An open letter to Los Angeles: How much worse does it have to get?

Calling L.A. a Third World city these days is an insult to most Third World cities — The City of Angels is on the precipice of anarchy — Yet people keep electing the same politicians who got us into the mess in the first place — What will it take for us to wake up?

Photographs by Christopher LeGras, unless denoted “*”

Dear Los Angeles,

You know I love you. I was born and raised here, fifth generation, and I can’t possibly imagine living anywhere else.

I love your mountains and beaches, your sprawling open spaces and endlessly multifaceted neighborhoods and enclaves, the myriad hidden and not-so-hidden places where collective history lives and breathes and writes its own chapters. Your contradictions, your make-believe. I love how you are a place where people can endlessly reinvent themselves, the rare global metropolis that perpetually forgives and (mostly) forgets. I love four million maniacs from every corner of the globe, speaking every language known to humankind, that make us the teeming, evolving, constantly striving people we are. I love how sometimes driving north on PCH when there are no other cars around you can gaze at the rocks above Point Dume where the highway swings inland and imagine what this place was like before civilization. I love even your tortured history, because it’s a story of human progress and potential, frailty and fallibility.

All of which is why it breaks my heart to see what’s happening to you. Or rather, to see what you’re doing to yourself. You are in desperate need of help, an intervention. Maybe just a good old-fashioned smack upside the head. What in the hell is the matter with you?

Over the last five years you have broken my heart a hundred different ways….

Over the last five years you have broken my heart a hundred different ways, from your callous disregard of the hundreds of thousands of homeless languishing on the streets to the rampant crime wave consuming our neighborhoods to the garbage, graffiti, and vandalism that have become the hallmarks of our once-great open spaces, parks, and even highways. It breaks my heart to drive down the Arroyo Secco Parkway to see it tagged and crumbling, dying trees and green spaces that once made it a parkway and not just another slab of tarmac.

It breaks my heart every time I see another human being reduced to weeping or screaming through their days and languishing in their own filth at night. Those who are lucky to snatch a few hours of actual slumber, that is. Quality sleep is a rare commodity in Hell. You break my heart when I see those people and know that you offer me no way to help them — in fact, quite the opposite. You have created a system that actively impedes people from helping their neighbors.

Long past the blame game

With apologies to Leo Tolstoy, these days America’s broken cities all are broken in the pretty much same way. Overrun with political hysteria, teeming with politicians professing obsession with centuries-old transgressions that haven’t been relevant to actual human beings in decades, while pursuing policies that create the very harm they claim to remedy. They and their cronies come into office trailing the odor of campus politics and the paranoia, secrecy, expedience, and corruption that stain the modern political class. Cities awash in dubious and flat-out illegal campaign money that flows from quite literally every corner of the country and globe through a system no one even dimly comprehends. Entire ecosystems of overfunded, ineffectual, and self-dealing “nonprofits” like PATH, SPY, St. Joseph Center, Homeboy Industries, and the rest. Government bureaucracies with org charts like MC Escher sketches, populated by self-interested, unaccountable employees whose sole interests are keeping their jobs and protecting their pensions.

Those are the ingredients, these are the inevitable results:

Officially, more than 1,300 homeless people died in L.A. last year, an increase of some 30% over just two years earlier. The real number, like the actual number of homeless overall in the city, is several times higher. Based on the fatally flawed annual point in time (“PIT”) Count the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority reports there were 41,290 homeless people in the city, and 66,590 in the county. Those are the kind of too-precise government numbers that obscure a far more horrifying reality. According to the Los Angeles Unified School District, as many as 75,000 children experience homelessness every year.

Let that number sink in a minute: 75,000 homeless children in Los Angeles. If you can read that sentence and not taste blood, you and I do not occupy the same place in reality. If you can imagine the tens of thousands more children in this city living in marginal conditions and abusive households, experiencing food insecurity, walking with their heads on swivels in their own neighborhoods, and not want to roast Mayor Eric Garcetti’s political career on a white hot spit, I no longer understand you as a human being. What is it going to take?

Let that number sink in a minute: 75,000 homeless children in Los Angeles.

At this point we all know the responsible parties — just re-read the first part of this essay. We know that the people we have elected are nothing more than career politicians for whom talking points and hashtags are more real than reality, a majority of whom have never held real jobs in their lives. In other words, parasites. We all know that illegal encampments in public spaces, which have engulfed virtually every corner of the city, are a profound, historic societal failure. And we all know how we got here, or should.

Which is when the heartbreak begins metastasizing into something else, something darker: Rage.

Which is when heartbreak begins metastasizing into something else, something darker: Rage. Because the thing is, it no longer matters whose fault it is. We are too far down the rabbit hole, conditions on the streets have deteriorated to post-apocalyptic mayhem. It’s no longer a matter of assigning blame, it’s a matter of dismantling those people and the bureaucracies, and replacing them with a new generation of — dare we say it? Actual leaders.

The frightening thing to consider: Looking at how bad things have gotten, and no one has yet risen to the challenge. When did we Angelenos become so meek?

Worse than the Third World

Calling L.A. a Third World city these days is an insult to many Third World cities. I’ve traveled fairly extensively in developing countries. Nothing I saw over the years in places like Nepal, Morocco, Indonesia, Tanzania, or Xinjiang Province, China prepared me for what I encounter quite literally on a daily basis in the richest city in the richest state in the richest nation in human history. I use that phrase often, for the simple reason that it can’t be emphasized enough.

Look at the picture below. It’s a still from a resident’s security camera in Venice Beach in 2018. Taken at 1am, a naked toddler holds on to a wrought iron fence to stand up while her mother lays next to her in a drug-induced stupor. This is Venice, the place that gave the world The Doors and Gold’s Gym, where God alone knows how many thousands of movies and TV shows have reflected, refracted, and amplified the beach as one of the most free spirited, open-minded places on earth. And it’s home to scenes that you would expect to see in places like Port-au-Prince on late night infomercials from Children International.

Calling L.A. a Third World city these days is an insult to many Third World cities.

Look at the pic, then look at the IRS filing from one of the organizations that’s “fighting homelessness.” For $40 million a year they can’t so much as ensure that homeless babies have someplace to live. That’s not hyperbole or melodrama: Organizations like St. Joseph Center are predatory, seeking out the weakest and most vulnerable in our society the way carrion beetles seek decaying flesh. In the midst of the COVID pandemic they enjoyed an $11 million year on year funding increase, good for nearly a 30% boost at a time when thousands of real businesses were dying.

Actually, that’s unfair to carrion beetles, who serve an essential purpose in the circle of life. There’s something hideous about what the homeless nonprofits do: They conduct “outreach” in encampments and on the streets, usually going wherever the local councilmember directs them to go. They log people’s identities and whatever information they can extract, then toss those helpless souls into the maw of the machine, the Homeless Industrial Complex that views them not as human beings in desperate need of a simple helping hand but as “clients.” Chits to be logged into intake software and tallied on spreadsheets, then agglomerated into funding requests when the season comes. They do it by the hundreds of thousands.

It is, in a word, fucking monstrous. And, fellow Angelenos, clearly you are just fine with it.

It is, in a word, fucking monstrous. And, fellow Angelenos, clearly you are just fine with it.

I know this, because you’re not doing anything about it. I know as much because you keep voting for the same people. You may give your annual charitable contributions (probably to the very nodes on the complex that perpetuate the misery, but I digress) and go about life. Maybe you volunteer for a couple of hours at a soup kitchen from time to time.

It isn’t enough. Nothing you have done, or are doing, is enough. Unless you are one of the vanishingly few who have dedicated your time to your community and your city, you are not doing enough. And even if you have dedicated that kind of time, it still is not enough. Were it not so, but it is.

At the end of the masterful miniseries Chernobyl, Dr. Valery Legosov tells Dr. Ulana Khomyuk, “I went willingly to an open reactor. I’ve already given my life. Isn’t that enough?” To which Khomyuk replies, “No. I’m sorry, but it is not.”

We are at the same precipice today, we in the City of Angels. The reactor core is open, spewing poison everywhere. Like radioactive fallout the political poison is itself invisible, though its effects quickly, hideously manifest. The difference is radiation poisoning kills in days or weeks, while the Complex tortures people for years and decades. Meanwhile every hour of every day we are all in mortal danger, whether we realize it or not, starting with the most vulnerable among us. The body count already is in the tens of thousands, and it grows — every hour of every day.

The only remaining question, then, the only one left for a sane person to ask, is what each of us is prepared to do about it.

Very truly yours,

Christopher D. LeGras

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We need to stop using the term “homeless crisis.” It’s wrong, it’s not backed up by the data, and it leads to bad policy

Homelessness is a symptom, not a cause — As long as we keep treating symptoms we’ll never cure the underlying maladies — The real crises are addiction, mental illness, and lack of opportunities — But for the Homeless Industrial Complex cures are less profitable than “services” and “treatments” that keep people half alive, helpless, and dependent

Part 1: Paul’s story

In the summer of 2017 a homeless man took up sporadic residence in front of my building in Santa Monica. Let’s call him Paul. Several days a week around the same time in the early evening, Paul had what I came to think of as his “6pm meltdown.” He would stand on the sidewalk screaming horrific things at top volume. He was particularly fond of the n-word, which is bad enough in any situation but particularly awful considering my neighbors are a Black family with two young children. There wasn’t enough soundproofing in the Southland to smother Paul’s eruptions, so after the second or third instance I confronted him (should things have gone sideways I figured I had less to lose than parents of two young children). It was tense, as people experiencing psychotic episodes can turn violent, but thankfully the encounter was enough to discourage him from using our block as his forum.

Afterward I saw him around town from time to time. When he wasn’t enduring an episode he was a nice enough guy. An artist from Michigan, he said he had a good family but his mental illness reached a point that, “they just couldn’t handle it anymore.” He decided on California because “it’s the easiest place in the world to live like this.” He loved the fact that he could spend one day on the beach, the next in the park, and the day after that exploring downtown L.A. via transit. We had conversations about the creative life. He liked my dogs and they wagged their tails when they saw him – confirmation that he was a decent human being. A decent human being wracked by the demons that mental illness and addiction unleash, demons that led him to a long list of crimes, many of them violent.

A supportive new home – or a barren jail cell?

On the morning of Thanksgiving 2019 I bumped into Paul at the grocery store. He looked different, with a fresh haircut, new shoes, and a nice clean set of clothes (he was never particularly dirty, but I’d never seen him quite so put together). His eyes lit up when he saw me. “Chris!” he exclaimed. “I got an apartment!”

He threw his arms around me, and invited me to see his new digs. I was genuinely happy for him. What had begun as an ugly confrontation six months earlier had resolved in the best way possible, and during the holidays to boot. Housing, goes the prevailing wisdom, is the first essential step toward escaping homelessness and recovering some semblance of life. It makes sense: The best way to solve homelessness is to give people, well, homes.

I visited Paul the following week at Step Up on Second, one of many nonprofits that have sprung up over the last decade to provide housing and services to homeless people. Step Up owns an apartment building in downtown Santa Monica that provides permanent supportive housing to approximately 50 people. Residents, also called “clients,” receive an apartment and a food stipend and are offered services. Indeed the entire concept of permanent supportive housing rests on the availability of “wrap around” services, ranging from substance abuse treatment to talk therapy, group therapy, job assistance, even help navigating L.A.’s Byzantine social services network. Those services are the critical epoxy that holds the system together: Get people indoors and immediately address their underlying issues.

At least, that’s the theory. I visited Paul on a Wednesday afternoon. The Step Up on Second building is, as its name suggests, on Second Street in the heart of Santa Monica. On one side is a luxury apartment development, and other other are a trendy restaurant and bar. Across the street are two salons where you can get $80 Brazilian blow-outs, and Equinox gym, and law offices. In short, Sept Up on Second is in a seriously high rent district. You’d expect it to be a model of top notch professional care and services. You would be disappointed, just like I was.

I wasn’t exactly expecting Promises at Malibu, the infamous $80,000+ a month luxury detox resort to the one percent. I expected a bare modicum of resources and support available to society’s most vulnerable. The first thing I noticed was the absence of anyone at the door. I punched Paul’s number into the callbox and he buzzed me in. There was no attendant in the lobby, no one to check me in or out or even note my presence. I could have been carrying a backpack full of drugs, weapons, any sort of contraband into the facility and it would have gone unnoticed. I took the elevator up to the fourth floor, and walking to Paul’s apartment passed an individual I recognized from the streets, a man who spent his days hanging out, and often passing out, in front of the local 7-11. A jetstream of stale whiskey followed in his wake. So much for sober living.

All too often, “permanent supportive housing” is not supportive, rarely permanent, and barely qualifies as housing

Paul’s room was reminiscent of a county jail cell, albeit one with a galley kitchen and half bathroom. By “half bathroom” I mean a toilet and standing shower were directly adjacent the kitchen, with a curtain that you pulled around it for, oh, let’s call it privacy. There was a mini fridge, hot pot, and microwave (“they don’t want people here to have access to fire or gas,” Paul told me, explaining the absence of a stove top and oven). The walls were stark white, not so much as a Motel 6 style print to break up the monotony. Paul had taped a few of his own pencil sketches to the walls as decor, which somehow only accentuated the bleakness.

The worst part was that the only window was a small slit in the top corner, literally like a jail cell, and it looked out onto the rooftop deck of a restaurant and bar next door. Paul, an alcoholic who downed an entire six pack in the hour I visited, described how hard it was to fall asleep on weekend nights because of the noise.

My immediate thought was this was the kind of place you would put a homeless person if you wanted to drive them even more insane, to break them. What kind of monsters house a homeless schizophrenic alcoholic in a room overlooking a bar? Here was a man trying to recover some semblance of life, forced to live alone in a box and listen to people party and drink five nights a week. It would drive nearly anyone out of their minds. It reminded me of A Clockwork Orange’s Ludovico technique, when the main character Alex is forced to watch hours of ultraviolence in order to cure his ultraviolence.

The Homeless Industrial Complex’s approach to “treatment.”

For that matter, what perverse city licensing process approved a bar next door to a homeless recovery facility in the first place? It was almost as if they were trying to torture him. Paul said that while Step Up offered “some services” they weren’t mandatory and he had not availed himself. I can’t say that I blamed him – who wants to subject themselves to do-gooder social workers of the sorts who work for places like Step Up on Second? Even a schizophrenic knows better.

Ultimately, the end of Paul’s story was as sad as it was inevitable. He lasted less than four months at Step Up. In February I saw his picture in the crime section of the Santa Monica Daily Press. He had assaulted a woman on the street in broad daylight and was being held on $20,000 bail. The paper didn’t provide details but details aren’t necessary. He lost his apartment, and I have not seen him since. Wherever he is today I fervently hope he is finally getting the treatment and services he so desperately needs. Maybe he made it back to his family in Michigan and maybe they found a way to reconcile. I’d like to think so.

Part 2. Paul’s story is the story of homelessness in Los Angeles

Homeless activists say there are a million paths to homelessness. They’re absolutely right. Why do they insist there’s only one path out?

Paul is not a “homeless man.” Paul is an extremely sick person whose multiple illnesses ultimately resulted in a life of crime and homelessness. That’s not semantics or spin. Those are two fundamentally different paradigms that demand fundamentally different solutions. It isn’t abstract Algebra: A mental health and addiction crisis simply requires different resources than a homeless crisis. A homeless crisis can (in theory) be addressed by building long-term, permanent homes. In contrast, mentally ill and addicted people need immediate triage, regardless of what shape the roof over their head happens to take at the time. Waiting for tends of thousands of apartments that cost between half and three quarters of a million dollars to become available is like trying to solve California’s energy crisis by banking on cold fusion.

This is what the “housing first” model produces: The Missouri Place development in West L.A. received $40 million in public funding. “Low income” units will be offered to individuals making up to $70,000 a year.

Paul is an object lesson in the limitations of the “housing first” approach to homelessness. More than half of L.A.’s street homeless population suffer from mental illness, and half suffer from addiction. What’s more, it’s well-documented that just living on the street causes enough anxiety and stress to break people down emotionally. It’s safe to conclude that the vast majority of the people on the streets cannot care for themselves. A cell-like apartment won’t change that underlying fact.

Make no mistake: The only people benefiting from the “build, baby, build” approach are developers, nonprofits, lawyers, and bureaucrats. Just putting a roof over someone’s head accomplishes little to nothing. Indeed, as Paul’s case illustrates in many cases “permanent supportive housing” options are as bad or worse than living on the street. The longer an individual lives on the street the more difficult it is for them to re-acclimate to living indoors. Imagine how your far the average person’s mind has to stretch to adapt to life on the street in the first place. It’s delusional to believe a switch can be flipped just because they’re back indoors.

Paul is not an outlier, not by a sight. If anything he is the archetype of the modern Angeleno homeless person: From out of state, suffering from multiple mental illnesses exacerbated by addiction. He is often delusional, frequently violent, occasionally dangerous. He long ago lost the ability to live on his own, much less for an extended period. He is for all intents and purposes unemployable. Sticking him in a box with a roof didn’t help him one bit.

The lack of anything resembling home decoration in Paul’s apartment is what poker players might call a tell. For a couple hundred bucks they could have at least hung a couple of calming nature prints, maybe a Monet haystack. Apparently that’s a financial bridge too far for an organization whose CEO made nearly $350,000 in 2019. Two hundred dollars to marginally improve a vulnerable person’s mental state was beyond the reach of an outfit that took in $22 million in government funding last year. Another tell: $14.5 million of that $22 million went to officer, board, and staff salaries, with another $1.7 going to lawyers and other professional services. In fact, accounting for all expenditures on staff including travel and transportation, office space, supplies, Step Up spends the vast majority of its revenue taking care of officers and staff.

If the “housing first” approach is a failure, a lot of people are going to have to find new jobs

People increasingly talk about the Homeless Industrial Complex, and it is very real. It’s an unholy alliance of parasitic nonprofits, faceless bureaucrats, and grasping politicians. Put differently, it’s quite possibly the worst combination of resources to solve the problem. As a local business owner in Venice told the UK Telegraph, “The people camped out front my store are not looking for housing, they are looking for drugs and have made this place their permanent home. They sit out on lounge chairs during the day and ask people for a dollar so they can buy crack. These people are in need of help, help to overcome their addictions and help with learning basic life skills. You can’t just put street people in a home and think that’s it, that’s the answer.” Yet that is exactly what L.A.’s political class has spent some $3 billion of the people’s money doing.

Unless and until we wake up and start treating the underlying causes of homelessness, developers will keep getting richer, politicians will amass more power, and everyday folks will continue to suffer – both housed and unhoused.

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EXCLUSIVE: Los Angeles councilman to propose using federal coronavirus relief funds to purchase foreclosed properties for the homeless

Councilman Mike Bonin’s idea would swap one homeless population for another while doing nothing to address the underlying crisis

Mr. Bonin and his husband own two houses.

Los Angeles city councilman Mike Bonin stunned constituents on Saturday when he announced that he intends to introduce legislation ordering the city to explore using federal coronavirus relief funds to purchase distressed properties and give them to homeless people. While he was silent on details – such as which city agency would be responsible for what would amount to the largest exercise of eminent domain in history or the legal basis for redirecting desperately needed federal dollars – his announcement sent chills through his west Los Angeles district.

According to the councilman, who along with his husband owns two houses, targeted properties would include homes as well as hotels (the All Aspect Report has the exclusive audio of Mr. Bonin’s announcement):

I intend on putting in another proposal in the next week or two that asks the city to look at the federal bailout or stimulus funds we’ll be getting as a result of this crisis…and using some of that to either buy hotels that go belly up or to buy the distressed properties that are absolutely going to be on the market at cheaper prices after this crisis is over. And use that as homeless and affordable housing. It’s going to be a hell of a lot cheaper to purchase stuff that is already there and move people in there than if we start from scratch. A lot of good stuff is being done.

Los Angeles city councilman Mike Bonin

The cynicism of Mr. Bonin’s proposal is exceeded only by its hypocrisy: Along with most of California’s political class he has claimed for years that the only solution to L.A.’s homeless crisis is, to coin a phrase, “build, baby, build.” Saturday’s proposal effectively admits that approach has failed, as anyone paying the slightest attention has long recognized. The problem is that he wants to replace a failed policy with a catastrophically destructive one.

Mr. Bonin’s constituents by now are well aware of the damage he can cause when he sets his mind to it. From business-killing “road diets” to neighborhood-destroying homeless shelters he long ago lost the confidence of many, if not most of the people in his district. Even his firewall of wealthy benefactors in places like Brentwood are questioning his motives and competence. He is as responsible as anyone for the homeless crisis ravaging the westside and has turned a blind eye to the rampant criminality consuming neighborhoods including Venice, Mar Vista, Brentwood, Marina del Rey, Del Rey, Westchester, and elsewhere. His office has all but stopped responding to constituents’ concerns and these days he only appears publicly in carefully stage-managed events flanked by reliable city bureaucrats and his own lackeys.

Having failed his constituents and communities for the better part of a decade he now wants to exploit Angelenos being devastated by the coronavirus shut down. He would give homes for which they worked and saved for years or decades over to the homeless, the majority of whom are unstable, often violent addicts who come to Los Angeles because it’s the best place in the country to live the lifestyle they’ve chosen (the protestations of Mr. Bonin and his fellow travelers aside, the majority of hardcore homeless are not struggling families or blameless working class people evicted from their homes – people who want shelter and services in Los Angeles find them).

It is unprecedented for a public servant to propose using the people’s own money to buy their homes at a discount in the midst of a crisis. Moreover, the fact that people who lose their homes to foreclosure would by definition become homeless themselves seems lost on Mr. Bonin. His idea amounts to poverty musical chairs. It would do nothing to solve the city’s homeless crisis, and almost certainly would make it worse. It would also be another huge step in the hollowing out of the California middle class.

Mr. Bonin and other self-proclaimed progressives on city council claim to care about the poor. Yet the first people to be evicted will be those who are barely hanging on as it is. Those foreclosed properties he wants to buy for a song would be the homes of hardworking Angelenos, many of them people of color. Meanwhile, Mr. Bonin himself continues collecting his $285,000 a year taxpayer funded paycheck. He doesn’t have to worry about losing his home(s).

Mr. Bonin could have proposed a mortgage assistance plan that actually would help struggling Angelenos stay in their homes (and which would be considerably cheaper than purchasing properties, even at foreclosure discounts). He finally could have proposed using the federal funds to establish rapid deployment emergency shelters, as many have been urging for years.

Instead, while millions of tax paying, law abiding Angelenos face financial ruin as a result of the now two month long government shutdown, Mr. Bonin – a man who has never run a business or been responsible for a payroll – casually refers to hotels going “belly up.” He sounded positively giddy at the possibility of the city using taxpayer money to snap up people’s homes, which he says will be available on the cheap.

Never let a crisis go to waste, indeed.

The failure of L.A.’s elected officials to solve the homeless crisis is well-documented, and some of the largest encampments in the city are in Mr. Bonin’s district. Despite years of pleas from his constituents the councilman has done virtually nothing to tackle the crisis. Indeed, even some of the homeless themselves have castigated Mr. Bonin for his incompetence. A man living in a small homeless camp near the Mar Vista post office who identified himself as “Hippie” told The All Aspect report late last year that, “I’ve heard him talk, but I never see anything happen.”

Mike Bonin long ago proved he is not worthy of the office he holds. He is a pawn of big developers and a tool of the homeless industrial complex. This latest proposal proves once and for all that he could care less about the hardworking Angelenos he is supposed to represent.

It’s a shameful moment for the city of Los Angeles.