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.
Part I of an occasional series on the public health implications of California’s homeless crisis
As coronavirus continues to spread and approach its apex in the United States, homeless people will be among the hardest hit. They live with numerous risk factors including poor sanitation, close contact, substance abuse, preexisting conditions, and compromised immune systems. California, home to nearly half the country’s unhoused population, faces particular perils. Health experts are reporting they are at twice the risk of contracting the virus as compared to the general population. A recent study by researchers at UCLA, Boston University, and the University of Pennsylvania estimates that as many as 1,200 homeless people could die of the virus in Los Angeles before the current outbreak recedes. Homeless victims alone could quickly overwhelm the county’s stretched medical resources. And while the state’s official response to the outbreak overall has received good marks, and rightly so, it’s a different story with the homeless.
The dynamics of homelessness these days also potentially endanger the broader population. A decade ago chronic homelessness, for better or worse, was concentrated in a few neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Tenderloin, Skid Row in Los Angeles, and north Bakersfield. The situation was at crisis levels and constituted a humanitarian disaster, but at the time it still appeared manageable, with the state and individual cities spending billions of dollars to bring people indoors and provide them with services.
In contrast, these days California’s homeless population is diffused throughout the state, a translucent parallel population superimposed upon cities and towns. Individual camps have social orders and some have developed rudimentary economies and self-government. Still, the twin demons of addiction and mental illness leave few unhaunted and the camps are places of endless suffering. That translucent civilization is corrupted by criminality, exploitation, disease, and death. Last October a man lwho called himself Hippie, who was living in front of the U.S. Post Office in Mar Vista told The All Aspect Report, “It’s f***g Hell, man. I wouldn’t wish this on anybody.”
At the same time, as reported by City Journal‘s Chris Rufo and others, previously autonomous encampments are becoming interconnected and even interdependent. In particular the profusion of scooters, e-bikes, and bike share programs provide ample opportunity for people to move among camps. Bike and scooter chopshops are commonplace in encampments. As a man in a homeless camp in Lake Balboa who identified himself as Roberto told The All Aspect Report last summer, everyone knows where to go to get which drugs and where to barter for electronics, bicycles, clothing, food, even sexual favors.
Disease already spreads easily through homeless encampments. San Diego, Los Angeles, Oakland, and other cities have experienced outbreaks of hepatitis, typhus, influenza, and tuberculosis in camps. Last year L.A. was sued by, ironically, a City Attorney who alleges she contracted typhus from flea-infested rats at City Hall. Also last year City Council President Herb Wesson ordered the rugs in his office replaced after his staff found fleas and reported hearing “rustling” in the ceiling. Of course, homeless people don’t have the luxury of litigation or fumigation.
Given that disease and sickness already were prevalent in the homeless population, their new mobility virtually guarantees that infectious agents are spreading among different camps – and that means spreading through neighborhoods. Homeless people often find shelter in the doorways and courtyards of apartment complexes where hundreds of people live, or the parks where families play and recreate. They traverse neighborhoods, entering backyards and even breaking into homes. They are ideal vectors for aggressive pathogens as proved by those experiences at City Hall last year. With coronavirus the crisis now threatens the health and welfare of all Californians.
City emergency resources were at the breaking point before coronavirus
As these issues coalesce, the state’s emergency response infrastructure already is at a breaking point. LAFD Station 9 in downtown L.A. got 35,518 calls for service last year, making it the busiest station in the country. A huge portion of which were homeless-related. The San Francisco Fire Department fields enough homeless calls every day to reduce service capacity to Level Zero, meaning no available resources are left for additional emergencies. While it sometimes only lasts a few minutes, those minutes can make a life or death difference. The city’s widely respected new fire chief told the board of supervisors last autumn, “It’s been a huge challenge for us. We run at level zero on a daily basis and level zero is when there are no ambulances available to respond to an incident. That speaks volumes to me.”
The All Aspect Report has spoken with dozens of emergency officials off the record and on background about the crisis. The rank and file use words like “overwhelmed,” “exhausted,” and most of all “frustrated.” When asked how many of his station’s fire calls are homeless-related he replied unhesitatingly, “All of them.” Speaking on an otherwise quiet Sunday afternoon he and his crew said they had responded to eight calls to fires just that day. “Toss in the emergency and non-emergency calls the homeless make, sometimes just because they need a ride to the doctor to fill a prescription, and we’re toast,” he said.
Overwhelmed first responders and Level Zero resource capacity are bad enough during normal times. These are not normal times. It is well past time for officials like Governor Gavin Newsom and mayors like London Breed in San Francisco and Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles to admit the state no longer can go it alone.
Only the military and organizations like the Red Cross are equipped to handle the crisis
Within 24 hours of the devastating 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia the United States dispatched C-17 Globemaster, C-5 Galaxy, and C-130 Hercules heavy lift aircraft to the region. Military personnel and private and nonprofit contractors provided shelter, clean water, food, medicine, sanitation, and search and rescue operations from Indonesia to Madigascar. Operation Unified Assistance became the largest relief effort since the Berlin Airlift. It involved some 15,000 personnel, two aircraft carrier task forces, a Marine expeditionary unit, a U.S. Navy hospital ship, and countless vehicles and rotary and fixed wing aircraft. At the peak of the operation the U.S. and a dozen other countries were delivering more than 100,000 pounds of supplies every 24 hours. Less than a year later, some of those same personnel and resources were on the ground in cities and towns throughout the southeastern U.S. providing relief to survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
That is the kind of response California’s homeless crisis demands in the context of the coronavirus. The state’s responses to date have proved woefully inadequate, as a walk down the street proves. It would require a fraction of the effort and resources of Unified Response to aid every homeless person in California in a matter of weeks and prevent a possible mass outbreak of coronavirus in that population. The coronavirus emergency should be a starting point in terms of a long-term solution to homelessness, a solution that recognizes the urgency of the situation. No more “Ten Year Plans” to solve homelessness, no more $700,000 apartments built by plugged-in developers. Californians don’t have the luxury to indulge official corruption and incompetence anymore.
If it wasn’t apparent to the political class before it is now: This is an emergency. It’s time to bring in the resources with the knowledge and experience to tackle it. The military has an extraordinary record of service in the context of natural and man made disasters going back to at least the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. General Fredrick Funston’s Presidio Battalion established relief camps, provided food, water, and medical attention to survivors, conducted search-and-rescue operations, and tapped out looting and civil unrest. If they could do it 115 years ago they can do it today.
Mr. Governor, this is no longer a drill. Look to the history of the city in which you began your political career, learn from it, and do right by the people of this state. Call up the National Guard.
They said it wouldn’t be like this. Officials including Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilman Mike Bonin promised that the “A Bridge Home” initiative, which provides temporary housing and services to the chronically homeless, would bring vulnerable people indoors while providing relief to communities from the street crime, drug use, and public endangerment that often accompany illegal encampments. They’re betting hundreds of millions of the public’s money on it.
In one Venice Beach neighborhood, unfortunately, A Bridge Home shelter has had the opposite effect.
In the week since officials celebrated the opening of a new Bridge facility at the old Metro bus maintenance facility on Main Street in the heart of a residential neighborhood three blocks from the Venice boardwalk, people have reported and documented dozens of crimes and public disturbances. The incidents occur at all hours of the day and night and include assault, sexual assault, fights, vandalism, graffiti, illegal camping, public defecation, drug use, and disturbances of the peace. On social media and via email residents have shared frightening experiences, videos, and pictures. A tense email thread between some 60 neighbors and Councilman Mike Bonin’s Venice Bridge Home Deputy, Allison Wilhite, began the day the facility opened.
Single women and mothers are among the most vocal residents. They’ve expressed fear for their personal safety and even their lives, and collectively their experiences reveal a worrying degree of lawlessness.
On March 3 at 8:20pm, resident Soledad Ursura wrote to Ms. Wilhite, “I was just on a nightly walk with my dog which I do at the same hour every night. There were three male youths coming from Bridge Housing walking towards me and they asked if they could get a cigarette off me. I said no, and as they passed me they started telling me things they wished they could do to me and that I was a bitch for not talking to them, and to keep my head down and keep pretending to talk to my dog. Something similar happened last night as well.” As a legal matter this amounts to a sexual assault.
On the morning of March 4 another neighbor wrote, “I’m a single woman 2 blocks away. It’s now unsafe for me to step out of my house without my dog and mace. And I’ve been here for 20 years and never experienced this before.” Within minutes yet another echoed her experience, “I too am a single woman living across the street and I don’t feel safe. I have already been followed twice. I can’t enjoy my life in Venice anymore.”
An hour later yet another woman wrote, “I am starting to feel like a prisoner in my own home while these vagrants harass and assault people, shoot up on our door steps, vandalize our homes, start fires and invade our properties! I have had several incidents when I am afraid to leave my home, another incident with someone very high and mentally unstable on my driveway when I came home from grocery shopping that I was afraid to get out of my car and unload my groceries into my OWN HOME. I fear for my life. I have had vagrants ring my door bell at 2:45 am and 12:15 a.m.”
There have been multiple instances virtually every day since the facility opened. For example, in a span of three hours on Wednesday, March 4:
At around 4pm Venice resident Vicki Halliday called police to report that a man had threatened to kill her. The incident took place across the street from the Bridge facility’s entrance. After confronting Ms. Halliday he went on a spree and smashed the windows, hoods, and roofs of at least half a dozen cars – with his body. LAPD arrested the man, whom The All Aspect Report confirmed is a resident of the Bridge facility.
An hour later another woman reported that her 14-pound dog was attacked by a resident’s much larger dog as they walked past the shelter entrance. Fortunately, her dog was uninjured.
An hour after that, yet another woman reported a man defecating in her front yard.
These incidents occurred over just three hours on a single day. According to interviews with dozens of residents, it’s a typical afternoon in this neighborhood since the shelter opened.
There have been incidents inside the shelter as well. On Monday a resident posted a picture and message on the Facebook group Venice United: “Around 10:30 on Monday, March 2, at least five LAPD patrol cars were spotted responding to an apparent fight inside the shelter. Later that same night a man filmed several apparently intoxicated individuals walking down his street having a screaming fight.”
The community’s experience in the first week has been a far cry from official promises. On Councilman Bonin’s Bridge Home Venice webpage is the promise, “RESIDENTS WILL BE GOOD NEIGHBORS – Each temporary housing facility built as part of the Bridge Home initiative will be required to abide by rules that protect neighbors from any nuisance. There will be on-site management and on-site security, and opportunities for neighbors to discuss other operational rules before the facility is opened.”
Likewise, at a February 25 ceremony celebrating the shelter’s opening, Mayor Eric Garcetti declared, “Today’s opening is a reminder that people across Los Angeles are saying `yes’ to delivering the housing, healing and hope our unhoused neighbors need and deserve.”
It’s a safe bet that few people in Venice believed they were saying yes to this kind of “housing, healing and hope.” Other documented disturbances in the facility’s first week have included individuals passed out on sidewalks, in driveways, carports, and front yards. Individuals have been reported pounding on front doors and ringing doorbells in the middle of the night. On the shelter’s opening night a resident filmed traffic including a Metro bus stopped in front of the shelter as a group of individuals fought in the street.
Officials promise help is on the way, but concerns remain
City officials including Ms. Wilhite assure neighbors matters will improve once the LAPD sets up a Special Enforcement and Cleaning Zone (SECZ) in the area. SECZs include dedicated LAPD foot patrols, four days a week of bulky item pick-up, a weekly dedicated cleaning, and additional outreach by personnel from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA).
However, the city will not establish the zone until March 9, nearly two weeks after the bridge shelter opened. In response to queries from residents Ms. Wilhite sent a statement to neighbors and members of the media:
The decision to wait until March 9 was made after having conversations with the Unified Homeless Response Center (aka UHRC, the Mayor’s Office team that coordinates the enhanced services), LAHSA, LAPD Pacific Division, and other Council District Offices that have opened an A Bridge Home. Each have different perspectives on the best timing, and all for good reasons.
The experience in other Council Districts has been that starting the SECZ the same day as intake can cause a lot of movement and frustration among unhoused people and make it harder for our outreach teams to bring people to site for their intake appointment. We know residents have waited a long time for these enhanced services to start, and we want to honor that as soon as possible, while also ensuring we can effectively and efficiently open the site to our unhoused neighbors. There are requests from the community that we delay it longer, even upwards of 90 days, but we are hopeful these two weeks will let our outreach teams and on site service providers do their work to open the site successfully.
In the meantime she told neighbors to call 911 for emergencies, 1-800-ASK-LAPD and the local LAPD Senior Lead Officers for non-emergencies, and the city’s 311 neighborhood services line for issues like graffiti removal.
UPDATE 3/7: The All Aspect Report reached out to Ms. Wilhite via email on Thursday afternoon to ask about services, security, and rules at the Venice Bridge housing facility. She forwarded those questions to representatives at PATH, SPY, and LAHSA. As of the end of the day on Friday none had responded.
There are reasons to question whether the new services, when the do start, will have an impact. Thanks to laws like Prop 47 and initiatives like restorative justice many of the crimes neighbors are enduring in Venice Beach are no longer priorities for police, much less prosecutors. What can police do when politicians tie their hands? Across the City of Los Angeles it has become depressingly familiar to see homeless people and vagrants engage in lawless behavior in plain full of law enforcement, with no consequences. Those who are arrest all too often are back on the streets in a matter of days, often hours. How can neighbors trust officials who have already broken so many promises when they say this time will be different?
Indeed, Ms. Halliday told The All Aspect Report crimes already are being ignored. She wrote in an email, “All weekend, shelter residents hung out and smoked weed or did their meth doses. A dealer is conveniently located in an RV on Main Street across from the Google building.” However, she added, “LAPD has had a problem dealing with the dealer for some reason even though many of them have witnessed the exchanges.” She said she has personally witnessed transactions.
It has taken less than a week for three years’ worth of promises to be broken, with devastating consequences for countless neighbors. Meanwhile, officials are forging ahead with dozens more Bridge facilities throughout the City of Los Angeles.
It’s almost as if they have priorities besides helping the homeless.
UPDATE 3/17: Disruptions continued outside the bridge facility a week after the SECZ allegedly began: Video shows several young men fighting at the entrance to the bridge facility, several of whom subsequently approached and accosted a journalist covering the incident.
2/25 NOTE: This post has been updated with information from the Gascon campaign and additional analysis.
The man running to replace Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey as the county’s top law enforcement official seems willing to bend ethics and campaign laws to advance his ambitions. George Gascon, who resigned as San Francisco’s District Attorney less than five months ago to run in L.A., faces staunch resistance from police. While he has been endorsed by a handful of retired law enforcement officials from L.A. County, most notably former Police Chief Charlie Beck, the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL) has endorsed Ms. Lacey and has spent more than a million dollars in an effort to defeat Mr. Gascon. The Los Angeles Times reported today that Lacey also has received funding and support from the L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies union, the Peace Officers Research Association of California, and the L.A. County prosecutors union.
In the face of this opposition from law enforcement it seems Mr. Gascon decided to conjure some police support in a way that raises questions.
His official campaign website prominently features an image, which as of this writing remains live, showing him walking and talking with a uniformed police officer in front of a police cruiser. The officer and the vehicle appear to be from the LAPD: The uniform color, style, and badge are consistent with the city’s police force, and the cruiser in the background looks like an LAPD Ford Explorer, with a black hood and grill. Given that Mr. Gascon is seeking office in Los Angeles, voters reasonably will conclude that the officer in the picture is with the LAPD.
The image thus implies police support for his candidacy: Indeed, it appears as the header on the campaign’s “Endorsements” page, with the word superimposed. The picture also appears on the campaign’s homepage next to a solicitation for $100 campaign contributions.
An email on Friday to the Gascon campaign was not initially returned. However, after this story was published attorney Maxwell Szabo wrote an email on the campaign’s behalf in which he defended the use of the image. “The officer in the photo was off-duty. The uniform was rented, as was the police car. We have receipts for both,” he wrote.
California state law prohibits uniformed police and other law enforcement officers from making endorsements while in uniform. Specifically, Government Code Section 3206 says that an officer or employee of a local agency may not “participate in political activities of any kind while in uniform.”
In 2012 Sheriff Lee Baca acknowledged breaking the law when he appeared in a video endorsing Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich for D.A. while in uniform. Sheriff Baca later apologized and Trutanich’s campaign removed the video. Last year, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Sheriff’s Department opened a criminal investigation into an event at the County Fire Authority’s headquarters. The O.C. firefighters union invited candidates they supported to wear official city firefighting gear, including fire department emblems. The candidates also participated in mock firefighting exercises.
The Gascon campaign’s photograph appears to be something of a legal novelty: The campaign used a real off-duty cop to simulate a real on-duty one. The active but off-duty LAPD officer wears a rented uniform that looks to the untrained eye to be LAPD issue, and he’s standing with Mr. Gascon in front of a rented car that looks like an LAPD cruiser. It raises the question, is it a violation of state law for a real police officer in a fake but realistic uniform to appear in official campaign materials, particularly on an “Endorsements” page?
It also raises the question of why the Gascon campaign is going to such great lengths to create an impression of police support. If, as Mr. Szabo says, the officer in the photograph is with the LAPD, and if he does endorse Mr. Gascon (law enforcement officers are allowed to make personal endorsements on their own time) why hasn’t the campaign identified him?
When contacted by the All Aspect Report, LAPPL President Craig Lally said in an email, “George Gascon continues to try and con voters into thinking he has the support of frontline police officers. He doesn’t and there’s a reason why. He was an absolute failure in San Francisco as DA, combining skyrocketing crime and out of control open air drug markets with a record of hiding evidence and making up phony crime stats.” Mr. Lally added, “It’s ironic that he mocks police officers one moment, then uses our image to raise funds for his deceitful campaign the next.” Mr. Lally’s statement also referred to an advertisement the LAPPL has been running on television stations in Los Angeles.
Mr. Gascon is running for a position of significant public trust in the County of Los Angeles. As the crime rate – whether prosecuted or not – continues to grow, the role of District Attorney is becoming more important than ever. The police oppose his candidacy, largely due to his co-authorship of Proposition 47. Police say that law, which reduced many felonies to misdemeanors and retroactively downgraded convictions for as many as 10,000 felons, was sold to voters misleadingly as “The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act.” Law enforcement agencies and associations statewide blame Prop 47 for increased crime, addiction, and homelessness (there is evidence for their position).
Regardless of any legalities, the fundamental issue remains that Mr. Gascon’s campaign went out of its way to give the impression of police support. Mr. Gascon obviously is aware of their opposition, and more to the point he’s aware of the law. Nevertheless his campaign appears to be trying to fool voters into thinking otherwise: Based on the totality of factors – the uniform, badge, sidearm, and apparent police cruiser – the picture seems carefully crafted to lead voters to conclude that Mr. Gascon has police support.
Angelenos should ask themselves if they want to entrust enforcement of the law to someone who seems determined to deceive them.
Handing authority for the crisis to Donald Trump is likely too much for most California politicians to stomach. They should consider it anyway.
One of the first things you see after a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis virtually anywhere on earth is the arrival of a United States Air National Guard C-17 Globemaster loaded with food, medical supplies, and personnel. Within 24 hours of the devastating 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia the United States dispatched C-17, C-5 Galaxy, and C-130 Hercules cargo planes to the region. National Guard and regular service personnel immediately began providing shelter, clean water, food, medicine, sanitation, and search and rescue operations from Indonesia to Madigascar. They were the first wave of what would become Operation Unified Assistance, the largest relief effort since the Berlin Airlift. It involved some 15,000 personnel, two aircraft carrier task forces, a Marine expeditionary unit, a U.S. Navy hospital ship, and countless vehicles and rotary and fixed wing aircraft. Within ten days of the earthquake the USS Lincoln aircraft carrier arrived in the region and began 24-hour-a-day flight operations, including search and rescue. At the peak of the operation the U.S. and a dozen other countries were delivering more than 100,000 pounds of supplies every 24 hours. Less than a year later, some of those same personnel and resources were on the ground in cities and towns throughout the southeastern U.S. providing relief to survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
It would take a fraction of that response to aid every single homeless person in Los Angeles in a matter of weeks. Instead, politicians at the local and state level dither with multi-billion dollar plans for $7 million “bridge housing” and $700,000 units of “permanent supportive housing.” L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s grand plan is 10,000 units in 10 years. In other words, housing sufficient for less than a third of the city’s current chronic homeless population, in a decade. These are not serious plans. These are not serious people.
In contrast, the military has a long tradition of assisting in and coordinating humanitarian efforts in extreme circumstances, often performing heroically. Historians credit an Army general, Frederick Funston, for saving what was left of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fires. He was deputy commander of the division stationed at the Presidio. Within hours of the quake, his troops were throughout the city fighting fires, establishing relief camps, setting up kitchens to feed the survivors, providing medical aid to the injured, re-establishing sanitation, establishing security (there was a spate of looting), and assisting in rescue operations. They saved thousands of lives and prevented the complete annihilation of the city by fire and human mischief.
The military 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 as dire as any of the examples mentioned above. Officially, some 130,000 people were homeless in the state last year. The official number likely is off by as much as an order of magnitude. According to an authoritative 2014 report by the American Institutes for Research, in 2013 as many as 526,000 children experienced homelessness in California. And that was six years ago, before the crisis truly began to spiral. The report also ranked the state 49th in planning and policies related to child homelessness.
Approximately 1,833 people lost their lives during and after Hurricane Katrina. In 2017, the last year for which numbers are available, at least 2,000 homeless people died in California. In 2019, more than 1,000 homeless people died in Los Angeles County. 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. 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?
If the scope of these issues doesn’t justify federal intervention it’s hard to see what would. California has hit rock bottom.
Local and state services are overwhelmed, and officials aren’t up to the task
It has been clear for several years that state and local authorities are overwhelmed. As previously reported in these pages, under Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “bridge housing” plan the City of Los Angeles is spending an average of $55,000 per bed for temporary dormitory style housing. Accepting the official count of 36,900 homeless in the city, it would cost more than $2 billion to provide rudimentary shelter to all of them. The shelters also cost an average of $50,000 per bed per year to operate, meaning the city would spend $2 billion to construct the shelters and then $2 billion a year to maintain and operate them. These are not real numbers
The official response becomes even more absurd with permanent housing. When pitching Measure HHH to L.A. voters, Mayor Garcetti promised the city would build 10,000 units over the next ten years at a cost of $1.8 billion. That wouldn’t put so much as a dent in the crisis. Moreover, in reality those permanent units cost an average of $450,000 with some running more than $700,000 each.
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.
It’s time for Californians to acknowledge the state’s abject failure to solve the homeless crisis. It’s time to acknowledge that the bureaucratic amateurs had their chance and only made things worse. It’s time for the President to declare a state of emergency in California.
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.
Or at least the most confused man in the Democrats’ primary race
You have to hand it to Vermont Senator Bernard Sanders. After more than forty years of irrelevance, in half a decade the Green State socialist has transformed into a legitimate contender for the presidency. While serious questions remain about how he would fare in a general election against Donald Trump (polls consistently find that a majority of Americans would vote against a socialist), there can be no doubt that Bernie is having his moment. He finished first in last week’s Iowa caucuses, albeit in one of the lowest turnouts ever, and repeated the feat last night in New Hampshire, albeit by a far smaller margin than his upset 2016 victory in the Granite State.
We are witnessing Peak Bernie.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, and party Brahmans officially are freaking out. Figures like former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel are warning that a Bernie nomination not only would tank the Democrats’ chances of defeating President Trump but risk rending the fabric of the party itself. Hillary Clinton famously dissed Sanders as incapable of playing well with others, saying, “Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done.” They may not want to admit as much but the Democrat establishment’s full frontal assault smacks of the same sort of desperation that consumed the Republicans four years ago when a certain estate tycoon started taking a scythe to their field of anointed candidates.
The anti-Bernie crowd generally makes two arguments. First, as the Emmanuels and Hillarys of the party have said, he simply lacks the experience, personal comportment, and demeanor of a President (then again, see, e.g., Donald J. Trump). The second argument goes to the soul of the party itself: Will the Democrats continue to be a relevant, mainstream, center-left party or will they lurch to the Leninist Left and the proverbial dustbin of history?
Yet there are even more fundamental problems with Bernie Sanders. First, while his acolytes and disciples point to his authenticity and consistency over the years, in reality he has been one of the most inscrutable politicians in recent times. At various points in his long political career, Bernie has sounded and behaved like a full-throated Stalinist, an old-school New Dealer, and a standard-issue Democrat. Second, he routinely displays ignorance of the most basic realities of business and economics, and like his hero Marx has zero experience in the private sector he wants to “transform.”
Americans have no way of knowing which Bernie Sanders would take the oath of office in January 2021. Given that he talks constantly of his coming “revolution” that’s a huge problem, even a disqualifying one.
Bernie doesn’t seem to know which version of socialism he likes
Sanders’s supporters frequently cite his authenticity as his biggest strength. He hasn’t changed his tune in more than forty years, so goes the argument. A typical example: In the introduction to his bookThe Essential Bernie Sanders and His Vision for America, Journalist and Bernie Bro Jonathan Tasini wrote, “That is the essence of Bernie Sanders. No bullshit. Unvarnished opinions and beliefs. Now, Bernie carries that authenticity into the national arena in his quest to become president of the United States. As I write these words, tens of thousands of people have already swarmed to hear Bernie speak the truth at mass rallies in arenas and halls across the nation.” Likewise 350.org founder Bill McKibben has said “Here in Vermont, voters have always given Bernie huge margins because they know that (unlike the rest of American politics) what you see is what you get. Read what he has to say, and don’t doubt he means every word of it.”
It isn’t just Bernie Bros who fawn over their hero’s supposed realness and truth-speaking. Just today New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristoff wrote, “I admire Sanders for his authenticity and passion.”
These quotes are typical of Bernie’s supporters. They see him as real, unvarnished, and unafraid to speak truth to power. In reality, he may be the most difficult mainstream candidate to pin down. Americans don’t know whether they’d get Bernie the Commie, Bernie the Democratic Socialist, or Bernie the Democrat. It’s entirely possible that Bernie himself doesn’t know.
Version #1: Bernie the hardcore Marxist-Leninist
Early in his career, he was Bernie the Commie, an unapologetic Marxist-Leninist who enthusiastically celebrated communist revolutions and dictators, voicing support for figures like Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. During the 1980 presidential election, as Mayor of Burlington, Vermont he “proudly endorsed and supported” a Socialist Workers Party (SWP) presidential candidate named Andrew Pulley, a man with a history of violent rhetoric. According to testimony during a 1973 federal lawsuit the SWP brought against the government for surveillance and other activities, at a 1969 anti-war rally he said, “if America don’t come around…it should be burned down to the damned ground, it should not exist to see 1980….We advocate a Socialist Revolution in America by any means necessary.” He encouraged soldiers to “take up their guns and shoot their officers.” The SWA would go on to win their unlikely suit (fun fact: During the trail, the government was represented by a young U.S. Attorney named Rudolph Giuliani). Mr. Pulley’s rhetoric didn’t dissuade Bernie: As the Washington Examiner reported last year, “Sanders was one of three electors for Pulley on the Vermont ballot.” In 1984 Sanders backed another SWP candidate, former Black Panther Mel Mason. Mr. Mason was a staunch supporter of the Chinese and Soviet revolutions that collectively murdered some 60 million people.
Over the years Bernie also praised press crackdowns and bread lines in socialist countries. He declared in 1985, “It’s funny, sometimes American journalists talk about how a bad country is, that people are lining up for food. That is a good thing. In other countries people don’t line up for food: The rich get food and the poor starve to death.”
In 1988 the Sanderses famously honeymooned in the Soviet city of Yarislovel, where a shirtless Bernie traded vodka shots and sang This Land is Your Land with his Soviet hosts, to their obvious delight. Upon his return he held a press conference in which he and Jane heaped praise on the Soviets’ health care and public transportation systems, their “palaces of culture” and “community involvement.” He also lauded what he saw as the country’s “surprising degree of self-criticism.” It never seemed to occur to him that he’d seen the country his hosts wanted him to see, not the country as it really was, the one that would collapse less than four years later. In the 1980s, Bernie also visited Nicaragua, a close ally and satellite of the Soviet Union.
Version #2: Bernie the fuzzy Democratic Socialist
Of course, today his supporters know him as a kinder, gentler “Democratic Socialist.” While he has never disavowed his earlier radicalism, instead of praising the Soviet Union these days he talks about countries like Sweden and Denmark (and, more recently and confusingly, the decidedly non-socialist Taiwan). In contrast to his past effusive praise of Cuba, during a February 2016 town hall he said, “When I talk about democratic socialist…I’m not looking at Cuba. I’m looking at countries like Denmark and Sweden.”
Likewise, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC shortly after announcing his first presidential bid in 2015 he explained what “democratic socialism really is…in countries in Scandinavia like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, they are very democratic countries…in those countries by and large government works for ordinary people.” The former fire-breathing, Cuba and Castro loving revolutionary suddenly was espousing what sounded suspiciously like Scandinavian Exceptionalism.
Which arguments only add to the confusion: While Scandinavian countries do have universal health care, generous welfare systems, and strong social safety nets supported by extremely high taxes, those qualities do not make them socialist states, or even “democratic socialist” ones.
Indeed, former Danish and Swedish prime ministers have gone out of their way to eschew Bernie’s assertions. In 2015 the Prime Minister of Denmark, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, went so far as to get on an airplane to the United States specifically to deliver a speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to disavow socialism. Though he didn’t mention Sanders by name, he said, “I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism,” he said. “Therefore, I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.” Former Swedish Prime Minister likewise disavowed both socialism and Sanders.
There’s another, far darker element to Bernie’s Scandinavian stew: Perhaps he is unaware that the largest corporation in the region is the Danish pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk, followed by the Norwegian oil company Equinor. Rounding out the top three is clothing giant H&M, which has been the subject of investigations into its use of abusive sweatshops in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and elsewhere.
Sweden is also the world’s third largest arms exporter per capita, after Russia and Israel. Moreover, the size of the country’s military industrial complex is only part of the story. Like any industry the global arms industry has a pecking order. Those who can afford to buy American do so. Those who can’t purchase from the EU, followed by Russia and China. Sweden is in the bargain bin, which means a disproportionate of its weapons sales go to third world dictatorships and warlords. Perhaps Bernie hasn’t looked under the hood of a Saab lately.
Version #3: Bernie the standard-issue Democrat
A third version of Bernie is on display in the Senate. The erstwhile Independent actually has voted more often with the Democrats than several actual Democrats. In the 116th Congress Democrat Senators including his former primary rivals Kristen Gillibrand and Kamala Harris broke with the party more often. Ed Markey, Joe Manchin III, and Kyrsten Sinema also exercised more independence than the Independent. So did, ahem, Elizabeth Warren (though only by a fraction of a percentage).
According to Jim Manley, a former senior aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, “He fought his battles, oftentimes loudly on the floor and within the comfy confines of the caucus lunches, but then he let the chips fall where they may. He didn’t always agree with the tactics of the Democratic Caucus, but he never blindsided leadership.”
Bernie the Squishy Moderate has been most evident when it comes to the Second Amendment. He famously voted against gun control legislation on numerous occasions. During a 2015 interview on CNN he said, “Folks who do not like guns is fine[sic]. But we have millions of people who are gun owners in this country — 99.9% of those people obey the law. I want to see real, serious debate and action on guns, but it is not going to take place if we simply have extreme positions on both sides. I think I can bring us to the middle.”
And of course, when he declared for the 2016 election he said, “I am a Democrat now.”
He either doesn’t know or doesn’t care how money, business, and the stock market work
Bernie is many things, but nuanced isn’t one of them. His world is divided starkly between good and evil, oppressors and the oppressed, perpetrators and victims. He seems incapable of critical thinking much less intellectual growth. Call it the Bernie Binary.
Among Sanders’s favorite targets are banks and other financial institutions, the pharmaceutical industry, health insurance companies, big tech, and military contractors. Again there is no subtlety in his opprobrium: He says that banks and credit card companies are nothing more than loan sharks ripping off Americans. He’s compared insurance and pharmaceutical companies to crooks and even murderers. He wants to use antitrust laws to break up tech giants like Google, Apple, and Facebook.
Funny, then, that he has lined his own nest egg with stocks in those very industries for decades. According to opensecrets.org, Bernie and Jane Sanders’s wealth is largely concentrated in some two dozen mutual funds, including portfolios managed by TIAA-CREFF, Vanguard, and Valic. For example, the Sanderses hold somewhere between $16,000 and $100,000 worth of shares in the Valic Small Cap Fund. According to Morningstar, that fund’s primary holdings include West Pharmaceutical Services, Catalent, and Molina Healthcare Inc. (though not Novo Nordisk). Bernie and Jane also own between $45,000 and $150,000 in three CREF funds. Those funds’ largest positions are in technology (17%), financials (14%), health care (12%), and industrials (10.74%), with significant positions in energy (6%). Among their primary holdings are Bank of America, Visa, Johnson & Johnson, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Microsoft, and Facebook. It seems that loan sharks, crooks, and murderers make for good returns on investments.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with investing in the stock market and in mutual funds. More than half of Americans do so, and in the last decade their investments have been rewarded handsomely. Then again, most Americans haven’t made themselves into political celebrities by slamming the very industries in which they invest and grow their own money. Sanders’s financial holdings are noteworthy in light of his political sanctimony, particularly given that there is no shortage of “socially responsible” investment opportunities out there. Moreover, his words do real harm: How many thousands or millions of young people are eschewing investing in the stock market for their own futures because they don’t want to betray the Movement?
As a capitalist salesman would say, but wait, there’s more. Bernie has made a career out of bashing “millionaires and billionaires.” It turns out, to paraphrase Garrett Morris’s Chico Escuela on SNL, bashing rich people has been very, very good to him. Preaching class warfare has allowed Bernie and his wife, Jane, to join the ranks of the one percenters he routinely excoriates. It’s made him a best-selling author and provided him the largess to buy three homes and even become a landlord (the horror, the horror!). Yet when the New York Times asked him about the money he made from his 2016 hit Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In, he snapped, “I wrote a best-selling book. If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too.”
Like the stock market, Bernie either doesn’t know or doesn’t care how the publishing business works. Ninety-nine point nine percent of aspiring authors are not sitting United States Senators and presidential candidates. They don’t have establishment New York publishers lining up to bid on their books based solely on their name. They don’t have teams of staff and editors and unpaid interns on hand to refine their manuscripts for sale, nor massive PR machines to pave the way to the best-seller lists. Moreover, bestseller lists themselves are notoriously dodgy, with publishers and authors forever devising new ways to game the system (beacon of morality Tucker Max has neatly laid out the playbook).
And anyone who believes that Bernie single-handedly wrote not one but three best-sellers, in three different genres, while running for President and working as a Senator, well, there’s a bridge in his hometown of Brooklyn for sale.
Which version of Bernie would America get?
For nearly a half century Bernie Sanders benefited from his own irrelevance. His record wasn’t scrutinized, his actions and words remained unparsed. That extended (Russian) honeymoon is over. Democrats and Americans in general – including those who’ve fallen in thrall to his message of revolution – need to start asking him the tough questions, before it’s too late.
How much does a bed cost? In Los Angeles, it’s more than $50,000. Despite a a lawsuit brought by residents of Venice Beach, the city has startedconstruction of a so-called “bridge housing” facility located at a former Metro bus yard at 100 Sunset Avenue. The facility, which when finished will provide beds and some services to 100 adults and 54 children, costs $8,000,000, which works out to $51,948 per person. That’s in addition to the annual cost of maintaining and operating the facility.
The per bed cost is consistent in bridge facilities citywide. The Schraeder shelter in Hollywood cost $3.3 million to construct and has 72 beds, or $45,833 per bed. The first bridge housing facility to open, in downtown L.A.’s historic El Pueblo district, contains 45 beds and cost $2.4 million, which works out to $53,333 per bed. And a recently-opened bridge housing facility for 100 homeless veterans on the West Side cost $5 million, or $50,000 per bed. What’s more, that facility is temporary and consists of two “tension membrane structures” as well as modular trailers. Translation: Los Angeles spent $5 million on two tents and some campers.
The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) recently released the results of the 2019 homeless count. To the surprise of no one besides Mayor Eric Garcetti and the city council (who were shocked, shocked!) the number of homeless people in the city increased over last year, by 16%. Officially that means there are nearly 36,300 homeless in the city, though the actual number is much higher. If studies from organizations like the Economic Roundtable are accurate, the number of people experiencing homelessness – and therefore needing a bed – over the course of a year in Los Angeles is closer to 100,000 (even that number may be low; according to a 2014 report from the American Institutes for Research, that year as many as 130,000 children may have experienced homelessness in L.A.).
Even accepting the official number, existing bridge housing projects reveal how utterly unserious L.A.’s political class is about solving the homeless crisis. Assume the average cost per bed is $50,000. To provide $50,000 beds for 36,300 people would cost more than $1.8 billion. And if the Economic Roundtable is correct it would cost $5 billion to provide beds to everyone who will experience homelessness for any amount of time in L.A.
Bridge housing by definition provides temporary shelter for people awaiting permanent supportive housing, meaning that $1.8 (or $5) billion would fund only an interim solution. Which is bad enough. But where you really see the rub is in the city’s approach to permanent housing for the homeless. Contrary to politicians’ promises during the campaigns for Measure H and HHH, the city currently is spending between $400,000 and $500,000 per unit of permanent supportive housing. To provide housing to 36,300 people at an average of $450,000 per unit would cost $16.5 billion. A more recent analysis suggested that the per unit cost of permanent supportive housing may top $900,000, for a total of $36.7 billion.
Of course, that all assumes the city ever builds any units. As of this writing, officials have completed none at all.
What’s more, construction costs are only the beginning of the tally. While annual operating costs are difficult to come by – perhaps by design – the L.A. Daily Newsreported in 2016 that permanent supportive housing costs $22,000 per resident annually, meaning that annual costs to support 36,300 people would be $800 million. Once again that number may be on the low side: Last month L.A. Downtown News reported that the cost of LAPD patrols at the El Pueblo facility run to $96,171 per month, or more than $1.15 million annually, in addition to annual operating costs of $1.3 million. And that’s just one, small facility with 43 temporary beds. That works out to $56,976 per bed per year. Annual operating costs at the Schraeder shelter are $4.7 million, or $65,277 per bed. For perspective, that’s nearly two and a half times the average annual rent in the City of Los Angeles. It works out to $5,440 per month. That’s how much it costs to rent a 1,500 square foot, two bedroom new construction apartment four blocks from the beach in Venice.
These aren’t real numbers. Only in the bureaucracy-addled imaginations of politicians do they even begin to make sense. To be sure, bridge facilities offer general services for the homeless, not just to the people staying there. Nevertheless, the construction and operating costs are eye-watering. Yet no one seems to be asking where the money is going to come from.
Not every one of the city’s homeless people will need permanent supportive housing. But given that the city’s official count is a massive underestimate it’s reasonable to use 36,300 as a working number. If the real number is closer to 100,000 it’s fair to assume that a third will need some form of permanent support in perpetuity. Indeed, according to the Economic Roundtable’s report, of the 100,000 people estimated to experience homelessness in L.A. in a given year, a third will remain homeless for a year or more, meaning they likely will need a permanent solution.
Like so much of life in Eric Garcetti’s Los Angeles, the more the city spends on homelessness the worse the problem gets. Two and a half years after voters did their part by overwhelmingly approving Measure HHH, not a single unit of supportive housing has opened. The first are expected in December, which will be more than three years since the vote.
Then again, perhaps we should have read Measure HHH more carefully: It promises to deliver 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing over the next ten years, for $1.8 billion. A thousand units a year won’t even staunch the bleeding. 10,000 units is enough housing for less than a third of the city’s current chronic and hardcore homeless population (the real number, not the city’s fanciful official one) over a decade. Apparently we’ll get to the other two thirds at some later date.
The numbers aren’t real. The money isn’t real. The time frame is utterly unrealistic. Officials routinely shoot down any alternatives as “impracticable.” And all the while tens of thousands of people languish in post-apocalyptic conditions, with more joining them every single day. This is life in the wealthiest city in wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history.
Over the last two days there were two op-eds about Thanksgiving in the Los Angeles Times. One was entitled, “I am not afraid of Thanksgiving dinner, I just hate it,” while the second declared, “Thanksgiving: A time for family, fun, and food-borne illnesses.” A New York Times op-ed by the reliable miserablist Charles Blow was headlined, “The Horrible History of Thanksgiving,” and just in case readers weren’t sufficiently conscious-stricken a second piece reminded them of, “The Vicious Reality Behind the Thanksgiving Myth.” Paul Krugman, never to be outdone in the cynicism department, chimed in with, “Why Trump Should Hate Thanksgiving.”
NBC ran a story entitled, “Turkey social media photos promote harmful obsession with meat,” which included an interactive guilt-o-meter where readers could measure their shame over eating a thigh or breast (seriously). The Huffington Post offered helpful advice on “How To Tell Your Family Being Home For The Holidays Isn’t Good For You.” Meanwhile, at the the ubër-Millenial salon.com, Lisa Haas lamented how last year was when “this vegetarian finally gave in and cooked a turkey.”
The horror, the horror.
“Hate.” “Harmful.” Horrible.” “Gave in.” These are the words the modern media associate with a holiday centered around a singular expression of gratitude. These sorts of desultory écritures transgressives have become distressingly predicable holiday tropes in much of our media ecosystem. In an era when the news delivers little beyond daily doses of despair, the holidays no longer offer so much as a 24-hour holiday respite. Instead, journalists pile on the bleak cynicism.
It’s a perverse bouillabaisse of our era’s twin obsessions: Political correctness and egocentrism. You will not be considered sufficiently woke unless you accept the premise that every traditional and festive celebration is bound up inextricably with historic injustices, and your words will not be sufficiently relevant unless you find a way to make them all about yourself.
To wit, the L.A. Times’s resident Turkey Day hater is Mary McNamara, who opines, “when I see a piece celebrating an author’s ability to work in a cramped kitchen, in a lavish setting or over a campfire, a recipe list rhapsodizing the creativity involved in throwing together a feast in 24 hours or accommodating vegans, vegetarians, small children and all manner of food intolerance at the same meal, I think, ‘Bitch, please.'”
She continues by informing us that, while she’s all too aware of the darker sides of the holiday’s origins, she actually hates Thanksgiving dinner “because I am the adult child of an alcoholic and it is the event I most associate with the emotional damage that implies.” Sounds like Ms. McNamara is, in fact, afraid of Thanksgiving dinner. Somebody pass her the Xanax.
Krugman proffers a more tolerant version of the Thanksgiving creation myth: “the traditional portrait of the first Thanksgiving is as a moment of racial tolerance and multiculturalism: European immigrants sharing a feast with Native Americans.” He acknowledges that the idealistic moment was fleeting, followed by tragic decades and centuries, but nevertheless he concludes, “we still celebrate the tale of a benign meeting of races and cultures.” Of course, the New York Time’s resident curmudgeon doesn’t hew to the happiness for long. Invoking the divisions of the Trump era he grimly inveighs, “there’s no guarantee that we will emerge from this dark chapter as the nation we used to be.” He concludes, “That’s why it’s a holiday true patriots, who believe in our nation’s underlying values, should love — and one people like Trump and his supporters should hate.”
The New York Times columnists direct a lot of hate toward Thanksgiving, for diametrically opposed reasons.
I often wonder what previous generations – the ones who sacrificed, fought, and died so that Americans in 2019 might have the freedom to opine about the oppressiveness of a Meleagris Linnaeus-centric dinner – would say. What would the men who flew heavy bombers into near-certain death over occupied France, or the women who worked 14-hour shifts in often unbearable conditions to build those aircraft, say? Probably something like, “You all are complaining about…roasting a turkey? About the political differences we died to preserve?” I’m guessing that the millions of Americans of all backgrounds who endured the depressions of 1890s and 1920s-30s would have given entire body parts to live in an age in which political bickering over organic heirloom cranberry sauce counts as a traumatic life experience.
Mr. Blow intones, “I’ve come to believe that is how America would have it if it had its druthers: We would be blissfully blind, living in a soft world bleached of hard truth. I can no longer abide that.” As if generations that endured slavery and Jim Crow, depressions, world wars, and genocides remained somehow blind to hard truths. As if he is the courageous teller of truth.
It’s not clear who Mr. Blow believes his theoretical, anthropomorphic country would be fooling. Few people who have traversed the U.S. educational system in the last half century are ignorant of the darker sides of our history, including treatment of native peoples. The point of Thanksgiving is that we come together as families and friends, as a country, in spite of those hard truths. Thanksgiving is a day to find a little bit of hope and love in the darkness.
All of which is why I am glad that none of my friends have succumbed to the cynicism, misanthropy, and outright nihilism of so much modern media. I am grateful that they are looking forward to the annual indulgence of food, friends, family, and football (or, in my case, basketball).
People like my friend Lydia, who has overcome more challenges in life than I could probably endure. People like Ted, a thirty year homeless activist who has seen the worst that human beings can dole out to each other and still hasn’t lost his faith. Or my friend Nora, God rest her, a lifelong Communist who loved the USA more than anyone I’ve ever known.
People like Bryan, a homeless man in my neighborhood who spent years living on the streets until finally getting an apartment two months ago. I bumped into him this morning for the first time in six months. I had worried that something terrible had happened to him, yet there he was, walking out of the corner store looking better than I have ever seen him. He told me his good news and we embraced. An artist, Bryan told me that thanks to his new home (“I even have hardwood floors, can you believe it!”) he’s been able to paint for the first time in years. He invited me over to see some of his new works.
These people have enjoyed none of the luxuries of academics like Mr. Krugman or full-time pundits and pontificaters like Mr. Blow and Ms. McNamara. Yet there they were, each of them, full of gratitude each in their own way. Lydia, who is disabled and recently suffered a gruesome shoulder injury, nevertheless got up this morning at 4:30am to start cooking and packing meals for some 1,500 homeless people in west Los Angeles. Ted will spend his day serving people in Venice Beach. People who would have every right to indulge in cynicism instead are giving back more than we can possibly imagine. People like Bryan, who could have given up long ago, instead experiencing their own Thanksgiving miracles.
Almost twenty-five years ago I was a junior in college. My roommate Neal and I drove to visit his younger brother in school in Washington, DC. On a frigid winter evening we ducked into a pizza joint to warm ourselves over slices. At one point Neal went missing. Looking through the restaurant’s window I saw him handing two slices and a drink to a homeless man. They exchanged a few words then Neal came back inside. He never said anything, he’d just done it. I’ve never forgotten his example.
And so on this Thanksgiving, this time when we take a day to be grateful for the plenty we otherwise tend to take for granted, I will bow my head and give thanks to my friends and family. People who have endured. People who have risen above everything this world has thrown at them, not only standing strong and tall but making a point of giving back. These are the people I think of and thank when I think of the holiday, and of my country. They have taught and continue to teach me more about life and priorities than ten thousand columnists.
I’ll gather with friends and family who have survived all manner of trauma, abuse, pain, and sacrifice through the course of their lives and who nevertheless will come together in joy, gratitude and merriment to break bread, drink wine, commune, and occasionally talk smack. We may even yell about politics a little bit, because that’s what friends and family do. That’s what Americans do.
I’ll heed Cicero’s maxim that, “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”
Or, as the Rosie the Riveters of an earlier age might have said to the pundits of our era, “Bitch, please.”
Thousands of fires break out every month statewide. “Sometimes I feel like we’ve already lost the war,” says on LAFD firefighter
Note: More than three dozen Los Angels Fire Department personnel were interviewed for this story. None of them were willing to go on the record, citing concerns over professional retribution. All told similar stories. First responders from other California cities did go on record.
During a recent tour of a downtown Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) station, the captain pointed at one of the trucks. “We call this one the dumpster fire tender,” he said. “Every day we get multiple calls to fires started by homeless folks. Cooking or heating fires jump to nearby fuel sources like trash cans and refuse piles. Some spread to houses, apartments, or other buildings. Of course, the first things to burn are the homeless folks’ own possessions. They’re most in danger.” He would not go on the record because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the issue.
The captain at a station on the west side, 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.” Shaking his head, he added, “Sometimes I feel like we’ve already lost the war.”
As Los Angeles and California brave another fire season, the attention of politicians and the media has focused on the role of utilities in starting wildfires. After the Kincade Fire burned 77,000 acres and nearly 400 structures in Sonoma County in October, Governor Gavin Newsom accused Pacific Gas & Electric of prioritizing revenue over safety. He said, “It’s about corporate greed meeting climate change. It’s about decades of mismanagement.” (Governor Newsom and his wife Jennifer Siebel have accepted more than $700,000 in contributions from the utility and its employees)
Utilities have caused fires, including some of the worst in the state’s history, but on balance homeless activity is responsible for far more blazes. While utility equipment has been blamed for some 2,000 fires statewide in the last three and a half years, aninvestigation by NBC L.A. found that there were 2,300 homeless fires in Los Angeles County in 2018 alone. That’s likely an undercount, as it often is difficult to ascertain how fires start. As Jonathan Baxter, Public Information Officer for the San Francisco Fire Department told the all aspect report, “If a 911 caller reports a trash fire in an alleyway, we’ll record it as a ‘small debris fire,’ even if the conditions on the ground suggest homeless activity.”
Homeless fires have had devastating consequences for communities and families. The October Easy Fire, which burned 6,000 acres and threatened some 7,000 structures including the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, is suspected to have started in a homeless encampment. In June a family in South Los Angeles lost their home to a blaze attributed to an encampment in an adjacent alley.
In the last three months fires attributable to transients have broken out inSan Diego, Oxnard (Ventura County),Goleta(Santa Barbara County),Modesto (Stanislaus County),Stockton (San Joaquin County), Contra Costa, andRedding (Shasta County), among other places throughout the state. In July a homeless fire in the Bay Area city of Pittsburghdestroyed a family owned roofing business. San Francisco firefighters extinguished ahalf dozen fires in the same park in two weeks. In Oakland, residents call the situation a “crisis.”
The crisis endangers smaller communities as well. In the central valley town of Paso Robles, Fire Chief Jonathan Stornetta said that homeless fires spiked from 43 in 2017 to 115 last year. The number is on track to increase again this year, with 63 as of mid-June.
Chillingly, officials in Chico, adjacent the burn zone of the Camp Fire that killed 85 people and obliterated the towns of Paradise, Magalia, and Upper Ridge last year, report numerous homeless fires every week. Members of Facebook groups like Butte County Fires, Accidents, & Crimes post incidents every few days.
Homeless people themselves sometimes take matters into their own
hands. Since July at least three fires have started at an illegal encampment at
Lake Balboa Park in Van Nuys. The city began a cleanup of the camp, but the
problem is there are four others in the park. At one of them, a man named
Roberto said, “We put out fires all the time, usually before the firefighters
get here.” Inhabitants keep shovels handy, and hoses they connect to public
spigots. Still, electric cords zigzagged through dry undergrowth, past propane
tanks, under garbage piles, and into dwellings. Gasoline generators chugged
The dangers aren’t just in illegal encampments. An official in the
LAFD Fire Prevention Bureau said that transients often squat in buildings unfit
for human habitation. 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 and heat with open flames inside
buildings. “It’s Russian roulette,” said the official.
Homeless fires have become particularly common in wildfire hazard zones. Lydia Grant, a former Los Angeles City Commissioner and current member of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council, pointed out the locations of illegal encampments in the mountains surrounding her community in north east L.A. She said, “On average there’s a fire every day.” In 2017 the area endured two of the worst conflagrations in L.A. history, the Creek and La Tuna Fires. The causes remain unsolved, though many residents blame homeless encampments. Ms. Grant says, “We don’t have any support from the city.”
Meanwhile, in the face of threats to hundreds of communities and millions of lives, the state’s political class is busy trying totax drinking water and eliminate plastic straws. While Governor Gavin Newsom’s 2019 budget increased funds for Cal Fire, the overall picture remains grim.
Do they not recognize what the rest of us have known for a long time now, that the next homeless fire could become the next Camp Fire?