing.
There is, however, another alternative.
Precedents in the Civil Rights Era
There is at least some precedent for Presidents using the military and calling up the National Guard without a state declaration, under extraordinary circumstances and even in defiance of state government. For example, the President can use the military and activate a state’s Guard units when citizens’ civil rights are threatened by state action. The most famous examples were President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s use of the Guard to enforce public school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 and President John F. Kennedy use of the Alabama and Mississippi National Guard to enforce desegregation efforts in those states in the early 1960s. In all cases presidents acted over the strenuous objections of governors.
Perhaps the most salient example is President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to federalize the Alabama National Guard in 1965. Johnson had been deeply troubled by images of peaceful civil rights protestors being attacked by police dogs, doused with fire hoses, and tear gassed and beaten in the streets of Selma on March 7, 1965, known as “Bloody Sunday.” Infuriated after the state’s governor – the noxious Democrat segregationist George Wallace – reneged on a promise to use state authorities to protect the protests, Johnson unilaterally activated 10,000 Alabama Guard troops and dispatched them to the city. From March 20-25, 1965 some 3,000 Guard and regular Army troops escorted Martin Luther King, Jr. and 50,000 protesters on their march from Selma to Montgomery, where King delivered one of his most famous orations, “How Long, Not Long.”
The 1965 example is particularly applicable because Johnson’s legal and constitutional justification for taking control of the Alabama National Guard was civil rights. Albeit in a different context, today’s homeless are subject to routine civil rights and constitutional deprivations by the very authorities charged with preserving them. Hundreds of thousands of Californians live on the streets, in beat-up campers, in abandoned buildings unfit for human habitation. Hundreds of thousands of children languish in similar and sometimes worse conditions. Millions of innocent citizens also have their rights trammeled every day, from the handicapped little girl who can’t get down the sidewalk in Venice in her wheelchair because dozens of tents block her way to the average Jane or Joe who has to navigate sidewalks covered in human excrement while wondering if today will be the day the plague arrives.
It will require diligent research by constitutional scholars. A process may look something like this: President Trump could declare a national state of emergency over the homeless crisis (while California is by far the worst, states nationwide are grappling with their own versions of the catastrophe). He could demand that governors in the worst affected states call up their Guard units to begin immediate humanitarian operations. When those governors invariably refuse, the President could activate their National Guard units as a necessary to the preservation of millions of people’s civil rights and safety.
Of course, for many in this deep blue state the idea of giving Donald Trump authority to do anything is a non-starter. There would be inevitable comparisons to the President’s decision to send troops to the southern border. Then again, military professionals haven’t been shy about shutting down Trump’s more jingoistic tendencies in that arena. Moreover, Californians would do well to look at the Camp Fire as an example. Despite the occasional (and characteristic) inflammatory Tweet the President stayed out of the Guard’s way and let them do their job. That is what should be expected of federal efforts to deal with homelessness in the state.
Greed is the only thing standing between California and help
It’s time for Californians to acknowledge the state’s abject failure to solve the homeless crisis. It’s time to acknowledge that the bureaucratic amateurs had their chance and only made things worse. Californians are starting to make those demands. Governor Newsom faces recall largely for his inept, corrupt response to COVID-19, but a lot of people who signed that petition were fit to be tied long before the pandemic. Mayors have lost control of their cities, and a new generation of ideologically insane district attorneys is ensuring that failure meets no consequences. These “leaders” have had literally decades to solve a problem of their own creation. At this point it’s a minor miracle when people like Gavin Newsom tie their own shoes on the first attempt.
It’s time to declare a state of emergency in California.
It’s time to send in the military, before it’s too late.
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.
The richest state in the richest country in human history is on the edge of physical, fiscal, and moral collapse
The cold open to a horror movie
In the movies it’s called a cold open. The film jumps directly into the story before the title sequence or opening credits. In horror movies the cold open is often a familiar scene in which something or someone is slightly off: The haunting figure walking down the street in an otherwise picture postcard small town, the eerie sound emanating from the woods at the edge of the idyllic farm.
A man named Ronaldo was the cold open of what I have come to call my journey to the fire. I met him on side of the highway near Madera on November 23, 2018. I was driving up Route 99 through California’s central valley on my way to Paradise to survey the Camp Fire burn zone and potentially interview survivors. I didn’t know it yet, but the three-day trip would change my life, my career, and my perspectives on what’s happening in my beloved home state. In many ways my encounter with Ronaldo set the stage for everything that followed.
It was the kind of dreary, drizzly morning that in most people triggers the hibernation instinct, the desire to curl up at home with a book, a cup of coffee, a loved one. Instead, Ronaldo was slogging through mud and undergrowth along the side of the highway holding a slapdash bindle as if it was 1930. The ground fog muted his orange shirt; he looked almost spectral amid the washed out colors. Which in a way is appropriate: California has long treated its poor and homeless as less than afterthoughts, like ghosts who occasionally cross the aetheric plane to manifest briefly in real life.
Like the trip itself, I don’t know what compelled me to pull off at the next exit, backtrack, and pull to the shoulder to offer him a ride. He seemed not even to notice me as I walked up to him while cars, buses, and eighteen wheelers roared past. I couldn’t imagine walking a few hundred meters along that road much less whatever distance he had traveled already by the time I encountered him.
Approaching him I noticed a construction site a half mile or so away. It was a viaduct for the planned California bullet train. The project is more than a decade behind schedule and tens of billions over budget, and has for many become a symbol of all that is broken, corrupt, and dying in the Golden State. What should have been a paradigm shifting infrastructure project has devolved into a brazen special interest feeding frenzy, consultants hoovering tens of millions from the public fisc while producing nothing for the people. Less than nothing, when you consider how those millions could have been better spent. Indeed, the backdrop was grimly appropriate: A construction site for California’s $90 billion train to nowhere rising through the polluted air like some post-apocalyptic industrial wasteland, framing a homeless wayfarer whose life could be transformed with a few thousand bucks and decent services.
I offered Ronaldo $20 to take his picture. He agreed. Afterward I gave him a ride to the next town. In the car I tried striking up a conversation but it quickly became clear that he was developmentally disabled. So I let him be, driving wordlessly as together we watched the scenes of decline and decay pass outside while a haunting tune called “Paris, Texas” by Ry Cooder played on the radio.
I let him off at a truck stop near Madera so he could at least get some food and maybe someplace dry to sleep. Hopefully. As I eased toward an onramp I glanced in the rear view mirror. Ronaldo had made it all of 20 feet, laying down on a bus bench and pulling his tarpaulin over his head as the mist swirled around him. It was the last I saw of him.
This is life in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history. Outside of war it’s difficult to recall a great civilization that careened toward total collapse so fast.
A long, strange trip
I didn’t know what was pulling me to the raw wound of the Camp Fire, what woke me at 4am and set my course 400 miles north. To this day I still don’t. I had no friends in the town, no connections except as a Californian and a human being. I’d yet to publish anything as a journalist and didn’t have a press badge – I was hoping my California bar card and a little blarney would get me into the burn zone itself.
Along with millions of other Americans, for days I had watched video after video on social media of people fleeing through the flames, a binge watch in a hellish alternate reality. By the time firefighters and Mother Nature snuffed the last of the flames 153,000 acres had burned along with some 19,000 homes and buildings. 52,000 people had evacuated and three towns had been wiped off the face of the earth. At least 88 were dead, some having succumbed in or near their cars when evacuations ground down into gridlock.
The place tugged at me like something supernatural – which is how many of the survivors I would meet described the fire itself. The night before I made the spontaneous drive north I watched two particularly powerful videos on Facebook. The first was posted by a man named Mark who filmed the sheer chaos of the evacuations from behind the wheel of his pickup. Gridlock and confusion – including intersections where overwhelmed police officers constantly changed the directions they sent people – forced him to reverse course numerous times, until he was repeating over and over, “This is it, man, this is it. I’m a goner.” Fortunately he survived.
The second was filmed by a woman named Avalon Kelley. Avalon, her husband Rocky, and their cat Loki drove through a sea of flames hundreds of feet high. As Avalon narrated the four minute video something in her voice – an almost inhuman combination of terror, grief, and disbelief – lodged in my mind like a red hot spike. She sobbed as she watched the inferno devour her friends’ and neighbors’ homes in minutes, sometimes even seconds, while Loki mewed mournfully in the background and Rocky, a Vietnam combat veteran, offered what reassurance he could from behind the wheel. I was as moved by the sound of Avalon’s voice as I was shocked they made it out alive. Their home, needless to say, did not.
I didn’t know what I was going to find in the ashes of Paradise. Nevertheless, the 72 hour journey would transform my view of the place five generations of my family have called home. Or, perhaps more accurately, it brought into consciousness and stark relief truths that had lurked in my subconscious for years.
The death of hope, the triumph of despair
Driving half the length of the state that November day I didn’t cover more than a handful miles at a time without passing a homeless camp, a tent city, a shantytown. People relieved themselves in broad daylight, shamelessly exposed toward the highway as families in cars and minivans passed. Others lay on the hillside shoulders as still as the dead. Given the numbers of homeless people who perish in California every year it’s entirely possible a couple of them were.
I stopped for a fill-up and road snacks on the outskirts of the agricultural town of Turlock. Behind the gas station convenience store was a neighborhood of decaying single family homes whose backyards were occupied by campers, trailers, and RVs. I wandered over to the fence and sure enough families were living in them. Children played in the mud amidst decomposing garbage. The scene was reminiscent of a refugee camp in a war-torn country, or a survivalist camp after an extinction-level event, which made its entirely quotidian aspect all the more horrifying. It’s how millions of people eke out their lives in the Golden State these days.
At 18.2% California’s poverty rate is the worst in the nation except for Washington DC. There are 151,278 homeless people in California, nearly half the nation’s total in a state that accounts for 12% of the population. Those are the official numbers, the kind of too-precise calculations that obscure more dire realities: According to an independent 2014 analysis by The National Center on Family Homelessness at the National Institutes for Research as many as 500,000 children experienced some form of homelessness in California in 2013. That was seven years ago, before the crisis truly began to spiral. Many other studies bear out similar conclusions. Suffice it to say, if half a million children experienced homelessness in a single year, the official number of total homeless is worse than meaningless. It’s catastrophically misleading.
As many as 15% of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District experience homelessness in a given year – roughly 75,000 kids. Kids who when the 3pm bell rings go to emergency shelters, motels, even cars and RVs. That number has jumped by 25% in the last three years. Many of those children will grow up to lead lives not all that different from Ronaldo’s. Or worse. As a whole California’s schools, once the envy of the country, have like so much else descended into decay. Today California has some of the worst public education systems in the country, with nearly half of the lowest performing individual schools. Meanwhile teachers’ unions rake in millions in dues and dole out millions in campaign contributions to politicians content with an educational system that by any reasonable standard should qualify as a crime against humanity. In 2017 barely a third of students the the LAUSD met or exceeded math standards and fewer than 40% did so in English Language Arts.
Those same teachers unions, who never miss an opportunity to blame “systemic racism,” are responsible for educational outcomes in predominantly Black communities like Compton, where the rates were 6.6% and 11.8%, respectively. It’s easier to blame people who have been dead for decades or centuries than to do the hard work required to help young people succeed in the present. The state’s high schools routinely graduate thousands of seniors who are functionally illiterate – young adults starting their life’s journeys without the ability to so much as fill out a fast food job application. It’s enough to make you wonder who the real racists are in the Golden State – graduates of failed public schools go on to become lifelong dependents of the very bureaucracies whose campaign contributions help sustain the dominant party. At the very least it’s food for thought.
No matter your politics, when you consider the numbers and these realities, California’s homeless crisis, and Ronaldo’s plight, become easier to explain.
Failing the future
When I started tutoring Leon* in February 2019 he was living with his mom, older sister, and two older brothers in a nondescript homeless shelter in Inglewood. He was 14 and going into seventh grade. Despite the fact that he was reading at a third or fourth grade level and couldn’t do multiplication beyond the number five his school routinely awardeded him honor roll status. His school is among the lowest performing in Los Angeles, which is saying something.
Leon loves music, computers, and video games. He dreams of a career as a music engineer. I quickly learned he has a mischievous side and is a bit of a prankster. He also loves history. Whether Genghis Khan or Easter Island, the American Revolution or the Industrial Revolution, he couldn’t get enough during our all-too-brief weekly sessions. He has a remarkable ability to focus: Give him a set of math problems and the world vanishes until the last one’s solved. It’s a thing to behold. One day I gave him a set of 10 problems on the computer. After nearly ten minutes I asked him how many he had left. “Eight,” he replied. My heart sank until I glanced at the screen and realized I’d made a mistake: I’d given him 30 problems, not 10, and he was grinding away with fierce determination.
Leon’s ability to focus is all the more remarkable given the deafening noise in his world. He and his siblings take different routes to school everyday because patterns are dangerous in the neighborhood. He speaks with a pronounced stutter that started after he witnessed his best friend get gunned down in a random drive-by when they were both eight. They were playing in his friend’s front yard when a car pulled up, two men leaned out and sprayed the lawn and front door with bullets. Leon says he didn’t actually see the bullet hit his friend as they dove to the ground, but what difference? The killers were never found, his friend’s murder joining the nearly 50% of homicides that go unsolved each year in Los Angeles, the majority in South L.A. Leon would talk about the demons he sometimes sees at night. They crawl out of the air ducts and window cracks in the small two room apartment he shares with his family. He said they’re the ones that killed his friend. He keeps them at bay by praying.
After six months working together, through no fault of his own Leon broke my heart: His mom got a part time job in the baggage department at Long Beach Airport and the family moved away. I arrived for our regular Thursday session to learn they were gone. Of course my grief was selfish, yet the experience exemplified another persistent issue: California children with no sense of place, much less the kinds of stability and security that are essential to development and learning.
In a very real sense the state’s political class has abandoned millions of children (not their own, of course, who are safely ensconced in $50,000 a year private academies that are not so much educational institutions as today’s equivalent of Victorian era finishing schools). In the process they have abandoned the future to broken lives and government dependence – which may be the very point. Children like Leon grow up to be adults like Ronaldo – that is, if they don’t end up in prison. Either way their broken lives are extremely profitable for what many call the Poverty Industrial Complex.
The stark reality is that California’s political class depends on suffering and human misery. It is their sustenance. If they were to save our schools and solve our homeless crisis many thousands of government bureaucrats – not to mention armies of lawyers, consultants, nonprofits executives, and other white collar professionals making comfortable six figure salaries – would have to find real jobs. And we can’t have that.
Fleeing the fire on broken roads
Forty miles north of Sacramento you hit Yuba City. From then on you’re in mountain country, though the mountains themselves are another forty miles to the north and east. It’s one of those invisible California thresholds where little changes except the feeling, and maybe the air. You start to see more heavy agricultural equipment both on the roads and working the fields, a few more Bible passages on billboards and shunted tractor trailers beside the road.
On this trip Yuba City also functioned as another kind of break point, one that marked the edge of the fire zone. What had been occasional whiffs of smoke over the last hundred miles became a permanent sort of suffocation as the air slowly became a sickly brown-grey miasma.
Yuba City was where I saw the first RVs, campers, and overloaded cars filled with families fleeing the fire. A slow trickle quickly became a flood of vehicles of every imaginable sort. Some of the refugees flew defiant American flags, others flew San Francisco 49ers or Sacramento Kings pennants. Many had home made signs in their windows with home addresses and lists of family members’ names. A battered and charred blue F-150 pickup had a sign in the rear window with a single word: Gone.
I use the word “refugees” advisedly, for these folks were no longer evacuees. Evacuees are temporarily displaced people who fully plan to return home. In contrast, refugees know that all is lost. As a Californian I had seen evacuees over the years: From previous fires, floods, or earthquakes. My own family once evacuated our home in West Los Angeles in 1983, when I was eight years old and a fire threatened the canyon where we lived. The difference between evacuees and refugees manifests on people’s faces: Evacuees appear terrified and alert, refugees look defeated and resigned.
The conditions of the roads didn’t help their escape. Along with our schools and our social safety nets California’s infrastructure is collapsing. A May 2019 report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state an overall C-. The report also noted, “Googling ‘water main breaks’ in California will unfortunately yield a very long list of infrastructure failure stories covered by the media, and many more occur every day that don’t receive media attention.” Meanwhile, California – birthplace of the freeway – has some of the most decrepit roads in the country despite the fact that the majority of the state is spared the sorts of extreme weather that batters roads in regions like the Great Lakes and New England. Driving on those roads costs Californians $61 billion annually in congestion-related delays, gasoline, accidents, and increased vehicle wear and tear. It will cost $150 billion over the next decade just to to bring the system back to a state of good repair. Yet instead of spending money to mend the roads on which 40 million people rely cities and the state are spending billions on trains and buses no one rides and bike lanes that satisfy the lifestyle choices of a vanishingly small cohort of overwhelmingly young white men.
Meanwhile, state testing has revealed high levels of lead and other contaminants in the drinking water of 17% of public schools. According to a previously undisclosed report by senior officials at the California State Water Resources Control Board more than 1,000 water districts, accounting for more than one in three statewide, may be failing to deliver potable drinking water. These reports come on the heels of stories last year out of South Los Angeles, where the Sativa Water District in Compton became California’s very own Flint, Michigan. At least 678 dams are considered to be high-hazard potential. In February 2017 the Oroville Dam collapsed, forcing the evacuation of more than 180,000 people.
Human beings have been building and maintaining roads, bridges, and dams for millennia, yet here in the wealthiest place on Earth officials can no longer accomplish those basics of civilization. In California, potable water increasingly is a luxury. As I neared Chico and the flood of refugees became a veritable tsunami all of those potholes and cracks felt like insults added to the grievous injuries Camp Fire survivors already had experienced.
I soon learned that the survivors fleeing south were the luckier ones: They had somewhere to go. Thousands of others were less fortunate, relegated to campsites like the one in a field behind the WalMart in downtown Chico. Hundreds of tents and other makeshift shelters turned the rough ground into a literal refugee camp, the kind of scenes you’d expect to see in places like Cameroon, not California. Yet again my attention was on the children. They played muddy games of soccer and tag in the smoke filled air (in yet another insult, as the field continued to fill with families in tents a light rain converted the ground into a sticky mud). It is unknown how many Camp Fire refugees remain homeless today.
In yet another sign of the times the camps at WalMart and elsewhere already had attracted criminals and vagrants who preyed on the helpless. Suffice it to say the local police and Highway Patrol were otherwise occupied, leaving the refugees at the malcontents’ mercy.
Here and there were a few bright spots, if they could be called that. In contrast to the myriad failures of the state’s political class, private companies, charities, faith groups, and organizations like the Girl Scouts were providing food, clothing, shelter, and other essentials. Some were from out of state: A truck loaded with clothing sported Oregon plates, and a van full of food had tags from Oklahoma. In the ashes of one of the worst disasters in California history the only sign of government activity was a FEMA trailer.
As I pulled onto the aptly-named Skyway Boulevard and began the final climb to Paradise, the Spotify app played “Nowhere to Run” by Martha Reeves and the Vandalls. Hauntingly, the computers seemed to know where I was headed: The soundtrack to the rest of the afternoon included the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” and “Ticking Bomb” by Aloe Blacc.
Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide
Five miles up Skyway I saw the first burned out cars. I kept thinking of that sign in the pickup’s window: Gone. Amidst the devastation the atmosphere, and the world, felt a hundred times heavier. Everything pressed in, the air, the smoke, the sights. Even the sound, or rather the lack of it, seemed to have a physical presence. Time and space seemed somehow contorted, folded upon themselves. There’s an almost complete absence of color in burn zones, everything washed out in sepia: The ruins of buildings and houses, the burned-out cars, the hills, the trees, the sky.
Then there was the smell: Along with the people who lost their lives many thousands of wild and domestic animals perished in the fire, leaving behind the hideous, unmistakable odor of death. It would hang on my clothes, my skin and hair, and inside my car for weeks after I returned home.
We’re from the government, and we’re here to help
Ronald Regan famously quipped that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Perhaps the biggest revelation from my journey to the fire was learning the role the California state government, the Butte County Association of Governments, and even some leaders in the town itself played in creating ideal conditions for people to become trapped as they fled. The Camp Fire was not the first time fire evacuations had bogged down in these mountains. During the 2008 Humboldt Complex Fire, evacuations in many parts of Paradise and the neighboring town of Magalia similarly gridlocked.
The situation prompted an investigation and report by the Butte County Grand Jury. Among the Grand Jury’s main recommendations were that the county widen the shoulders and turnouts along existing evacuation routes, of which there are only three, clear vegetation the Skyway between Chico and Paradise, and add a new evacuation route to the north by paving an existing gravel road from Magalia to Butte Meadows.
Inexplicably, in September 2009, the Butte County Board of Supervisors called the grand jury report “not reasonable.” A couple years later the county actually narrowed dozens of miles of roads throughout Paradise. Without a hint of irony officials named the initiative “Livable Streets.” The three major evacuation routes, Skyway Boulevard, Clark Road, and Pearson Street, all were narrowed in places. The county also installed center medians, sidewalk bulb-out’s, bollards, and other traffic obstacles throughout the city, supposedly in an effort to make the streets more inviting for bicyclists and pedestrians.
After the fire officials implausibly claimed that the reductions – called “road diets” and obstacles had no impact on evacuations. Then Mayor Jody Jones told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t believe that [the changes] really mattered.”
The survivors I spoke with had quite a different take. An emergency room nurse who described fleeing on foot when traffic came to a halt said, “Even before the fire we wondered what in the Hell they were thinking.” Many people said that traffic in town had gotten so bad after the changes that they started calling it “Paradise’s 405” in reference to the notoriously congested Los Angeles freeway. During the frenzied evacuations many of these new choke points became what one Cal Fire captain described to me as “kill zones.”
Far from learning the tragic lessons of the Paradise road diets California is imposing hundreds of similar changes to evacuation routes statewide, part of an effort to combat climate change by discouraging people from driving. Some call it a war on cars. This summer, as another swarm of fires engulfed the region, the roads remain narrowed. Indeed, a recent picture in the L.A. Times showed traffic bogged down on the Skyway during the current fires (the picture, shown above, has since been removed).
It’s impossible to know how many people in how many towns are being put at risk because of these ideologically motivated projects. A study conducted by a San Francisco-based traffic analytics company called StreetLight Data has identified dozens of communities statewide that already have limited evacuation routes relative to their populations. Many are considering or have implemented road diets already. For example, in the Marin County city of Mill Valley plans to replace two of four lanes on part of a main evacuation route, East Blithedale Boulevard, to make way for bicycle lanes, widened sidewalks, and other obstacles. In the even of a fire thousands of people will have to negotiate the new obstacles as they evacuate.
California is a time bomb
Virtually no one I spoke with in Paradise that November weekend, and no one I’ve spoken with since, believes the official death toll of 88 from the Camp Fire. Most people believe it is substantially higher, perhaps by several times. When I asked a Cal Fire captain back in Chico about it later that Friday evening, he just shook his head and said, “I can’t talk about it,” before walking away. His thousand yard stare said everything. A survivor named Patricia Clark, an emergency room nurse who presumably had seen it all before the fire, broke down in tears on the phone as she described seeing at least three people burn to death in their cars as she ran through the flames. A survivor named Chuck Keogh posted a video to Facebook showing at least five charred bodies in and near cars (warning: graphic content, viewer discretion highly advised).
The Camp Fire was triggered by faulty transmission facilities. Pacific Gas & Electric, the region’s quasi-public energy provider, recently agreed to a $25 billion settlement with victims, cities, and insurance companies related to the Camp Fire and others.
But these fires are going to happen no matter what. So far this year some 4 million acres have burned, by far the worst fire season on record (though an average year by historical standards – before white settlers arrived as much as 12 million acres burned annually). While the political class blames climate change the fact of the matter is their own policies are as much to blame. Environmental radicalism so dominates policy that logging and other vegetation thinning measures are little more than quaint memories. Old fashioned greed also plays a central role, as lawmakers and officials continue to encourage and even subsidize development in wildland urban interface zones, placing millions of Californians at risk. And the political class’s obsession with bicycles and mass transit means more and more evacuation routes will be severely limited in coming years.
A reckoning is coming to California. More than half the state’s residents (and nearly two thirds of young people in the state) say they would leave if they had the chance. If not for immigration the state would have lost population over the last 20 years. Unchecked spending, particularly in the form of generous pay, benefits, and retirement packages for government employees, has put the state on the hook for some $1.5 trillion in unfunded future liabilities. That means it’s only going to get more difficult, if not impossible, to spend the money needed to save our schools, repair our infrastructure, and prevent mass casualties in future fires and floods. Forget about planning for the future: California increasingly is sliding toward a pre-industrial state of anarchy.
Every bad policy decision, every ounce of corruption, and every example of rank incompetence from California’s political class was on full display during my journey to the fire. As I traveled back south, joining the endless caravan of refugees, I wondered if my beloved home state already is beyond salvation.
Passing through Fresno I scanned the highway shoulders for Ronaldo. He was nowhere to be found. Like a million other Californians he had simply vanished into the abyss. On the other side of the freeway an elevated bypass for the bullet train was under construction. It was already covered in graffiti.
I couldn’t make out the words, but it occurred to me that only one would have made sense: Gone….
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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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Author’s note: This column has been entered in the David Foster Wallace “Most Synonyms for the Word ‘Insanity’ Used in a Single Column” Award. Results will be announced August 7, Year of Sally the Salad-Making Robot
It was a long time coming, but it’s finally happened: The State of California has lost its collective mind. Forget covid-19, a plague of lunacy is rampaging through Golden State like a Santa Ana wildfire, only instead of stirling embers it’s dispersing germs of madness. And unlike the virus there’s no vaccine for insanity on the horizon.
Where to begin? Governor Gavin Newsom’s $1 billion deal with a Chinese manufacturer for N95 facemasks is as good a place as any. Domestic companies like 3M and Honeywell make the masks, but the leader of the world’s fifth largest economy contracted with an adversarial foreign power (remember, there are no truly private companies in China – when you deal with a Chinese manufacturer you’re dealing with the Chinese Communist Party). Which, as it turns out, is only the start of the crazy.
The company, called Build Your Dreams, never made facemasks prior to the coronavirus crisis. It actually makes industrial scale batteries as well as electric buses, trucks, forklifts, and other vehicles. At the start of the pandemic its leaders jumped into the suddenly profitable mask-making game. Profit comes easy when you’re dealing with Gavin Newsom: The deal he cut worked out to $3.30 per mask, more than four times the going rate for domestically-made versions. BYD ended up missing two deadlines for federal certification of its masks. Yet rather than kill the deal Newsom granted BYD two extensions, delaying by months the delivery of masks he claims are critical to public health. He tried to hide the details of his bonkers billion dollar blunder from prying eyes, until a public records request by the L.A. Times forced him to release them.
The loco doesn’t even end there. On March 26 Newsom signed a different deal for masks worth half a billion dollars with a company called Blue Flame, and wired the money the same day. The deal felt apart in a matter of hours when it was discovered Blue Flame had been in existence for a grand total of three days. The punchline? Blue Flame’s founders were two Republican political operatives with zero healthcare experience. They now face a federal criminal investigation (at least the state got its money back from that deal).
Meanwhile, as the City of Los Angeles staggers to recover from a devastating month in which peaceful protests for justice metastasized into riots, looting, and violence the City Council announced plans to cut to the police budget. L.A.’s police force is far from perfect but after tens of thousands of lawbreakers overwhelmed the Los Angeles Police Department and reduced large swaths of the city to mere anarchy, it is positively demented to degrade the department’s capacity.
Never mind that Angelenos of all colors and backgrounds were forced to barricade their neighborhoods and take the law into their own hands, nor that minority-owned businesses were hard hit. Never mind that looters and rioters – whom we used to call criminals – attacked innocent bystanders including an elderly man in Santa Monica and a wheelchair-bound homeless man in downtown L.A. None of that matters in this new Cultural Revolution: It’s hey, hey, ho, ho, LAPD’s got to go.
It’s sheer derangement on full display, politicians who’ve never had real jobs in their lives deciding that the way to make the police more just and effective is to reduce their capacity. In the process they’ve reached rarefied heights of hypocrisy: Earlier this month L.A. City Council President Nury Martinez announced plans to cut $150 million from the LAPD budget. A few days later Spectrum News 1 Los Angeles revealed that Martinez enjoyed a 24-hour LAPD security detail outside her home. A spokesman defended the detail, which Martinez cancelled out of embarrassment when it became public, claiming the councilor and her daughter had received death threats. LAPD Detective Jamie McBride, director of the Police Protective League, told Spectrum, “If she was really feeling threatened, then that security detail should [still] be in place.”
In other words, Nury Martinez is full of excrement.
Another L.A. city councilor, Mike Bonin, also supports the defund movement and has called for alternatives to police response for “non-violent” incidents (good luck defining that term with any legal certainty). Ironic, then, that Mr. Bonin has called LAPD officers to his home on numerous occasions. The most recent imminent threat to his safety that he felt necessitated an armed police response? A dozen-odd neighbors peacefully protesting his homeless policy in front of his house. No fewer than twenty officers and a dozen squad cars responded, setting up a perimeter on both ends of the councilman’s block while Mr. Bonin cowered behind his curtains inside.
Never one to walk the walk, on his official city Facebook page he later declared, “We need to stop using armed police officers as a response to every problem….neighborhood disputes, and other non-violent issues all demand a different response.” Just not disputes in his neighborhood.
Then again at least Ms. Martinez and Mr. Bonin aren’t headed to prison, which is more than can be said for their former colleague Mitch Englander. Mr. Englander served on the powerful Planning and Land Use Committee, which evaluates proposed developments in the city. His tale of corruption reads like a bad detective novel, including the envelopes of cash he accepted from developers in Vegas casino bathrooms. Of course there were the hookers, the top shelf booze, the steak dinners, and the casino chips provided gratis by intermediaries for builders with business before his committee.
It being Los Angeles, land of the truly batty, all the deals his committee approved while he was under FBI surveillance continue to roar ahead, further warping the already psychotic southland housing market. Were sweet sanity to prevail those deals would be halted, reexamined, combed over by independent auditors or, better yet, the FBI. But here in Oz there’s no time for such niceties.
Of course, the frenzy is raging unchecked in the Bay Area, too. With the approval of city officials nonprofits in San Francisco have been delivering free alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana and other drugs to homeless people living in free hotel rooms under the statewide taxpayer funded “Project Roomkey” initiative. City officials are enabling addicts to continue destroying themselves, with a bay view, delivering booze and drugs to people who are in their situation precisely because they abuse booze and drugs. Officials in Baghdad by the Bay were quick to point out that the deliveries are funded not by taxpayers but individual and group donations, meaning that citizens have gone as nutty as officials.
Meanwhile, the District Attorney in the city that leads the nation in property theft has all but stopped prosecuting property crimes. Because social justice.
Speaking of the D.A., his name is Chesea Boudin and he was raised by terrorists. You can’t make this stuff up: His parents are convicted murderers who were part of a 60s-era radical political group called the “Weather Underground.” Mama and Papa Boudin never left the 60s, as they were convicted for their role in a botched 1981 armored car robbery that left two police officers and a Brinks guard dead (because nothing says political revolution like robbing a bank for cash and murdering innocent Americans). After they went to prison Mr. Boudin was adopted by the organization’s founder Bill Ayers, who’s best known for trying to bomb government buildings. Ayers himself avoided prosecution and boasts about his criminality to this day, declaring “Guilty as hell, free as a bird—America is a great country”. Mr. Boudin not only has never repudiated his parents’ and mentors’ atrocities, he learned from them: His first job out of college was as a translator for the Venezuelan socialist dictator and criminal Hugo Chavez. Good luck, Frisco!
Of course the plague of madness is particularly insidious in Sacramento. As millions of Californians cling to their homes as the last firewall between themselves and financial oblivion our legislators are about to declare war on homeownership. Barring a miracle last stand in the Assembly they will pass a package of laws bills, which you can read about on the website of an essential nonprofit called Livable California, that will reshape housing in California and devastate thousands of middle and lower income communities (full disclosure: I do legislative analysis for Livable California). The near term result will be a massive destabilization and disruption of what used to be one of the safest investments in the world: California real estate. Over time the laws will unleash gentrification and displacement on a catastrophic scale in communities and neighborhoods.
Like zombies our lawmakers exist in a perpetual state of what Baudelaire called sed non statia, unslakable lust. They lust for control, for it nourishes them, it is all they know. Like religious zealots speaking in tongues they dictate a bizarre gobbledygook of impenetrable parliamentary double, triple, and quadruple speak. And like high schoolers playing model UN they hold 10-hour meetings in which nothing of consequence is accomplished by people who feel themselves Extremely Important. They bend their knees to protestors so clueless in their rage that they destroyed a statute of Ulysses S. Grant in Golden Gate Park in the name of Black Lives Matter. That’s right: In the name of racial justice they destroyed a statute of the guy who defeated the Confederacy.
Rioters also took down a statue of the fictional character Don Quixote, from Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote de La Mancha, the most famous novel from the golden age of Spanish literature. The story centers on an insane aristocrat who believes the stories he reads about medieval knights are actual history. He dresses up like a knight and goes on the road engaging in adventures only he believes are real. Which is the perfect encapsulation of the lunacy rampaging through the Left Coast.
Maybe that’s why the rioters destroyed his statue: The story of a delusional and privileged individual living out his ridiculous fantasies hits a little too close to home.
The political class’s obsession with splashy big budget projects like light rail wastes billions and deprives vulnerable citizens of decent transportation. It’s also terrible for the environment, small businesses, and even global stability (seriously).
LOS ANGELES – Certain phrases come to define certain cities. Someone (probably not Mark Twain) famously said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Lost to obscurity is the first person to have remarked, “New York never sleeps.” Likewise unknown to history is whomever first observed, “No one in L.A. rides the bus.” Angelenos’ collective love/hate relationship with their cars, their obsessive quest for the quickest routes and best shortcuts, is as integral to the city’s identity as palm trees, side hustles, and the Lakers (RIP Mamba). It’s no surprise, then, that in the decade since the country emerged from the great recession Angelos have reverted more furiously than ever to their car buying and driving ways. As a result mass transit usage has plummeted to historic lows.
What’s playing out on L.A.’s streets, roads, and highways is the opposite of what decades’ worth of public planning anticipated. Starting in the 1970s politicians and bureaucrats began to focus more on modes of transportation other than the automobile. During his 1973 run for mayor, then councilman Tom Bradley made transit a city priority for the first time in over half a century. He promised, ambitiously, to break ground on a new rail line within 18 months of his inauguration. He consciously invoked the first half of the twentieth century, when Los Angeles had the largest light rail network in the world. And in 1973 the idea made eminent sense, as cars of the era were lead and smog spewing behemoths that bear as much resemblance to today’s efficient vehicles as the SpaceX Falcon Heavy resembles Sputnik.
Mayor Bradley’s initiative proved prescient, but for all the wrong reasons. It didn’t take 18 months but instead nearly 30 years for his promise to be fulfilled by the Red Line subway. The city’s experience with the project presaged things to come: It took twelve years just to break ground and another fifteen years to complete. It was more than a billion dollars over budget, and construction was plagued by route changes and accidents including a methane explosion, a massive sinkhole, and the deaths of three construction workers. As the New York Times observed at the time, “L.A.’s first subway will almost certainly be its last.” Indeed, it proved such a fiasco that officials scrapped plans for a citywide subway network modeled after New York’s. Nevertheless, by the 1990s the city’s political class was committed to the expansion of mass transit, as well as bicycling and walking (scooters and ride sharing were not yet gleams in Silicon Valley bros’ eyes). Angelenos today are living with the consequences of those decisions.
The planners have been wrong on virtually every front. Their imagined millions of transit riders instead have overwhelmingly chosen private vehicles. Thanks to increased supply, the availability of credit, and the rise of companies like Carmax, virtually anyone can afford a car. In 2015 the state also started issuing drivers licenses to some one million illegal immigrants (studies suggest many of those people already were driving). As housing became increasingly unaffordable, many Angelenos moved away from urban centers to suburbs and exurbs, increasing their reliance on cars. As a result of these and other factors millions of motorists remain behind the wheel, perhaps observing occasionally and with curiosity as a nearly empty billion dollar train whizzes overhead, on its way to nowhere useful.
Rather than adapt to reality, in a very real sense officials are seeking to punish Angelenos for their failure to embrace the mass transit Utopia. Every policy is predicated on the quest to increase congestion and slow traffic to the point that driving becomes so miserable and time-consuming that transit actually seems like a reasonable alternative. Politicians and bureaucrats use an entire lexicon of euphemisms – road diets, complete streets, livable streets, great streets, multimodal transportation, micromobility – to obscure this central fact. As accidents increase they declare streets safer. As businesses fail they claim economic booms. They seem to be following Vladimir Lenin’s edict that a lie told often enough becomes truth.
L.A.’s transit is bad and getting worse
None of the proffered transit alternatives are nearly as efficient as an individual automobile. The biggest failings are routes, travel time, and safety. In terms of routes, it was always fanciful to believe L.A. could recreate the Red Car system, which has reached positively mythical status among city planners. When the original system (really a network of interconnected operations) was being built much of L.A. was open space. In 1910 it was relatively easy to extend a line from Hollywood to the Pacific Ocean. Beverly Hills didn’t even exist. Zoning laws were rudimentary and routinely flouted, and there were no environmental laws. Today, of course, construction of even a single new station requires negotiations with property owners, years of environmental review, zoning changes, contracts and subcontracts, and the inevitable litigation.
As a consequence L.A.’s light rail and subway lines go where they can, not where they’re most needed. Consider the much-ballyhooed Expo Line that connects downtown L.A. with Santa Monica. It roughly follows the old Santa Monica Air Line route that was discontinued in the 1950s. Unfortunately that route bypasses the corridors where transit, especially light rail, makes the most sense. Particularly west of Culver City, none of the stations are located in high density commercial, business, or residential areas. Many of the stops, including Bundy, Sepulveda, Rancho Park, and Palms are relatively isolated from surrounding areas. The closest businesses to the Sepulveda station are Anawalt Lumber and a furniture store. The construction of a new 595 unit apartment complex doesn’t change the equation, as that development specifically targets Google and other tech workers at the newly converted Westside Pavillion mall. A mass transit solution it is not.
Buses should be a logical solution in L.A. but they are notoriously slow and unreliable. According to L.A. Metro’s new “NextGen” initiative, one of the agency’s primary goals is to “assure service is no more than 2.5x slower than driving.” Only in the world of government bureaucracies does being two and a half times slower than the alternative count as success. Consider what that would mean for the average Angeleno: If a person’s commute is 45 minutes each way they’ll spend an hour and a half in traffic every day. Bad enough, but that’s nothing compared to the 3.75 hours required on transit – in a best case scenario. Assuming that person works 48 weeks a year they’ll spend more than a month sitting on the bus. Thirty-seven and a half days a year, much of it in close proximity to drunks, addicts, lunatics, and vagrants. Add in the inevitable delays, inefficiencies, and other disruptions and the hours get even worse.
Lastly, the city’s spiraling homeless and crime rates make transit use dangerous, or at least create the perception of danger. According to a 2019 report in the Los Angeles Times, one in five Metro riders have reported being harassed on trains. Many more incidents go unreported. A 2016 survey found that 29% of riders had stopped using the system altogether due to safety concerns.
Many stations are poorly lit at night. Women in particular report feeling unsafe (though women comprise the majority of transit riders in L.A. it wasn’t until last year that Metro bothered to study their safety concerns).
Nevertheless, the city is doubling, tripling, and quadrupling down
Metro, the city’s Department of Transportation, Department of Public Works, and other departments are forever devising new ways to prioritize trains and buses over even the heaviest vehicular traffic. The city recently reconfigured the signals at dozens of intersections to give priority to the Expo Line light rail. It’s commonplace to see scores of cars and buses stopped for several minutes as a nearly empty train approaches and crosses. Elsewhere, such as on Lincoln Boulevard between El Segundo and Santa Monica, Public Works has timed stoplights to create maximum congestion at peak hours. The intersection of Lincoln and Washington, one of the busiest on the Westside, alternates two minute red lights on Lincoln versus just thirty second green lights. The result is gridlock in which it takes as much as fifteen minutes to cover even a couple of blocks. It’s congestion by design.
Meanwhile, thanks in part to historic congestion L.A.’s air quality at times has plummeted. Vehicles stopping, starting, and idling produce far greater emissions. So much for sustainability.
In short, L.A.’s current transportation policies, particularly the prioritization of transit, leaves everyone worse off. Even the most reliably pro-transit sources, including the Los Angeles Times and a network of blogs including Curbed, Streetsblog, LAist, and others have been forced to acknowledge the failure of transit in Los Angeles.
Immigrants and the working poor hurt worst
The city’s incoherent, ideologically motivated transportation system does the most harm to cohorts the city’s allegedly progressive leadership claims to care about most – low-income people, immigrants, the disabled and the elderly.
Immigrants have led L.A.’s ten-year car buying spree. According to a January 2018 report from the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies commissioned by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), between 2000 and 2018 vehicle ownership by both documented and undocumented immigrants grew at a faster pace than any other groups. Low income households also acquired private cars at a disproportionate rate compared to the population as a whole.
Critically, the authors of the report, entitled “Falling Transit Ridership: California and Southern California,” concluded “With very few exceptions, acquiring an automobile in Southern California makes life easier along multiple dimensions, dramatically increasing access to jobs, educational institutions and other opportunities.”(Kawabata & Shen, 2006) As a result, pulling low-income former riders out of their cars and back onto trains and buses could make transit agencies healthier but the region poorer.” (emphasis added)
The UCLA/SCAG report makes clear that access to a private vehicle opens up opportunities that are not available to transit users. Again, this is particularly true of lower income people who don’t have the luxury of doubling or tripling their commute times. The Mexican immigrant landscaper cannot haul hundreds of pounds of equipment on the bus. The domestic worker cannot haul supplies on a train. At the same time, the increased traffic and congestion steal precious hours from those who are paid that way.
In contrast, a car is a second office for many white collar professionals. Unlike the landscaper or domestic worker, a lawyer can bill hundreds, even thousands of dollars an hour talking on the phone. The same is true of many other service and creative professions. Indeed, for many people “car time” is quite valuable, an opportunity to make calls or brainstorm ideas without interruption from colleagues or family. Again, the same cannot be said of the immigrant worker idling in the next lane.
Alas, Metro itself has yet to face any of these realities, nor has L.A.’s political class. They’re doubling, tripling, and quadrupling down on transit. Their plans run from the mundane, like bus rapid transit (BRT) lanes, to the positively fantastical, such as a proposed monorail connecting the San Fernando Valley and LAX. The latter would cost an estimated $13 billion (count on that doubling or tripling if and when the project ever gets built; see also, California High Speed Rail). That would be on top of Metro’s already eyewatering $7.2 billion annual budget.
Angelenos are spending more time in traffic, burning more gasoline, and enriching foreign regimes
Global security comes into the frame. During the transition to new sources of energy and fuel petroleum will remain the economic backbone of the city, state, and country. Unfortunately California’s political class have adopted the policy known as “keep it in the ground.” Despite sitting on the fifth largest petroleum reserves and the third largest refining capacity in the country, not to mention potentially vast untapped supplies in the Outer Continental Shelf, California imports some 60% of its oil from overseas. A third of those imports come from Saudi Arabia, with supply also coming from other bastions of progressive human rights and environmentalism like Russia, Venezuela, Iraq, and Angola. Nearly half of this foreign crude transitions through the Strait of Hormuz, one of the most geopolitically volatile places on Earth. Indeed, even as the rest of the country shifts toward domestic petroleum, California’s imports have increased dramatically.
The consequences are evident: As the country moves ever closer to true energy independence, California remains at the mercy of foreign disruptions. The Iranian attacks on Saudi oil fields last September led many analysts to warn of a price spike. Thanks to domestic supplies, those fears proved unfounded – except in California. Prices here surged.
Even if the much-ballyhooed Green New Deal were plausible (it isn’t) it would be decades off, meaning that millions of people will continue to put gasoline and diesel into their cars and trucks idling on congested roads. Los Angeles, and California in general, could reduce our dependence on foreign oil by reducing fuel consumption in the sort term. The only way to accomplish this goal is to relieve congestion. Instead, the political class is making it worse. As a result billions more dollars will flow from Califorians’ pocketbooks to some of the worst regimes in the world. Mohammad bin Salman and Vladimir Putin no doubt are delighted with California.
With planning and systems based on outcomes and demand, Los Angeles could have a truly world class transit system. As long as those plans and systems remain in thrall to anti-car ideology, the system will continue to underperform, costing untold billions while increasing emissions, reducing economic opportunities, and costing billions of hours of wasted time. This is no way to run a mass transit system.
The stench of the homeless camp hits you from blocks away. It’s an indescribable combination of decay, decomposition, detritus, and death, the kind of odor you would associate with a third world slum or a World War I battlefield. It invades your nostrils even through a protective mask. After a few minutes you’re wearing it on your clothes, your shoes, your skin. It stays with you long after you leave.
Yet as suffocating as it is the stench doesn’t prepare you for what you see inside the camp itself. Even for Angelenos, who have become tragically accustomed to such scenes, the encampment on Oxford Street in Van Nuys shocks the conscious. For a hundred feet the garbage is piled shoulder high. Every step is hazardous: Rats and mice scurry in all directions, shards of glass litter the ground, and broken meth pipes are common. There are decomposing rodent carcasses amid piles of dog, rat, and human excrement. Walking through the camp one tries not to consider how many infectious diseases may be present. This is the place some 50 people call home.
Despite the hazards, dozens of volunteers from all over Los Angeles converged on the camp on Saturday to clear away thousands of pounds of garbage. Starting at 7a.m. they put themselves in harm’s way to accomplish a task the City and County of Los Angeles seem incapable of doing: They cleaned up a homeless camp. In the process they helped the neighborhood, local businesses, and the camp’s inhabitants themselves, some of whom joined the effort. By early afternoon the place was unrecognizable. The clean-up’s organizer, Scott Presler, said they had hauled away 50 tons of garbage.
Walking through the thrum of activity, one cannot help but ask why the Garcetti administration and City Council cannot accomplish the same feat, given the billions of dollars they’ve spent over the last five years. How is it that untrained citizens, armed with nothing but shovels and moxy, can do more to help our city than the people supposedly in charge of it? Why hasn’t anyone in city or county government hit upon the idea of organizing mass volunteer clean-ups like the one a private citizen put together from three thousand miles away?
The volunteers came from all over the southland and reflected the region’s diverse character. There seemed to be a little bit of everyone. One man said he’d taken the bus to the camp, while a woman rolled up in brand-new Mercedes. Teenagers worked alongside members of a church group in their 70s. One woman said that she and her boyfriend had left their Orange County home at 5a.m. so they could arrive in time to join the first wave. One camp resident walked back and forth between the far end of the camp and the dumpster, hauling two shopping carts’ worth of refuse at a time with dogged determination.
In the face of the overwhelming human misery confronting them the volunteers displayed a hearty esprit de corps as they donned hazmat suits and masks and waded into the mire. At one point a woman screamed and jumped as a rat tried to run up the leg of her suit. Her scream turned to laughter as her fellow volunteers good-naturedly mimicked her motions. They briefly seemed to be dancing.
The generosity on display was overwhelming. People brought pizzas and donuts, boxes of bottled water and juices. The hazmat suits, masks, and shoe covers were donated. Javier Perez, owner of Perez Disposal in Granada Hills, provided a large roll-off container along with a hauling truck and a Bobcat mini tractor. By noon he said that his crew already had hauled the container to a nearby landfill twice, both times filled to the top with 30 cubic yards of trash. When asked how much the day was costing his business Mr. Perez shrugged and replied, “About $3,000. But who cares? It’s the right thing to do.”
A camp resident named Robert, who described himself as the camp’s “sentry, city councilman, and mediator,” said the day was the happiest since he arrived five months ago. “Living like this,” he says, pointing to his tent where his girlfriend was cleaning up, “I get so tired. So tired. But today gives me hope. I mean, look at these folks. They don’t have to be here. They don’t have to spend a Saturday away from their families to help us out. But here they are. God bless them.” As he talked a spider crawled across his face and around his right ear. He didn’t even notice.
Clean-up organizer is a controversial figure
It may surprise Angelenos to learn that the clean-up’s organizer isn’t from L.A. He isn’t even from California. Mr. Presler is a Washington D.C. native who lives in northern Virginia. Even more surprising (to Angelenos) is that Mr. Presler, who is gay, is an avid Trump supporter and conservative activist. When he’s not organizing homeless cleanups he’s sponsoring and leading voter registration drives around the country. Yet using only with Twitter and Facebook he was able to accomplish more in a few hours than the Garcetti administration accomplishes in a year. He says that over the last few months he’s organized two clean-ups in Baltimore, as well as in Virginia Beach and Newark. He has one planned in Philadelphia in two weeks. He said that he was drawn to the Van Nuys camp in particular after hearing that there are a number of veterans among the inhabitants. Both his father and grandfather are retired Navy officers.
Mr. Presler has received negative coverage because of his politics. After his first Baltimore clean-up in early August, the Baltimore Sun ran an op-ed suggesting the event was a political publicity stunt designed to embarrass U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings. The paper dismissed the clean-up as, “not really that remarkable of a concept,” and huffed that, “Mr. Presler’s presence in Baltimore reinforces the tired image of our failing urban cores.” Angelenos (and probably more than a few Baltimoreans) might respond that, well, yes, it does. Because that image is accurate.
Mr. Presler previously worked with a group called ACT for America, which the Anti-Defamation League has called the largest anti-Muslim group in the country. In past interviews Mr. Presler said that as a gay man he was motivated to address Islamic extremism after the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida (the killer had sworn allegiance to ISIS and targeted the gay venue). In 2017 NPR reported that Mr. Presler cancelled a planned event in Arkansas when he learned that the organizer was a white nationalist. He has since distanced himself from the group.
To be sure, if Mr. Presler knowingly associated with a hate group he should be accountable. The mere fact that he helped organize events like the “March Against Sharia” will churn some stomachs.
Yet considering what he has accomplished in L.A., Baltimore, and elsewhere on behalf of homeless people of all races and creeds it would seem forgiveness is in order as well. In speaking with Mr. Presler, you don’t get the impression of a man who’s out to marginalize, malign, or divide. He speaks passionately and sincerely about his desire to help people. “This isn’t about politics,” he says. “I consider the clean-ups to be apolitical.” Moreover, it’s hard to square claims of bigotry with the diversity that was on display at Saturday’s clean-up, and the diversity of the camp residents his efforts helped in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the country. If Mr. Presler is a bigot, he’s not very good at it.
It’s tempting to search for a broader significance to the fact that a full-throated Trump supporter and conservative activist did more in a day to help the homeless in Los Angeles than the city’s progressive elected officials manage in a year. And perhaps there is. But that’s a conversation for another time.
For now, the story is the dozens of Angelenos who spent a Saturday in withering heat quite literally shoveling excrement to help their fellow human beings. They weren’t serving meals at a soup kitchen; they were risking their health, even their lives, in one of the worst places in Los Angeles. All to help people who’s names they will never know. That’s worth dwelling upon in these hyper-divided times.
Thanks to Mr. Presler, for a few hours the best of Los Angeles, the best of California, and the best of the United States were on display. If it took a few MAGA hats to accomplish that task, then so be it. Los Angeles is a little bit better off today thanks to Mr. Presler’s efforts. Hopefully he will be back soon.
Note: More than three dozen current and retired firefighters around California in city and county departments, as well as Cal Fire, were interviewed for this story. Citing official policy as well as political pressure, many were not willing to go on the record and requested that potentially identifying information be withheld.
Last week’s Saddleridge Fire burned 8,500 acres, destroyed or damaged 107 structures, and forced more than 100,000 people to evacuate their homes. It also marked the unofficial start to California wildfire season. While the investigation into the fire has thus far focused on a Southern California Edison transmission tower on Saddleridge Hill, as in recent years among the biggest concerns are homeless fires. A walk through the burn zone last Saturday and Sunday revealed dozens of individual encampments replete with cook stoves, butane canisters, cooking equipment, and other fire dangers. In the canyon directly below the suspected ignition site was a homeless camp including a fire pit, cook stove, and bottles of flammable materials. If homeless activity didn’t start the Saddleridge Fire it assuredly helped the flames along.
These scenes have become frighteningly common throughout Los Angeles and California, endangering residents, firefighters, and the homeless themselves.
Last Monday in Sunland-Tujunga firefighters responded to two small blazes that broke out in illegal encampments in the Tujunga Wash. A few weeks ago in Paradise, site of last year’s apocalyptic Camp Fire, a homeless woman was arrested for intentionally starting three small blazes. Members of the Facebook group Butte County Fires, Accidents, & Crimes postincidents virtually every day. Thanks to failed political leadership this is California’s new normal.
On a recent tour of their facilities and equipment, the crew at a fire station in Los Angeles showed off their trucks, engines, ladder, and other vehicles. They described the equipment’s capabilities while rattling off a head-spinning litany of statistics (the newest engines, for example, can deliver a total of nearly 2,000 gallons per minute, or 33 gallons per second, on a blaze). Then the topic turned to L.A.’s homeless crisis, which was when the tour and interview turned into something of a therapy session for a clearly frustrated crew.
The captain pointed at one of the trucks. “We call this one the dumpster fire tender,” he said. “We get multiple calls every day to fires started by homeless folks. Cooking or heating fires easily jump to nearby fuel sources like trash cans and refuse piles. Inevitably, some spread to houses, apartments, and other buildings.” He would not go on the record because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the issue.
When asked to estimate what proportion of fires his crew extinguishes are attributable to the homeless, he shook his head and replied, “At least 90%.” He explained that thanks to modern fire safety and suppression measures structure fires are actually quite rare. However, the number of overall blazes in Los Angeles has increased exponentially, a direct result of the city’s homeless crisis.
The captain at another station, when asked how many fires in his area are attributable to homeless activity, replied, “All of them.” Interviewed at 5pm on a Sunday he said his crew had responded to eight just that day. “There are days we can barely keep up. Sometimes I feel like we’ve already lost the war.” The crew said it’s common for them to get more than ten calls per day for homeless fires, from dumpsters in alleyways behind apartments and houses to grass fires in parks. Another member of the crew described how they regularly witness homeless people smoking near gas mains, setting camp fires in piles of garbage, and cooking over open flames next to apartments and homes.
Homeless fires are starting to have catastrophic consequences statewide. According to Contra Costa Fire District Public Information Officer Steve Hill, “A lot of our fires end up starting in and around homeless encampments.” Residents of Oakland are calling homeless fires in that city a “crisis.” And just two weeks ago, a family of five in South Los Angeles lost their home to a blaze attributed to a homeless encampment in an adjacent alley. According to local reports, neighbors had contacted the city’s 311 hotline for months to report the camp as well as previous fires, to no avail.
Illegal encampments causing blazes in wildfire zones
As in Sylmar, homeless fires are now commonplace in many of the state’s highest fire hazard zones. Lydia Grant, a former Los Angeles city commissioner and current member of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council in the San Fernando Valley, says that there are dozens of illegal encampments in the mountain just outside her community. “They start fires every single day. Our firefighters are at their limit.” Ms. Grant spoke to The All Aspect Report in her capacity as a concerned citizen.
Despite the daily dangers, city councilmember Monica Rodriguez, who boasts of being the daughter of a firefighter and who is chair of the City Council’s public safety committee, has done virtually nothing to address the crisis in her district and in the city. In 2017 her district endured two of the worst fires in L.A. history, the Creek and La Tuna Fires. The cause of those fires remain officially unsolved; locals attribute them to homeless activity.
Like the crews in Los Angeles County, a firefighter in Ventura said that his county is experiencing a dramatic increase in its homeless population, and along with it an increase in the number of fires. On a sweltering Saturday afternoon he pointed to the 8,000 foot mountains that encircle the bucolic town of Ojai. In December 2017 the Thomas Fire burned more than 280,000 acres of those mountains, destroying 1,087 buildings and killing a firefighter. He explained how it was “dumb luck” that Ojai itself was spared: Ironically, the Santa Ana winds that helped create the inferno pushed the flames to the southeast, away from the city. The fire burned in a ring along the mountains instead of consuming the populated valley. “Next time we might not be as fortunate,” he said.
His warning is frighteningly prophetic, as there already have been several fires in the area this year started in homeless camps, including one last month in Oxnard.
According to a senior official in the Los Angeles Fire Department, there are hundreds of abandoned buildings in L.A. that are unfit for human habitation but where people nevertheless are squatting. The official, who declined to go on the record, said, “We can’t inspect buildings we don’t know about. We can’t warn people or get them out.” Homeless people routinely cook over open flames inside tents and abandoned buildings. “It’s like a game of Russian roulette,” said the official. The combination of rampant homeless fires, abandoned and uninspected buildings, and squatters is a recipe for disaster. It’s only a matter of time before the next conflagration claims lives.
Another crew likened the abandoned buildings to the Ghost Ship in Oakland, where a December 2016 fire killed 36 people. While that fire was caused by the managers’ potentially criminally negligent maintenance, the comparison nevertheless is apt: When asked if there are potential Ghost Ships in L.A. occupied by homeless people or squatters one firefighter replied, “Dozens. Maybe hundreds. We just don’t know.”
What’s more, like so many other official statistics the number of reported homeless fires almost certainly is an undercount. That’s because many fire departments and agencies don’t specifically track homeless fires. For example, Scott Mclean, the Public Information Officer for Cal Fire, said that while the number of has increased the agency doesn’t keep count. Cal Fire is responsible for some 31 million acres of land in the state, all of it privately owned. Mclean said that California’s fire seasons are getting worse, due to factors including drought cycles, increased fuel loads, development, and population growth.
Despite spending billions of dollars at the state and local levels the homeless crisis in California continues to deteriorate. In this year’s annual homeless count, virtually every community in the state reported substantial increases in their populations. And as previously reported in these pages and elsewhere, those official numbers are massive underestimates.
At the same time, many policies are exacerbating the problems. Laws and court decisions increasingly tie firefighters’ and police officers’ hands. The notorious Prop 47 (deceptively titled the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act”) freed tens of thousands of allegedly nonviolent offenders from state prisons. But the same lawmakers who saw fit to release those felons failed to provide services such as job training and transitional housing, meaning that many of those released ended up on the streets. At the same time, Prop 47 downgraded a range of felonies to misdemeanors, meaning police cannot make arrests. Even when they do, offenders are often back on the streets within hours. And the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision in Jones v. City of Los Angeles prevents cities from issuing citations or arresting people for vagrancy. Many observers attribute the explosion in the state’s homeless population to that decision.
For the foreseeable future, then, it seems the crisis is only going to spiral. Nero is fiddling while Rome burns. Until elected and appointed officials can show they are serious about solutions, millions of Californians will remain in harm’s way.