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.
For politicians this isn’t a national emergency, but “a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.”
One of the greatest aspects of the United States of America is the way in which the country’s political class, for all their sins and flaws, rises to the moment when it really matters. Our national tapestry is woven with moments such as Congress gathering on the steps of the Capital and singing “God Bless America” the afternoon after 9/11. We remember Ronald Reagan standing before the Brandenburg Gate imploring Soviet Premiere Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” and the confidence people had in JFK and his team of the best and the brightest during the terrifying days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. We remember Dwight Eisenhower defying members of his own party as well as the blue dog Democrats by sending the National Guard to Little Rock to enforce the Supreme Court’s desegregation order in Brown v. Board of Education. For all our collective national malefactions over the years these are the moments that have forged the American spirit in the modern era.
All of which is why it has been saddening to witness today’s political class respond to the existential threat of the coronavirus pandemic. Rather than unifying in the face of an invisible enemy that kills regardless of party or faction, they have devolved into bouts of petty partisanship that would be unbecoming in normal times. Normal times these are not, and their failure risks becoming our nation’s failure. [UPDATE: On Friday, March 27 Congress passed a $2 trillion emergency stimulus package. The partisan bickering continued through the floor vote itself. It will be a long time before Americans know the full scope of the bill’s provisions.]
Instead of standing together and showing America and the world that they are worthy of the moment, over the past week members of Congress repeatedly have taken their toys and gone to their corners. As the stock market and economy careened toward recession and obliterated the financial security of 330 million Americans, members of the United States Senate, who call their institution the Greatest Deliberative Body in History, spent a week bickering over whether or not to bail out the post office.
At a moment when Americans need leadership, vision, and reassurance they were instead treated to the spectacle of Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer spitting invective at each other across a split screen. Bernie Sanders, who has convinced millions that he’s a viable choice for President, skipped a vote on Sunday to host a virtual town hall from his basement with a neophyte legislator from Brooklyn. This is the man who last week snipped at a reporter that he was busy dealing with a “f***ing global crisis” and doing his “best to make sure that we don’t have an economic meltdown and that people don’t die.” Apparently his best doesn’t include showing up to vote, at least not when there’s a quixotic presidential campaign to attend to.
Both parties are showing Americans that they are incapable of setting aside ideology. Republicans want to hand out extra billions to industries that don’t need it, while Democrats have gone full Green New Deal and P.C. Neither set of demands have anything remotely to do with coronavirus. If the Senate is able to compromise and pass a bill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi won’t guarantee her chamber will so much as bring the bill for a vote.
In the most jaw-dropping display of cynicism to date, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) told reporters on Monday that the crisis is “a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.” Not an opportunity to help Americans, rescue the economy, or save lives, but to achieve partisan ideological goals. While Mr. Clyburn is a Democrat it’s safe to assume many Republicans feel the same way.
It’s important – nay, essential – to keep in mind that the 535 members of the United States Congress, along with their thousands-strong army of staffers, advisors, lawyers, and consultants, are among the few Americans who don’t have to worry about missing paychecks, losing their jobs, or being evicted from their homes during this crisis. They’ll be just fine. In fact, with a $2 trillion stimulus bill in the works their cups runneth over. The few of them who’ve contracted the virus will receive world-class medical care while millions of their fellow citizens wait for basic testing kits to reach their communities.
It is also essential to recognize that, a few scofflaws aside, the vast majority of Americans are comporting themselves with more seriousness, not to mention dignity and community, than their elected representatives. The news waves and social media are chock a block with acts of kindness: A small dental company in Oklahoma donated desperately needed medical supplies to a medical clinic. A barbecue join in Phoenix, Arizona brought hot meals to exhausted staff at a local hospital. Teachers in Indiana formed a car parade to visit their students and uplift everyone’s spirits. The Dropkick Murphys, Boston’s most beloved band, streamed a free concert for 150,000 people on St. Patrick’s Day.
At the same time millions of health care workers, first responders, delivery drivers, grocery store workers, volunteers, journalists, and community leaders are placing their own health at risk to do their jobs and serve their communities during the crisis. The average clerk at Ralph’s has shown far more moxie, courage, and generosity than the entire political class.
While Americans display their best impulses, the political class cannot rise above their worst.
It’s no better at the state or local level. Here in Los Angeles coronavirus has revealed in stark relief the fecklessness of Mayor Garcetti’s and the City Council’s approach to homelessness. More than a month into the crisis, while four million Angelenos (with the exception of a few idiots) self-quarantine and shelter in place, tens of thousands of homeless people, addicts, and lunatics wander the streets at all hours of the days and nights. They convene, as usual, in close proximity in desperately filthy encampments. They share food and drink, clothing, and hypodermic needles. At this point it’s all but certain that the disease will cut through their numbers like a scythe through dry wheat.
At the Mayor’s behest last week council belatedly passed a series of measures aimed at sheltering the homeless in city recreation facilities as well as hotels and motels. Their actions comprise not a coherent strategy so much as a series of impulsive reflexes. The belated plan to cram thousands of people into close quarters also conflicts with guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control. At the same time the city has deployed hundreds of porta-potties and hand washing stations in homeless encampments, which units are serviced by blue collar workers who aren’t provided with even rudimentary protective gear.
As of this writing there’s been no visible change in the conditions on the streets. Reports from some communities, including Venice Beach, confirm that homeless populations actually are increasing, not decreasing. One neighbor told The All Aspect Report that she and her husband can “hear the hacking” from people on the street in front of their home. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Chronicle reported over the weekend that that city’s leadership is “preparing” to make shelters safer.
Governor Gavin Newsom has fared somewhat better, though like so many other members of the political class he’s shown a lack of creative problem-solving. Mostly he’s holding long, meandering press conferences as is his wont, though he’s refrained from overt partisanship. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo seems to believe that part of his job is to post as many videos as he can of his celebrity friends telling Americans what to do (Note to the Governor: Most Americans reflexively do the opposite of whatever Alec Baldwin says).
When the story of this crisis is written, the coda may well be the beginning of the end of America’s two legacy parties. If this is the best they can do in the face of a life and death crisis that threatens the lives and livelihoods of 330 million people, they do not deserve to lead. For the last three and a half years they’ve treated the country to the worst forms of partisanship, all too often comporting themselves like entitled, self-involved children. The GOP has enabled and encouraged Donald Trump’s most egregious conduct, while the Democrats all but abandoned any semblance of effective governance in an all-out, at all costs campaign to destroy him.
They could have seized this moment, as those who came before them, to rise above that perpetual, exhausting fray to deliver leadership and reassurance. They could have shown Americans they are capable of setting aside personal vitriol and political vendettas. They could have behaved like adults, like leaders.
Their failure must not be forgotten nor forgiven. When this is all over, there must be a reckoning, and Americans must hold the political class to account for its failures. The next crisis may not be so gentle with us.
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.
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.
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.”
Less than a week after Councilwoman Nury Martinez announced a third cleanup in Lake Balboa Park in as many months, piles of garbage remained and homeless people were returning to illegal campsites
Part Two of an occasional series
The man’s voice screamed from a dense grove of willow trees on the west bank of Bull Creek in Lake Balboa Park on Sunday afternoon: “Who the f*** is there? Who the f*** is it? My dog will f*****g kill you!”
As if to confirm the threat, with the man’s encouragement a dog started barking and snarling. Suffice it to say no one in their right mind would have ventured any further. It was one of countless places in the park that remained unsafe for anyone but the homeless who continue to live in illegal encampments despite multiple city cleanups and official promises to clear them once and for all.
Councilwoman Nury Martinez launched the latest effort last Wednesday. Gathered with select members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s and Police Departments she told reporters, “Today is part of an extensive cleanup on city of Los Angeles-leased property at the Sepulveda Basin that began in August and will continue until completed. The city has a duty to ensure that park hours are enforced and the Basin remains safe and accessible to all visitors.”
“Extensive” is a relative concept. Even where city workers had cleared campsites they’d left huge amounts of refuse. Indeed, garbage was everywhere, including piles of flammable clothing, wood, and electronic equipment. The stench of excrement hung heavy in the air. In places it was nearly suffocating. The water in Bull Creek was fetid.
Moreover, less than five days after the cleanup the homeless were reclaiming much of the space for themselves. Patricia Wilcox, 28, of Mesa, Arizona, said that she and her partner stayed on nearby streets for a few nights, and had returned to their old campsite on Saturday.
Many campsites appeared to have escaped attention altogether, including subterranean dwellings near the creek reminiscent of Viet Cong bunkers. There was a sense of defiance: Boomboxes blared music and the sounds of building echoed through the undergrowth and along the creek bed itself: Hammering, sawing, even power tools. People were carving new campsites into the undergrowth bare feet from the parking lot and from a hill where children rode bicycles and scooters. People unloaded everything from tents and cooking gear to furniture and electronic equipment – all of it almost certainly stolen – from dilapidated cars, vans, and campers.
In short, despite the Councilwoman’s rhetoric and the city’s activity, resources, and promises Lake Balboa continues to be a dangerous place. Indeed, if the last two days are any indication the park has become even more perilous since the cleanups, as if the homeless have circled the wagons.
When we visited in late July after a fire in another part of the park, the camp’s inhabitants were friendly if suspicious. We spoke with many of them, and a couple provided contact information. One even gave a cell number. They spoke openly of their lives in the camp. There were sentries, but they kept their distance and nodded in acknowledgement as we passed.
Not this time. On Sunday, an air of menace permeated the park. In addition to the man with his pit bull, sentries on stolen bicycles kept vigil over strangers, making no secret of their presence. At one point one of them said loudly to another camp inhabitant, “I’m following this motherf***r who’s taking pictures.” This is what has become of too many public spaces in Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, there is nothing unique about the city’s failure to clear out Lake Balboa Park. Two weeks ago the all aspect report exposed homeless fire dangers in a half dozen communities – all places where members of the City Council and other officials have promised action.
It’s almost as if L.A.’s political class doesn’t want to end the homeless crisis at all.
Utilities bear the brunt of politicians’ blame, but homeless activity causes many more blazes
Part One of an occasional series
Angelenos have awakened every day this week to pillars of smoke from wildfires. As of this writing the Getty Fire, which started early Monday morning in the Sepulveda Pass, has burned nearly 700 acres, destroyed at least eight homes, and forced thousands of people to evacuate. Also on Monday firefighters extinguished a small homeless fire in Calabasas, and battled three structure fires in empty buildings in downtown L.A. likewise attributable to homeless activity. On Wednesday morning residents in the San Fernando Valley woke to their own latest conflagration, the Easy Fire in Simi Valley. Early reports suggest that fire began in an illegal encampment. And this morning it was San Bernadino’s turn. In all there are at least seven active fires in southern California, part of a grim new annual tradition throughout the state. It’s just another week in Paradise.
Over the last two years much attention has (rightly) been focused on the role of utilities in starting wildfires. According to a Los Angeles Times analysis utilities were responsible for at least 2,000 fires between 2015 and 2018. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) in northern California is by far the worst offender. For years its management – with deep ties to the administrations of Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom – operated with virtually no oversight as its executives prioritized their own compensation and shareholder returns over public safety.
Nevertheless, the number of fires triggered by failed or damaged utility equipment pales in comparison to the number started by homeless activity. A recent analysis by NBC L.A. found that in 2018 alone there were more than 2,300 fires attributable to homeless activity in Los Angeles County.
For those of you keeping score at home, that’s 2,000 fires statewide in three and a half years caused by utilities, versus 2,300 in a single county in a single year caused by homeless activity. Neither Mayor Eric Garcetti nor the City Council have expressed the degree of concern, much less urgent action, the crisis demands. In fact they have been virtually silent on the issue.
It’s time to hold them accountable.
Over the last several weeks, the all aspect report has been compiling pictures and stories from around Los Angeles that demonstrate the terrifying extent of the fire dangers posed by the city’s burgeoning homeless population. From electric generators and cook fires to the use and manufacture of illegal narcotics, the homeless crisis poses a mortal threat to Angelenos every minute of every day. Until now, however, the true extent has remained somewhat elusive. Scroll down to see pictures and stories, and check back with the all aspect report often as we continue to add to the journal.
CD7: Monica Rodriguez refuses to order clearing of dangerous illegal encampments
Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez, whose district includes some of the highest fire hazard zones in the city, is the daughter of a retired LAFD firefighter. She emphasized her father’s bravery during her council run, filling her campaign materials with firefighting imagery, including pictures of herself as a little girl at her father’s station. She currently chairs the city council’s public safety committee.
Strange, then, that she has done virtually nothing to secure her district, which includes some of the city’s highest fire hazard zones, from wildfire threats posed by the homeless. Despite three catastrophic fires in the last three years (Creek, La Tuna, and Saddleridge) scores of illegal encampments remain throughout CD7, from Sylmar’s horse country to the eastern sections of Griffith Park in Glendale. Brush fires are not just a daily fact of life in Rodriguez’s district: They happen multiple times every day. Residents of Sylmar, Pacoima, Shadow Hills, Lake View Terrace, Sunland-Tujunga, and elsewhere live in fear virtually year round. Homeless encampments have sprung up in drainage ditches, ravines, mountains, and canyons. Nowhere seemingly is safe. Councilwoman Rodriguez’s much-ballyhooed homeless cleanups have come to naught.
Two weeks ago, while hotspots still smoldered in the aftermath of the Saddleridge Fire in Sylmar, the all aspect report visited the burn zone. The charred remains of homeless camps littered the hillsides above the Stetson Ranch Equestrian Park. There were numerous cook stoves of various types, scores of propane and butane bottles, batteries, electronics, and aerosol bottles. Many of the pressurized bottles had exploded, suggesting extreme dangers for firefighters. Which is not mere speculation: Exploding propane tanks were documented during bothfires in the Sepulveda Basin.
The gallery below is a small sampling of the images from the fire area (Photographs by Christopher LeGras and Lydia Grant).
Officially the Saddleridge Fire is being attributed to a Southern California Edison transmission tower located on the eponymous hilltop. However, a wildfire expert who visited the site with the all aspect report said that charring, burn patterns, and other evidence strongly suggest the fire started in the canyon at or near the large homeless encampment pictured above. A spokesperson for the LAFD, after initially cooperating, stopped corresponding.
Regardless of whether the camp is responsible for the fire, tens of thousands of people and their homes remain in harm’s way thanks to Ms. Rodriguez’s inaction.
CD11: Mike Bonin walks away from fire dangers
The story repeats in council district after council district. Another prime offender is CD11 Councilman Mike Bonin. Two weeks ago he drew heavy criticism across the city after he was filmed standing idly by as a mentally disturbed homeless man played with a fire in a dry, grassy median in the Del Rey neighborhood. He stood over the man with his hands in his pockets for 30 seconds before turning and walking away without a word, even though there was an LAPD station less than 50 feet away on the other side of Culver Boulevard. After three days of silence, Mr. Bonin lashed out at his own constituents and residents, blaming the video on “right wing trolls” who “exploited” and “laughed at” the homeless man. The man was arrested two days later after a neighbor reported he was brandishing a large hunting knife.
The homeless danger continues to spread throughout Mr. Bonin’s district, and like Ms. Rodriguez he shows little appetite for tackling the problem in any realistic way. From decrepit RVs to sidewalk encampments to illegally occupied buildings, the danger increases literally on a daily basis.
The captain at a LAFD station in Mr. Bonin’s district, when asked how many fires in his area are attributable to homeless activity, replied, “All of them.” Interviewed at 5pm on a Sunday he said his crew had responded to eight just that day. “There are days we can barely keep up. Sometimes I feel like we’ve already lost the war.” His team echoed the sentiment.
Then again, with an armchair general like Mike Bonin in command it’s no wonder the rank and file feel abandoned.
CD6: Nury Martinez allows homeless to continue living in a park where they’ve already started at least two fires that threatened neighborhoods
After an illegal homeless encampment burned down in Lake Balboa Park in Nury Martinez’s district the all aspect report visited the area. It turned out the camp was just one of at least a half dozen scattered throughout the 80 acre recreational area. Electric cords zigzagged through dry undergrowth, past propane tanks, under garbage piles, and into dwellings. Gasoline generators chugged away. Some people had connected TVs and other devices in their tents to generators in RVs parked hundreds of yards away.
The city belatedly cleaned up the camp after it burned (though officials claimed the cleanup was scheduled before the fire broke out) but left the others untouched.
It was clear that the camps had been there for quite some time. Many of the people living there literally had dug in: Reinforced underground bunkers lined a long section of Bull Creek, which itself has been transformed into a fetid swamp by refuse and human waste. Walking through the encampment triggered a disconcerting frenzy of activity, as men on bicycles rode in constant circles around the area keeping an eye on a stranger. Barely five minutes elapsed between passes, which often were accompanied by intimidating stares. It was clear who ran the park, and it wasn’t the city.
The fire danger in the camps was omnipresent. At one camp a man named Roberto said, “We put out fires all the time, usually before the firefighters get here.” Inhabitants keep shovels and buckets handy, as well as hoses they can connect to public spigots. “There’s a fire every few days,” added Roberto, who asked that his last name not be used because he is in the country illegally. Confirming his statements, charred spots peppered the ground.
As in Rodriguez’s and Bonin’s districts these dangers are not secret, yet Ms. Martinez’s website is virtually silent on the issue. Ms. Martinez has publicly commented on them yet has failed to act beyond another half-hearted cleanup in late September that obviously failed to eliminate the danger: A fire broke out in the park last Thursday.
CD14: In Jose Huizar’s district, fires in RVs and abandoned buildings
During a recent tour of a LAFD station in Jose Huizar’s district, the captain pointed at one of the trucks. “We call this one the dumpster fire tender,” he said. “We get multiple calls every day to fires started by homeless folks. Cooking or heating fires easily jump to nearby fuel sources like trash cans and refuse piles. Inevitably, some spread to houses, apartments, and other buildings.” He would not go on the record because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the issue.
Another member of the crew invoked the Ghost Ship fire that claimed 36 lives in Oakland in 2016. Dozens of artists and squatters had converted a warehouse into a makeshift community. “We have a hundred potential Ghost Ships in our area,” said the firefighter, alluding to the epidemic of homeless people taking up residence in condemned buildings. “It’s incredibly easy for a trash fire to jump to a building. Fires seek fuel, and we have tons of it.”
Blazes routinely erupt in alleyways, buildings, and encampments in Mr. Huizar’s district. In July, an immigrant family of five lost their home to a blaze that started in a dumpster in the alley behind it. A week later firefighters doused a fire that started at a homeless encampment in Skid Row. They were responding to reports of a trash fire in a large homeless encampment, according to Los Angeles Fire Department Captain Donn Thompson.
Again, the story is the same as in other districts: Residents and business owners routinely report encampments, often for months and years, to no avail. It’s only when a fire breaks out that they see any action.
Angelenos, like all Californians, have been asking themselves a singular question for the last two years. As the homeless crisis continues not only to spiral but accelerate, what is it going to take for officials to finally start acting with the sense of urgency – even desperation – the situation demands?
At least three people are perishing daily on the streets of Los Angeles, the richest city in the richest state in the richest nation in human history. Is that not enough? 2,300 homeless fires erupted in 2018. Is that not enough? Hundreds of Angelenos have lost homes, cars, and other property to homeless fires. Is that not enough? Tens of thousands of acres have burned, releasing enough CO2 and other greenhouse gases to wipe out the gains from California’s renewable energy push by an order of magnitude. Is that not enough?
Politicians constantly talk about the “new normal” of wildfires. In reality, the new normal is their own lack of competence in solving the crisis. Thanks to officials like Councilmembers Rodriguez, Bonin, Martinez, and Huizar, solutions are farther away than ever.
Buckle up, Los Angeles, the ride is only going to get worse.
Less thank a week after a homeless man died on the streets of his district, Mr. Bonin has settled on a strategy of doublespeak, obfuscation, and attack
MAR VISTA – There’s an old saying that the definition of chutzpah is the man who murders his parents then asks the court for sympathy because he’s an orphan. Today, Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin displayed his own version of chutzpah with a fundraising email in which he once again lashes out at his own constituents and other Angelenos for having the temerity to point out the failings of his stewardship.
Last week a video that captured him turning his back on a mentally ill homeless man who was starting a fire went viral. It exposed not just the reality of the ongoing homeless crisis in Los Angeles, but also the reality of the city’s elected officials and their response. It captured in 90 seconds what Angelenos have suspected for two years, that the people we elected to handle the crisis are out of their depth, lost, and increasingly inconsequential to the spiraling catastrophe they themselves created. The homeless man was arrested two days later for brandishing a large hunting knife and threatening passersby (LAPD case no. 191422115).
Mr. Bonin already responded to the negative publicity last week by attacking his own constituents. Through a spokesman (Mr. Bonin himself has yet to speak publicly on the issue) he told local blog Yo!Venice, “It is shameful that opponents of bridge housing in Venice have manipulated the incident and turned into a right-wing smear attack, aided by talk radio shock jocks and internet trolls.” On his personal Facebook page, Mr. Bonin redoubled his attacks, dismissing the concerned citizens who captured the videos as, “People who have filmed, photographed, mocked and sometimes taunted people living on the streets,” and called them trolls.
This is the same elected official who previously argued, “I can’t accept the idea that there is an inextricable link between crime and homelessness. It is wrong it is not backed up by the data, and it leads to bad policy.”
This morning’s email continues Mr. Bonin’s desperate efforts spin his way out of the inescapable facts captured in the videos, and the undeniable realities on the streets of his district. Using his own failures to try and raise money with a self-pitying email is Mr. Bonin’s ultimate act of chutzpah. He pleads for donations to help him fight reality – or rather, what he calls “an unprecedented onslaught of bizarre and baseless attacks.” Apparently three different videos capturing the same shameful scene, an elected official abandoning one of the most vulnerable members of society while that person endangers himself and his community, constitutes a “bizarre and baseless attack.”
Is it “bizarre and baseless” to assert that Councilman Bonin has all but lost control of the myriad problems and crises in his district, and that everyone is suffering every day as a result?
This week in CD11
The reality is that the carnage continued unabated in the week since the videos hit social media. There was crime, chaos, and death on the streets of Councilman Bonin’s West Los Angeles district, particularly in Venice Beach and Mar Vista. Mr. Bonin, too busy attacking average Angelenos and using his own failures to raise campaign money, has remained thus far remained silent on the issues that are threatening to destroy his councilship.
Last Friday night, three days after Mr. Bonin’s encounter on Culver Boulevard, a homeless individual died at a small encampment that has formed next to the Mar Vista Post Office on Venice Boulevard. According to people living in the camp Nicolas Newberry overdosed on heroin. There was dispute among camp inhabitants as to whether it was accidental or intentional, and the death remains under investigation with the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office.
In conversations with a number of those residents, however, there was no dispute that Councilman Bonin has been MIA as the crisis spirals. Newberry’s body was discovered nearly a week ago and yet there’s been nary a word from the councilman’s office. One would think that a tragic, avoidable death would elicit a response, that Mr. Bonin would acknowledge Newberry’s passing.
The camp’s inhabitants described Newberry as a generous, gregarious individual. They said he had begun transitioning from male to female. They described him as an inveterate jokester, and said that he had recently starting asking people to refer to him as “Tits.” Newberry’s death – which was not reported on the Citizen app – is another tragic example of the continuing downward spiral in Los Angeles’s Council District 11.
Mr. Bonin’s silence helps explain why several people at the encampment, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from the city, blamed Mr. Bonin for allowing the camp and dozens more like it to fester. “He’s lost control,” said one last night. The fact is that the very people Mr. Bonin constantly claims to be championing have come to view him as a central part of the problem (check back with the all aspect report for in-depth interviews with camp inhabitants about the changing dynamics of homelessness in L.A. as officials continue to lose control).
There were other violent incidents in Mar Vista and Venice last week. On Saturday, a man was stabbed on the Venice Boardwalk near Windward Avenue (LAPD case no. 191422302). According to crimemapping.com, there were fourteen car break-ins, six assaults (including four with a deadly weapon), six burglaries, five thefts, four stolen vehicles, and three robberies. And these are just the crimes that made it into the official system; the true number likely is substantially higher.
In response to the video and subsequent media coverage Mr. Bonin has lashed out at his constituents. Through a spokesman, he told local blog Yo!Venice, “It is shameful that opponents of bridge housing in Venice have manipulated the incident and turned into a right-wing smear attack, aided by talk radio shock jocks and internet trolls.” On his personal Facebook page, Mr. Bonin doubled down on his attacks, dismissing the concerned citizens who captured the videos as, “People who have filmed, photographed, mocked and sometimes taunted people living on the streets,” and dismissed them again as trolls.
This is the same elected official who previously argued, “I can’t accept the idea that there is an inextricable link between crime and homelessness. It is wrong it is not backed up by the data, and it leads to bad policy.”
There were other violent incidents in Mar Vista and Venice in the week after he tried downplaying the incident. On Saturday, a man was stabbed on the Venice Boardwalk near Windward Avenue (LAPD case no. 191422302). According to crimemapping.com, there were also:
15 car break-ins
6 assaults (including 4 with a deadly weapon)
4 stolen vehicles
These are the data from a single week in a small part of Mike Bonin’s district. And these are just the crimes that made it into the official system; the true number likely is substantially higher.
In light of this data, and people’s experiences on the streets of CD11, is it “bizarre and baseless” to suggest that Mike Bonin is out of his depth?
His actions this week raise the question: Does he even want this job?
On Tuesday evening some 30 people, including the editor of this blog, witnessed Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin approach a homeless man who had started a small fire on the corner of Centinela Avenue and Culver Boulevard. The encounter occurred during the councilman’s walking tour of planned changes to Centinela. He stood a couple of feet away and watched silently as the man poured accelerant onto the fire and even stuck his own hand in the flames. After less than thirty seconds Mr. Bonin turned around and walked away without doing anything. He even yelled at a staffer who’d stayed behind out of concern, telling him to get away.
None of these facts are in dispute. The entire encounter was caught on multiple cameras and scores of people have since told their version of the story, all of which have been consistent down to the details. The videos simply capture the scene, nothing more and nothing less. They justifiably went viral. Local radio stations and media picked up the newsworthy story. As of today the videos have been viewed some 20,000 times.
Mr. Bonin had several options in response. He could have taken accountability and acknowledged that he made a mistake, an error in judgment. He could have used the encounter as a learning experience and affirmed that situations like the one on Tuesday are unacceptable in any society, much less on the streets of the richest city in the richest state in the richest country in human history. He could have admitted the myriad shortcomings and failings of his and the City of Los Angeles’s homeless policies to date and promised to be open to creative new solutions. In the process, he could have turned the situation into a political advantage and perhaps won over some skeptics by finally taking a degree of accountability.
It comes as a surprise to few in his district that he did none of those things. Instead, after three full days of silence on the situation he went into full spin mode. He dispatched a staffer to give a quote to a friendly local publication in which he attacked the messengers as “right wing trolls” engaged in a “smear attack.” In the process, he smeared his own constituents for the sin of caring about the trajectory of their neighborhood, community, and city. In deflecting responsibility he turned on the very people he – allegedly – represents. It was a truly pathetic display.
Perhaps the worst part is that five days later Mr. Bonin himself hasn’t had the courage said a word. Instead he’s hidden behind friendly publications and staffers.
Dissecting Mr. Bonin’s dissembling
Here is Mr. Bonin’s spokeman’s statement:
“After the Councilmember became aware that a group of people were filming, mocking and making a spectacle of the obviously unwell man as the Councilmember attempted to speak with him, the Councilmember thought it best to de-escalate the situation and ask his staff to reach out to professionals immediately. Councilmember Bonin’s team connected with LAPD and service providers, who responded to the scene immediately and engaged the man shortly after the Councilmember’s first contact, ensuring the fire was extinguished and no threat to neighbors. Outreach professionals were able to connect with the man and he is already in the process of getting off the street.”
Every single sentence, virtually every single word, is a demonstrable lie.
Lie #1. “After the Councilmember became aware that a group of people were filming, mocking and making a spectacle of the obviously unwell man….” Not a single person mocked nor made a spectacle of the homeless man. People most assuredly mocked and made a spectacle of Mr. Bonin and his shameful response, which under the circumstances was completely justified.
Lie #2. “…as the Councilmember attempted to speak with him….” As the videos show, Mr. Bonin made no effort to speak with the homeless man. He stood silently and watched. Moreover, we have since learned that the homeless man speaks little to no English, so it’s difficult to imagine how the councilman could have communicated with him at all.
Lie #3. “…the Councilmember thought it best to de-escalate the situation….” The situation was not “escalating” in any sense of the word. People only started calling out to Mr. Bonin after he walked away, asking him what he was doing and if he thought it was acceptable for a homeless man to be playing with fire. If anything, Mr. Bonin’s failure to act amplified the situation.
Lie #4. “…and ask his staff to reach out to professionals immediately. Councilmember Bonin’s team connected with LAPD and service providers, who responded to the scene immediately and engaged the man shortly after the Councilmember’s first contact, ensuring the fire was extinguished and no threat to neighbors. Outreach professionals were able to connect with the man and he is already in the process of getting off the street.” This entire statement is false. At the scene Mr. Bonin appeared to yell at a staffer to get away from the homeless man, and he and his team walked away. Moreover, numerous residents visited the scene later that evening and the following day, and the man was still there along with his belongings. A full 24 hours later a resident found him and took a picture of him wielding an enormous hunting knife, Rambo-style.
Indeed, as that resident, Demetrios Mavromichalis, reported on news radio, it wasn’t until he himself went to a nearby police station that the man was finally arrested and taken into custody. There was no evidence – zero – of Mr. Bonin’s claimed outreach, much less of the man “in the process of getting off the street.”
If Mr. Bonin had done the right thing he could have scored a PR victory
Mr. Bonin’s constituents are asking many questions this week, one of which is, “Doesn’t the councilman realize that he could have come out of this situation with a moral and political win?” He could have suspended the Centinela “walk tour” and handled the situation at hand. In the process he would have demonstrated empathy both for the homeless man and the countless residents his behavior threatens. He could have shown leadership and reassured people that he really is the man for the task. Even after walking away, he could have highlighted the encounter on his web page and social media and made a priority of getting the man the help he obviously, desperately needs.
Instead, he went silent for three days until the videos, news, comments, and shares finally overwhelmed him. Then, at 6pm on Thursday evening, his Deputy Chief of Staff attempted damage control. On the councilman’s Facebook page he launched a fusillade against the councilman’s own constituents, accusing them of “exploiting” the situation and “mocking” the homeless man. It was as transparent as it was abhorrent, suggesting that people were berating an obviously distressed individual.
Which raises the question: Project much, Mr. Bonin? YOU are the one who showed a callous disregard for one of the most vulnerable members of our community. All the spin and dissembling won’t change that. The failure of your leadership was on full display this week, and you’re not going to lie your way out of it.
You were elected by barely 14% of the voting-age residents in your district (31,865 out of an adult population of 272,000). You have nothing approaching a mandate, yet you have conducted yourself like the West Side’s own carpetbagging tin pot dictator. The people who took the video, the people who have viewed, shared, and commented on it, are part of the 86% who didn’t vote for you. They are the ones you viciously slandered and attacked. It’s enough to make people wonder whether you really even want this job.
Enjoy the rest of your term while it lasts, Mr. Bonin. L.A. cannot get rid of you fast enough. The vast majority of your constituents, upon whom you have declared open war, will see to it.