More companies have fled the city so far in 2021 than in all of 2020, itself previously the worst year on record — Flight from Frisco as companies recognize employee mobility in the tech era — The cloud is replacing office space
Like the Motor City, the City by the Bay became a victim of its own success and excess
In 1960 Detroit was the wealthiest city per capita in the United States, placing it high in the running for wealthiest worldwide. A staggering 93% of all automobiles sold domestically and nearly half sold overseas were manufactured in the Motor City, which dominated not just the domestic economy but the nation’s psyche for a quarter century after World War II. Automobiles suffused popular culture and affected every aspect of life, from pop music to movies to political movements. Many believe that the Civil Rights Movement would not have been possible, or at least would have taken substantially longer, without automobiles and resultant innovations like the Green Book.
Flash forward to 2008 when the city declared the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. A combination of international competition, technological innovation, and institutional hubris (both on the part of management and employee unions) doomed the glory days of the domestic car business. Toss in a healthy dose of old fashioned Rust Belt political corruption and spiraling crime rates and today Detroit ranks as one of the poorest, most dangerous, and worst run cities in the country. It’s a place where once-grand homes routinely sell for pennies on the dollar.
Warning signs of excess and decline emerged relatively early in the post-war era. In 1958 a 3.5 million square foot Packard factory shuttered after the company’s ill-fated merger with Studebaker and subsequent bankruptcy. Its demise foreshadowed systemic issues that lurked just under the surface of the flood of post-war productivity and cash. By the early 1960s, competition from Japanese and European marques that emphasized efficiency, reliability, and modern technology over sheer size and power gnawed away at Detroit’s biggest advantage, its centralized production model. The auto industry had painted itself into a corner: At the very moment this new competition was changing customers’ expectations the domestic Big Three were locked into supply contracts that sometimes extended over a decade or more. In a head-snappingly short period of time Detroit’s biggest strength became one of its biggest liabilities. The oil crises of the 1970s and labor disputes of the 1980s accelerated the decline. By the late 80s “innovation” in Detroit often was reduced to a matter of badge-swapping.
The most infamous example, and a perfect symbol of Detroit’s decline, was the flaming pile of Cadillac known as the Cimarron. The luxury marque’s entry offering literally was a Chevy Cavalier economy car with a Cadillac badge and some leather. Suffice it to say, consumers noticed. The Big Three would lose market share consistently until well into the 2000s.
San Francisco’s parallels in the 2020s
Early mover advantage. Near monopolies. Complex supply chains with interlocking dependencies. Rapid national and even global dominance. Immeasurable cultural and social impacts. Early signs of overreach and hubris. Detroit at the start of 1970s sounds eerily like San Francisco entering the 2020s.
Entire websites are dedicated to tracking the exodus. The frightening thing to consider, at least if you love the City by the Bay and care about its future, is the sheer variety of reasons people are leaving. There’s no one issue policymakers can address: The exodus is as broad as it is deep. Families are fed up with mortgaging their children’s futures to reside in a city that’s become infamous for a “poop app” that warns people where the latest piles of excrement have been discovered. People are fleeing out of control crime, a homeless crisis that qualifies as a humanitarian disaster, crumbling infrastructure, and decaying public spaces. They’re escaping the tech industry’s incorrigible “bro culture” and the stifling groupthink in which careers can depend on saying the right things and donating to the correct causes. Some are just fed up with the lousy weather.
That’s another similarity with Detroit in the 1970s and 80s. People left the Motor City for a similarly wide range of reasons. Crime was a huge issue, identified as the city’s most pressing in numerous polls. The school system was buckling. Living costs remained stubbornly high even as good-paying jobs started vanishing.
Some people were just fed up with the lousy weather.
The double-edged sword of market dominance
When I lived in San Francisco in the early 2000s, if I’d told someone I was moving from Nob Hill to Fort Worth, Texas half the heads in the room would have exploded and the survivors would have beaten me to death with fresh warm baguettes. Yet over the last five years scores of companies with thousands of employees have done just that. Texas has become one of the top destinations for people and organizations fleeing the Bay Area. The COVID-19 crisis injected steroids into the situation as Americans nationwide migrated out of big cities en masse, many permanently. It’s a profound change. Today there are some 17 million vacant square feet of office space in the city. That’s almost 700 floors, the equivalent of seven World Trade Centers and good for a 30% vacancy rate in some of the most expensive buildings in the world. That’s a lot of space to fill as more people leave all the time.
Detroit learned the hard way that monopolies don’t last forever and usually not even for very long, and that they tend to sow the seeds of their own demise (an irony of anti-trust law is that the government almost always begins busting trusts well after technology and the market have done most of the busting – witness the railroads, the legacy telecommunications companies, airlines, Microsoft, etc.). Cars can be built anywhere there’s room for a factory and a workforce able to run it. San Francisco is learning the hard way that tech companies are far more ephemeral, often needing nothing more than some computers and an internet connection.
One big concern is the departure of anchor tech companies and investors. Palo Alto’s famed Sand Hill Road is no longer the only place startup founders flock, one less reason for companies and entrepreneurs to establish in the Bay Area, least of all its most expensive city. Today the world’s biggest tech fund is the Japanese owned, Saudi backed SoftBank Vision Fund. The annual Web Summit in, of all places, Portugal, is now considered the single most important tech deal-making event.
Last week Tesla became the latest company to announce its relocation, to Austin, Texas. Will the carmaker prove to be the canary in the coal mine for San Francisco the way Packard was for Detroit?
During the early 2000s dot-com boom there was an obsession with “first-mover advantage.” At the very beginning it meant literally that: The first company to start a website that sold books, the first to offer online banking services, the first online music platform. It didn’t take long for it to become apparent that being first was not so much an advantage as a near guarantee of failure. The streets of Silicon Valley are lined with the corpses of first movers, from pets.com to MySpace to the Microsoft Zune. It turns out that the first mover also makes all of the original mistakes. Competitors from around the country and around the world watched the first dot-com boom, and learned.
Empty citadels of capitalism
Here’s a funny joke: Become the biggest employer in a city. Build the biggest, most obtrusive, and expensive building that city has ever seen. Then, less than three years later announce you’re leaving and that none of your workforce will ever work in that building or that city ever again.
Depending on who you ask Saleseforce Tower is the tallest building west of the Mississippi, and also one of the most despised. San Francisco’s biggest building is a giant empty phallusdisembodied demonic eye skyscraper named after a company that no longer has its headquarters in the city.
The canary just hooked its beak up to a 5,000w amp.
A toxic brew of income inequality, political corruption, economic stasis, and crime ultimately destroyed Detroit, and they’re destroying San Francisco
Detroit might have survived the decline of the auto industry. Factories can be repurposed, workforces retrained. For half a century the city had some of the best-trained, best-paid, and most productive workers and managers on the face of the earth, led by a generation of men and women who’d prevailed over a depression and a world war. That workforce was eager to return to the glory days, or at least something better than what they saw and experienced starting in the 1970s.
Instead, Detroit became a case study in how mismanagement can destroy a city. The Motor City was hollowed out in significant part by residents fleeing the twin scourges of political corruption and urban crime. Thomas Sowell has said that the summer of 1967 in particular, when riots left 43 dead and some 1,200 injured and damaged more than 2,000 buildings, “marked the beginning of the decline of Detroit to its current state of despair.” In 2016 San Francisco achieved the dubious distinction of the highest per capita property crime rate among the country’s 50 largest metro areas, a trend that continues to this day. In the summer of 2020 the city endured waves of violence and rioting unseen since the bad old days of the 1960s and 70s.
Meanwhile, a person called Chesa Boudin was elected San Francisco district attorney in 2019 on an anti-incarceration, anti-prosecution, and anti-police platform. In particular he promised to eliminate enhancements – increased prison time for hate crimes, gang-related crimes, sex crimes, and cases of multiple recidivism – and the use of cash bail to ensure that defendants appear in court. From the beginning, Boudin – a prosecutor who has never prosecuted a case or gone to trial – announced that his office would not prosecute quality-of-life crimes such as disturbing the peace, offering or soliciting sex, public defecation/urination/intoxication, or public camping. The results have been predictably Detroit-like. Through August of this year, homicides were up 23% over 2019, burglary increased 43%, and car theft went up 34%. By December, home and commercial burglaries had soared by about 46%.
The final Detroitian touch is San Francisco’s rate of poverty and income inequality. The city by the bay is the second most unequal city in the country. Only Atlanta — hardly a bastion of progressive politics — is more unequal. The results are visible everywhere in the city, from the grand palaces of Pacific Heights to the squalor of the Tenderloin less than half a mile away. Bedizened billionaires picking their way past prostrate bodies en route to opening night at the Opera House.
There are a lot of smart people in San Francisco, and a lot of money. It’s entirely possible, maybe even likely, that this pre-obituary will prove premature. But there are a lot of reasons to worry about the City by the Bay. Detroit was sufficiently integral to the U.S. economy that its decline helped precipitate three decades of economic struggle and working class wage stagnation. A declining San Francisco would do the same to the modern tech economy, to the detriment of the nation.
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The annual homeless count is designed to produce outcomes officials want — Big enough numbers to shock the conscious and loosen taxpayer billfolds, but not so big as to expose the true scale of the humanitarian crisis in the world’s fifth largest economy
In 2020 there were 161,458 homeless people in California, officially. If that strikes you as a peculiarly precise number your spider senses are tuned up. The true number is much, much higher, like by an order of magnitude or more. That’s the conclusion of numerous studies going back decades, including data-driven analyses by the nonpartisan Economic Roundtable, the National Institutes for Research, scholars at Cornell University, and many others.
Consider: According to the California Department of Education, in 2018 more than 204,000 students experienced homelessness in the state, a number that has grown consistently over the last decade. Obviously, both of those numbers – 161,458 total homeless in a state where more than 200,000 children alone experience homelessness every year – cannot be true. And the Education Department’s numbers are based on actual reporting from school districts based on personal interaction with students. In contrast, official total numbers are based on what can only be described as glorified tea leaf reading.
That’s because pursuant to federal mandates, every year cities nationwide engage in an elaborate act of performance art called the homeless point in time (“PIT”) count. On the surface it’s a census of the unhoused, used to guide policy and – crucially – government spending on the crisis. In reality it’s designed to produce the numbers officials want, numbers big enough to shock the conscious and loosen taxpayer billfolds but not so big as to reveal the true scale of the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding every second of every day in the not-so-golden-anymore state.
Official counts are not just unreliable, they’re disastrously misleading
The PIT count fundamentally distorts our understanding of homelessness because it only captures a small and very specific subset of the population, those living openly outdoors. The so-called “hardcore homeless.” Given that the vast majority of homeless people – as many as three-quarters – have some form of shelter at any given time, the magnitude of this limitation can scarcely be overstated. The PIT count actually ignores most homeless people. Worse, it ignores the ones who can most benefit from early interventions to prevent them from falling into street life. And equally importantly, regardless of population dynamics there are monumental policy differences between assisting 161,000 people versus a million or more. We’re collecting the wrong data in support of the wrong policies.
There are other methodological problems with the count. The “raw” data – the chit sheets volunteers use to record their counts, about which more presently – passes through several levels of custody: Volunteers do the counts, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) employees collect and collate the data, then hand it over to experts at the USC School of Social work to crunch the actual numbers. And while the core methodology hasn’t changed procedures vary slightly from year to year and city to city, making comparisons all but impossible. That last fact is crucial: Without meaningful comparisons over time, it is literally impossible to know if billions in taxpayer dollars are having an impact. Of course, that sort of accountability is kryptonite to government bureaucracies like LAHSA.
Like the data the quality of volunteers also varies widely. I volunteered for the 2019 and 2020 counts. The experiences felt more like a matter of doing something for the sake of doing something than serious efforts to assess the population. There are no prerequisites, anyone can sign up. Consequently the vast majority have no experience with census-taking or any particular familiarity with the issue of homelessness. There were small numbers of “old hands” who had participated in multiple counts, as well as a couple of employees from a local homeless nonprofit. But most depended on a 45-minute training session.
The training was like a bad SNL sketch. Both years they started late and were comically mismanaged, to the point that in 2020 the city workers doing the training couldn’t agree on the rules. In the middle of the training in front of 50 or more people two of them got into an argument about the rules regarding counting disabled homeless people. I won’t describe the physical appearance of these two taxpayer-paid city employees, but trust me when I say your imagination doesn’t have the range. Mine certainly didn’t. You can’t make this stuff up.
The count itself was unserious, again feeling like doing something to do it. Teams of three people drove or walked around designated areas, at night. I was in a car group both times. The driver drove, the front passenger counted, and rear passenger made chit marks on the LAHSA form (apparently officials believe the average Angeleno would be overwhelmed by the dual tasks of counting and making pencil marks on a piece of paper; then again if their trainers are any indication of the general quality of LAHSA employees you can see where that concern might originate).
There are more restrictions on the process than in a TSA security line. Volunteers are told to have zero contact with the people they’re counting. Those in cars cannot get out of their cars and those on foot cannot look inside tents or knock on the doors of buildings or vehicles to assess how many people are inside. They are told to assume one to a tent or car and two to an RV. Buildings are completely off-limits, which means by definition people with temporary lodgings – a family member’s couch, an empty building – are missed. There could be a warehouse with 50 people squatting inside and not one would be counted. Likewise, entire areas are excluded from the count altogether, including national and state parks where many people camp.
As noted, the PIT count’s shortcomings are well-documented. It’s not some wacky conspiracy theory – it’s been studied by researchers and scholars for decades. That it continues to be used is an excellent example of the homeless industrial complex at work. At this point, after a half century of “fighting homelessness,” there’s simply too much money and too many jobs at stake for the establishment to admit they’re lying dog-faced pony soldierswhen it comes to the true scale of the crisis. It’s a matter of producing the desired outcomes to sustain public sector jobs and billions in federal, state, and local spending.
We’ve been here before
The other agonizing truth is that we’ve been down this path before, with the so-called War on Drugs. That half-century effort did nothing to stem drug use and addiction but did produce millions of hideously unjustified, life-destroying prison sentences that support the multi-billion dollar public defender, bail bond, and incarceration industries. It also created a massive federal bureaucracy called the Drug Enforcement Agency as well as a new branch of the Justice Department, and birthed an entire industry that today employs hundreds of thousands of lawyers, administrative law judges, clerks, recordkeepers, analysts, and the rest of the usual bureaucratic rogues’ gallery. The one thing it most assuredly did not do was end the drug crisis.
Before the War on Drugs was the War on Poverty, which did reduce poverty somewhat in its first decade (though how much of even that success was due to governmental efforts versus the once-in-history postwar U.S. economy remains a matter of debate). In the decades since it has become another hydra-headed government patronage system, the precursor of the modern homeless industrial complex.
Anyone watching the homeless industrial complex metastasize should not be the least bit surprised. Homelessness is the new crack – that the government’s failed War on Poverty begat the failed War on Drugs which led directly to the current failing war on homelessness should, again, surprise no one. They’re the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan of domestic policy. Like those foreign failures these domestic disasters unequivocally are bipartisan (less so in California, where the other party – what are they called again? – has not the slightest relevance). Keep your eyes on the appropriately Byzantine-sounding United States Intergovernmental Council on Homelessness, which currently sports a mere $3.8 million budget and 20 employees. Check back in four or five years.
Unless and until policymakers begin dealing in reality when it comes to the true scope of the homeless crisis California – and the United States – will continue using bad data to support bad (and expensive) public policy. In a sense the political class has painted itself into a corner with the PIT count. They’ve relied on artificially low numbers for so long, at least two decades, that if the true number were to become widely known it would destroy their credibility on the issue that a majority of Californians rank as their single biggest concern.
Or would it? Californias are proving a shockingly apathetic lot. As our streets are handed over to mere anarchy, as crime spikes everywhere, as quality of life plummets by virtually every measure we keep electing the same people who got us into this mess, while the opposition party continues its death spiral into Trumpian irrelevance. So perhaps it doesn’t matter, in the end, what the true number of homeless is in California.
After all, at the rate we’re going the difference between housed and unhoused will soon be all but irrelevant.
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Eric Garcetti’s departure is a rare moment of opportunity in L.A. Will his successor seize it or continue the same failed policies?
It’s difficult to conjure a more spectacular fall from political grace than the implosion Angelenos are witnessing of soon-to-be former mayor Eric Garcetti (it’s like music, that phrase: “former mayor Eric Garcetti”). The man who is about to accept the ultimate political consolation prize, an ambassadorship, once spent more time traveling around the country networking than running the metropolis of which he has been the titular leader for seven years. Two years ago he seriously believed he was going to be the next President. Even six months ago he still held out hope for a respectable second tier cabinet position like Secretary of Transportation. Instead, a man who thought he was going to be charting national and international policy will be organizing cocktail parties for the sorts of people who populate consulates, which is to say, overwhelmingly people of little consequence.
He will leave a city in far worse shape than he found it. He will be remembered not for securing an Olympics no one wanted even before the COVID-19 pandemic, but for the meltdown in basic civic institutions that occurred on his watch and for which he bears ultimate responsibility.
Make no mistake: Los Angeles was in free fall long before 2020 unleashed the one-two punch of pandemic and mass civil unrest, and no one was more responsible than the mayor. To be sure, the City Council isn’t exactly a bunch of slouches when it comes to their preternatural ability to screw things up and hurt people. But Garcetti has been around the longest, from two terms in council, three years as its president, and seven years as mayor. This is his Los Angeles, a place where people already were living a looking class existence in which officialdom consistently proclaimed new accomplishments while conditions for actual people continued deteriorating. Garcetti boasted about new lows in crime even as streets from Venice Beach to Wilmington devolved into post-apocalyptic nightmares. He trotted out “road diets” and “complete streets’ for nonexistent bicyclists even as Angelnos languished literally in the world’s worst traffic. It became downright Orwellian at times.
Historians will require neologisms to describe the new circle of Hell into which the City of Angels descended during the Garcetti Era. Indeed, a lexicon emerged to express the contours of what many have come to call the Homeless Industrial Complex. That, not Olympics or prosperity, is his legacy.
Mr. Garcetti departs his hometown, the city he sought to lead, in the midst of a out-of-control homeless crisis, a historic crime wave, thoroughly demoralized police and fire departments, and an entrenched bureaucracy of patronage that renders terms like Byzantine laughably superfluous. As zombies roam the streets the backrooms of 200 North Spring Street are choked with vape smoke as cronies, ideologues, and useful idiots divy up the spoils of voter approved initiatives to the tune of billions of dollars. At least, the rooms that aren’t boarded up or quarantined due to rat, cockroach, and termite infestations. The capital of a great city no longer.
The Garcetti chapter ends not with a bang, much less an oath of presidential office, but with the feeblest of whimpers. Should this post find its way to our friends and allies in India, a country I’ve twice visited and for which I have great fondness, I can only say I’m sorry. For America is sending you a schemer, a chameleon, a nakedly ambitious narcissist. A person so fundamentally dishonest that he lies about essential aspects of who he is. He is charming, no doubt, so much that even his adversaries sometimes find themselves beguiled in his presence. Do not be fooled. Remember how little time his ambition left for him to run Los Angeles, the place he was born and raised and where his father previously served as district attorney, and ask whether you can have confidence that he will treat a foreign nation any better. Look at the pictures below and understand they portray his handiwork.
Hope for the future?
Garcetti’s abrupt, albeit widely anticipated, departure creates a rare moment of political opportunity in L.A. His successor could be the most consequential interim mayor in the city’s history, maybe the country’s. Angelenos are desperate for new solutions to homelessness, crime, poverty, traffic, sustainability, and a host of other issues that languished under this administration. We know that the current approaches are not failing – they have failed. We are ready to try new things, to take chances and risks to save our city. Like our counterparts in that weird vertical city on the east coast we’re ready to embrace a law and order candidate so long as they’re not too extreme.
On their first day in office this “17 monther” could chart a bold new course. The first thing the next mayor must do is to declare a state of emergency over the homeless crisis. There is no longer any excuse. By any reasonable standard the situation qualifies as a humanitarian crisis. It’s that simple. City and county resources are overwhelmed: Despite (or more accurately, because of) the city spending some $6 billion over the last fifteen years the homeless population has exploded. The city/county homeless agency, LASHA is in chaos and can barely even keep an emergency shelter telephone number connected. A state of emergency will allow state and federal resources to be brought to bear. Instead of homeless encampments we’ll have Red Cross and National Guard humanitarian relief camps.
The models are out there. Look at Venice Beach. Councilman Mike Bonin sat on his ample haunches claiming impotence for seven years as the crisis spiraled and people suffered and died. No matter how you feel about L.A. Sheriff Alex Villaneuva it’s indisputable that he has forced long overdue action on the Boardwalk, in a short window of time. Within a week of the Sheriff’s visit Mr. Bonin started to clean up the boardwalk for the first time in his term. That’s no accident.
The question is, can an interim mayor learn those kinds of lessons? In the early stages Joe Buscaino has certainly said many of the right things. Showing up in Mr. Bonin’s backyard in Venice Beach at 7:30am on a Monday morning was a baller move. Assuming he can sustain, and that he can muster real support, starting in his own district, he’ll contend. Angelenos will be watching him, as well as City Council President Nury Martinez. One would like to think that Mr. Garcetti took the right steps behind the scenes to ensure a smooth transition of power, such as communicating with Ms. Martinez and her staff. Then again, over the last decade Angelenos have learned not to expect even basic competence from their elected and appointed officials.
If the interim mayor plays it right, Garcetti’s departure will mark the close one of the darkest chapters in the history of Los Angeles. The city is on the brink, and we can only hope and pray that Mr. Yoga Pants’s successor is smarter, more competent, more honest, and more forthright. It isn’t just right, it’s one of the biggest political opportunities in recent memory.
Governor Gavin Newsom and local leaders have failed. Only national, and even international, resources can meet the magnitude of their human-caused crisis.
[NOTE: A previous version of this story appeared on January 18, 2019. It has been updated, and is even more relevant and urgent two years later]
One of the first things you see after a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis virtually anywhere on earth is the arrival of a United States Air National Guard C-17 Globemaster loaded with food, medical supplies, and personnel. Within 24 hours of the devastating 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia the United States dispatched Globemasters along with C-5 Galaxy and C-130 Hercules strategic lifters to the region. National Guard and regular service personnel immediately began providing shelter, clean water, food, medicine, sanitation, and search and rescue operations for millions of people from Indonesia to Madagascar. They were the first wave of what would become Operation Unified Assistance, the largest humanitarian relief effort since the Berlin Airlift. Within ten days of the earthquake the USS Lincoln aircraft carrier arrived in the region and began 24-hour-a-day flight operations, including search and rescue. The effort involved some 30,000 personnel, two aircraft carrier task forces, a Marine expeditionary unit, a U.S. Navy hospital ship, and hundreds of rotary and fixed wing aircraft and vehicles. Along with the offshore resources they established more than 500 individual relief camps and other sites throughout the region. At the peak the U.S. and a dozen other countries were delivering more than 100,000 pounds of supplies every 24 hours. Less than a year later, some of those same personnel and resources were on the ground in cities and towns throughout the southeastern U.S. providing relief to survivors of Hurricane Katrina. The number of lives saved is well into the millions.
It would take a fraction of that response to aid virtually every single homeless person in California in a matter of weeks. If we could muster that kind of effort for strangers 10,000 miles away there literally is zero excuse to not do it for our own neighbors here at home. Of course, that’s not the profitable solution, nor the one that enables politicians to aggrandize ever more power over actual working people. So instead of taking the blindingly obvious course and declaring a national emergency, our political roll out multi-billion dollar plans for dozens of $9 million “bridge housing” and $900,000 units of “permanent supportive housing.” Governor Newsom’s current grand plan, the latest of many previous failures, is to throw another $2 billion at the problem, to go along with the billions already flushed away on what has become known as the Homeless Industrial Complex. Meanwhile, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti continues his Quixotic (but highly profitable) quest to spend a billion dollars to build 10,000 units in 10 years. In other words, housing sufficient for less than a third of the city’s current (official) chronic homeless population, in a decade.
These are not serious plans. These are not serious people.
In contrast, the military has a tradition of assisting in and coordinating humanitarian efforts in extreme circumstances, often performing heroically. Historians credit an Army general, Frederick Funston, for saving what was left of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fires. He was deputy commander of the division stationed at the Presidio. Within hours of the quake, his troops were throughout the city fighting fires, establishing relief camps, setting up kitchens to feed the survivors, providing medical aid to the injured, re-establishing sanitation, establishing security (there was a spate of looting), and assisting in rescue operations. They saved thousands of lives and prevented the complete annihilation of the city by fire and human mischief.
The military responds to human-caused disasters as well. Operation Tomodachiwas the U.S. response to the March 11, 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. It lasted two months and included 24,000 personnel, 189 aircraft, and the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier task force along with two amphibious carriers, two destroyers, an amphibious dock ship, and other surface vessels. U.S. service members assisted in everything from harbor cleanups to freshwater delivery, search and rescue to decontamination.
The military often is the only entity with the experience, human and material resources, and discipline to respond to major crises, and they often are the most effective resources on the ground. Even as the George W. Bush administration and FEMA bungled their responses to Hurricane Katrina, the disaster was hailed as one of the National Guard’s finest hours for its rescue efforts. Certainly there were hitches, but as with so many other examples the military saved countless lives and properties and prevented the outbreak of mass lawlessness.
The scale of the California homeless crisis demands a national response
It’s time to call in those resources to tackle California’s homeless crisis. The magnitude of the catastrophe, which state leadership has allowed to metastasize for decades, is every bit as dire as any of the global examples mentioned above. The impacts on neighborhoods and communities are as devastating as anything you’ll see in actual war zones: Murder, rape, shootings, bombings, targeted assassinations, out of control fires, torture, disease, infestations, flesh eating bacteria, vandalism, assaults, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria. In places like San Francisco’s Tenderloin and Venice Beach in L.A. conditions have devolved to post-apocalyptic mayhem. Anarchy doesn’t begin to describe many places in the Golden State.
The death toll is in the hundreds of thousands. Since 2000 at least 10,000 homeless people have perished in Los Angeles County alone. Officially, some 130,000 people were homeless in the state last year. The official number likely is off by as much as an order of magnitude. According to an authoritative 2014 report by the American Institutes for Research, in 2013 as many as 526,000 children experienced homelessness in California. And that was six years ago, before the crisis truly began to spiral. The report also ranked the state 49th in planning and policies related to child homelessness.
Approximately 1,833 people lost their lives during and after Hurricane Katrina. In 2017, the last year for which numbers are available, at least 2,000 homeless people died in California. In 2019, more than 1,000 homeless people died in Los Angeles County alone. That’s a death every nine hours, in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history. And again, those are just the official numbers. The truth is certainly far more horrifying. Meanwhile it has been widely reported that diseases associated with the middle ages – typhus, typhoid, tuberculosis – are spreading in homeless camps across the state. There are legitimate fears of an outbreak of bubonic plague as soon as later this summer, and God help the Southland if coronavirus arrives. Police officers, firefighters, and volunteers working in homeless communities routinely report all manner of ailments, ranging from inexplicable coughs to influenza and typhus.
Homeless encampments also present terrifying risks of fire. In December 2017 a homeless cook fire got out of control in West Los Angeles and sparked a brush fire that consumed seven houses in Bel Air and threatened the Getty Center and its priceless art collections and research centers. A fire captain in downtown Los Angeles recently told The All Aspect Report that his crews are called to douse dumpster fires several times a day. He said they refer to one of their trucks as “the dumpster fire tender.” Homeless fires are a daily occurrence from the San Fernando Valley to the Bay Area, the state capital to remote Butte County. It’s a literal version of Russian roulette, and it’s only a matter of time before one of those fires gets out of control and becomes the state’s next Camp Fire.
The fires are just one aspect of the lawlessness that California’s homeless crisis has created. Vandalism, assault, drug sales, public intoxication, disturbing the peace, public defecation, even prostitution and attempted murder all have become terrifyingly commonplace. Meanwhile, thanks to laws like Prop 47, more than a dozen felonies including armed assault have been downgraded to misdemeanors. Prosecutors like San Francisco’s Chesea Boudin have all but stopped prosecuting so-called quality of life crimes. Even violent felons, attempted kidnappers, attempted rapists, routinely walk after a few hours in jail. As a result of these fundamental breakdowns in criminal law, many – perhaps most – crimes aren’t even reported anymore. Why bother calling 911 when you know no one’s coming, much less following up and prosecuting?
Local and state services are overwhelmed, and officials aren’t up to the task
If the scope of these issues doesn’t justify federal intervention it’s hard to see what would. California has hit rock bottom. It’s been clear for several years that state and local authorities are overwhelmed. As previously reported in these pages, under Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “bridge housing” plan the City of Los Angeles is spending an average of $55,000 per bed for temporary dormitory style housing. Accepting the official count of 36,900 homeless in the city, it would cost more than $2 billion to provide rudimentary shelter to all of them. The shelters also cost an average of $50,000 per bed per year to operate, meaning the city would spend $2 billion to construct the shelters and then $2 billion a year to maintain and operate them. These are not real numbers.
In contrast, consider that an Army mobile hospital and shelter can be set up for a few hundred thousand dollars in a matter of hours. These facilities provide a range of emergency and supportive services, including sanitary and medical facilities, triage, accommodation, security, kitchens, pharmacies, storage, and communal gathering places. In a fraction of the time that city and state governments spend dithering over what color to paint a new bridge facility, the National Guard and other military elements could have shelters up and running statewide, helping people, saving lives, and rescuing communities.
The military branches collectively possess countless years of experience in confronting all manner of humanitarian disasters. Who better to solve California’s homeless crisis than the men and women who have been on the ground in places Paradise, New Orleans, Haiti, Indonesia, and hundreds of other crisis points? Would Californians rather continue to trust that the politicians will figure it out, eventually and given enough money? It is time to call in the professionals who have demonstrated time and again their capabilities under the most challenging circumstances.
Potential legal and constitutional questions
The President has authority to deploy military units domestically for certain purposes. Under the Posse Comitatus Act the military can conduct non-law enforcement operations including humanitarian missions so long as they do not act as a police or quasi-police force. Likewise, National Guard units can be activated by either their state government or the federal government. The differences are in who pays the bills and who’s in charge. When a state deploys its National Guard, the state pays and the governor serves as commander in chief. In contrast, the President or Secretary of Defense can call up units to support overseas military operations, in which case the federal government pays and is in command. Guard activation also can be a hybrid: Federally funded while remaining under state control, such as during Hurricane Katrina and the Camp Fire.
Suffice it to say it is highly unlikely that Governor Newsom will activate the Guard at the state level to respond to a homeless crisis he himself had a hand in creating over the last twenty years. It would be to admit the failure of state and local efforts to address the crisis. Moreover, in the current environment of Democratic politics it simply would be untenable: Before the first tent was erected the cries of “concentration camps” would begin from the party’s newly dominant Sandersnista Left wing.
There is, however, another alternative.
Precedents in the Civil Rights Era
There is at least some precedent for Presidents using the military and calling up the National Guard without a state declaration, under extraordinary circumstances and even in defiance of state government. For example, the President can use the military and activate a state’s Guard units when citizens’ civil rights are threatened by state action. The most famous examples were President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s use of the Guard to enforce public school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 and President John F. Kennedy use of the Alabama and Mississippi National Guard to enforce desegregation efforts in those states in the early 1960s. In all cases presidents acted over the strenuous objections of governors.
Perhaps the most salient example is President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to federalize the Alabama National Guard in 1965. Johnson had been deeply troubled by images of peaceful civil rights protestors being attacked by police dogs, doused with fire hoses, and tear gassed and beaten in the streets of Selma on March 7, 1965, known as “Bloody Sunday.” Infuriated after the state’s governor – the noxious Democrat segregationist George Wallace – reneged on a promise to use state authorities to protect the protests, Johnson unilaterally activated 10,000 Alabama Guard troops and dispatched them to the city. From March 20-25, 1965 some 3,000 Guard and regular Army troops escorted Martin Luther King, Jr. and 50,000 protesters on their march from Selma to Montgomery, where King delivered one of his most famous orations, “How Long, Not Long.”
The 1965 example is particularly applicable because Johnson’s legal and constitutional justification for taking control of the Alabama National Guard was civil rights. Albeit in a different context, today’s homeless are subject to routine civil rights and constitutional deprivations by the very authorities charged with preserving them. Hundreds of thousands of Californians live on the streets, in beat-up campers, in abandoned buildings unfit for human habitation. Hundreds of thousands of children languish in similar and sometimes worse conditions. Millions of innocent citizens also have their rights trammeled every day, from the handicapped little girl who can’t get down the sidewalk in Venice in her wheelchair because dozens of tents block her way to the average Jane or Joe who has to navigate sidewalks covered in human excrement while wondering if today will be the day the plague arrives.
It will require diligent research by constitutional scholars. A process may look something like this: President Trump could declare a national state of emergency over the homeless crisis (while California is by far the worst, states nationwide are grappling with their own versions of the catastrophe). He could demand that governors in the worst affected states call up their Guard units to begin immediate humanitarian operations. When those governors invariably refuse, the President could activate their National Guard units as a necessary to the preservation of millions of people’s civil rights and safety.
Of course, for many in this deep blue state the idea of giving Donald Trump authority to do anything is a non-starter. There would be inevitable comparisons to the President’s decision to send troops to the southern border. Then again, military professionals haven’t been shy about shutting down Trump’s more jingoistic tendencies in that arena. Moreover, Californians would do well to look at the Camp Fire as an example. Despite the occasional (and characteristic) inflammatory Tweet the President stayed out of the Guard’s way and let them do their job. That is what should be expected of federal efforts to deal with homelessness in the state.
Greed is the only thing standing between California and help
It’s time for Californians to acknowledge the state’s abject failure to solve the homeless crisis. It’s time to acknowledge that the bureaucratic amateurs had their chance and only made things worse. Californians are starting to make those demands. Governor Newsom faces recall largely for his inept, corrupt response to COVID-19, but a lot of people who signed that petition were fit to be tied long before the pandemic. Mayors have lost control of their cities, and a new generation of ideologically insane district attorneys is ensuring that failure meets no consequences. These “leaders” have had literally decades to solve a problem of their own creation. At this point it’s a minor miracle when people like Gavin Newsom tie their own shoes on the first attempt.
It’s time to declare a state of emergency in California.
It’s time to send in the military, before it’s too late.
The state’s political class will never solve the homeless crisis. In fact, they depend on it.
History is replete with tragic examples of powerful rulers sending citizens to die in futile wars, often with little more at stake than the rulers’ own egos. The term “cannon fodder” was coined by François-René de Chateaubriand during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1814, as Napoleon Bonaparte grew ever more desperate to preserve his collapsing empire Chateaubriand wrote a pamphlet called “Bonaparte and The Bourbons” in which he excoriated the French dictator: “The contempt for the lives of men and for France herself has come to the point of calling conscripts ‘raw material’ and ‘cannon fodder.'” Thousands of young men were killed or wounded on the battlefields of Nivelle, Bayonne, and Toulouse in a vain effort to sustain a dying imperium. The most visceral example of cannon fodder is the World War II Battle of Stalingrad, in which the combined megalomania of Josef Stalin and Adolph Hitler led to the deaths of some two million combatants and tens of thousands of Soviet citizens in the bloodiest military confrontation in history. Two million deaths in the name of two men’s imperial ambitions.
In the twenty-first century California’s political class has created a new kind of human silage: Bureaucracy fodder. The state’s homeless population supports a head-spinning array of well-funded government agencies, nonprofits, charities, foundations, think tanks, law firms, consultants, and developers, all funded and enabled by the state’s (allegedly progressive) political class. As people suffer and die on the streets by the thousands these Brahmins rake in the paychecks, plan scores of multimillion dollar “affordable” and “low income” development projects, hold extravagant galas, and attend posh retreats and “team building” events while clothing themselves in the guise of altruism and community.
While developers vie for literally billions in project funds, many executives on both the public and private side of this archipelago make handsome six-figure salaries, such as disgraced former Congresswoman Katie Hill. Before leaving to run for office she was making nearly $200,000 a year as deputy CEO of a nonprofit called People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) – at the age of 27. That organization itself has grown its revenue from $8.3 million in fiscal year 2012 to $45.8 million last year. The organization’s CEO, Joel Roberts, made $241,370.
In Los Angeles County, homeless services are coordinated by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). According to Transparent California, in 2014 LAHSA had 118 employees, nine of whom made over $100,000 a year. As the homeless population grew so did LAHSA’s staff: By 2018, the agency had grown to 424 employees, with 31 earning six figures and another 16 earning more than $90,000. The Director pulled down $242,242 (coincidentally nearly identical to Mr. Roberts’s salary at PATH). Assuming an average salary of $50,000 LAHSA spends $21.5 million annually on salaries alone. As LAHSA has grown so has the county’s homeless crisis. Coincidence?
At the state level, the Department of Social Services employs more than 4,200 people whose jobs – theoretically – are to help California’s poorest residents get back on their feet. Nearly 100 employees make more than $200,000 a year, with the Director, William Lightbourne, receiving $313,760. And the state’s homeless crisis grows. Coincidence?
These numbers, which are just a few of myriad examples, raise obvious questions: What would those 424 LAHSA employees do for a living if they were to actually end homelessness in Los Angeles? The answer is equally obvious: If they were to eliminate homelessness and poverty, they’d have to find new jobs. And no one in their right mind intentionally puts themselves out of work.
It’s important to understand that these people are not contractors, nor consultants hired to solve a problem and then move on to the next one. They are full-time, salaried employees. Public employees also receive generous benefits packages and as many as 45 days of paid vacation annually (many take even more time off). Presumably most of them expect to have their jobs for years and decades, and many will retire with their nonprofit or government agency. For that to happen the homeless crisis must continue in perpetuity.
Equally important is the fact that the public employees are dues paying union members. LAHSA’s employees are part of the Service Employees International Union, one of the most powerful in the country (their most recent collective bargaining agreement is quite the read). Those unions are among the most important sources of campaign contributions for California’s Democrat majority, adding yet another layer of self-interest.
The famed economist William Niskanen developed the budget maximizing theory of bureaucracies. He showed how bureaucrats acting in their own rational self-interest seek to increase their budgets in order to increase their power. It’s axiomatic that success in government is a matter of raising your department’s budget and headcount. In the context of homeless services this phenomenon creates the ultimate paradox: The only way for an agency whose mission is to end homelessness can justify increasing its staff and budget is if there are ever increasing numbers of homeless people in the state. Perhaps that’s why Governor Newsom said during a recent tour of a homeless shelter in L.A. that, “Many [homeless people] see California as a place of compassion. If that’s the case, we match our values with action, and as people of faith, we have a responsibility to all of them, regardless of whether they got here last week, last month, or were born here 30 years ago.” That statement amounts to a blank check thrown at the feet of bureaucrats and nonprofit executives.
As barbaric as tyrants’ use of human beings as cannon fodder was, it arguably was more humane than California’s bureaucratic fodder. Soldiers died relatively quickly from combat wounds or – more frequently – illness and exposure. In contrast, California’s bureaucratic fodder suffer excruciating circumstances for months, years, even decades. So long as the solutions are in the hands of self-interested bureaucrats, nothing will change.
The richest state in the richest country in human history is on the edge of physical, economic, and moral collapse
The cold open to a horror movie
In the movies it’s called a cold open. The film jumps directly into the story before the title sequence or opening credits. In horror movies the cold open is often a familiar scene in which something or someone is slightly off: The haunting figure walking down the street in an otherwise picture postcard small town, the eerie sound emanating from the woods at the edge of the idyllic farm.
A man named Ronaldo was the cold open of what I have come to call my journey to the fire. I met him on side of the highway near Madera on November 23, 2018. I was driving up Route 99 through California’s central valley on my way to Paradise to survey the Camp Fire burn zone and potentially interview survivors. I didn’t know it yet, but the three-day trip would change my life, my career, and my perspectives on what’s happening in my beloved home state. In many ways my encounter with Ronaldo set the stage for everything that followed.
It was the kind of dreary, drizzly morning that in most people triggers the hibernation instinct, the desire to curl up at home with a book, a cup of coffee, a loved one. Instead, Ronaldo was slogging through mud and undergrowth along the side of the highway holding a slapdash bindle as if it was 1930. The ground fog muted his orange shirt; he looked almost spectral amid the washed out colors. Which in a way is appropriate: California has long treated its poor and homeless as less than afterthoughts, like ghosts who occasionally cross the aetheric plane to manifest briefly in real life.
Like the trip itself, I don’t know what compelled me to pull off at the next exit, backtrack, and pull to the shoulder to offer him a ride. He seemed not even to notice me as I walked up to him while cars, buses, and eighteen wheelers roared past. I couldn’t imagine walking a few hundred meters along that road much less whatever distance he had traveled already by the time I encountered him.
Approaching him I noticed a construction site a half mile or so away. It was a viaduct for the planned California high speed rail project (HSR), better known as the bullet train. HSR was sold to voters in 2008 as a $33 billion, carbon neutral means of connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles in less than three hours, as compared to 55 minute flights. The rationale being that electric trains are more sustainable than airplanes. The first trains were to have started service in 2020.
Instead, as of 2018 the program was more than $60 billion over budget and a decade behind schedule. The first slow trains now are anticipated to connect Bakersfield and Modesto by 2029. Seriously. And it will not be remotely environmentally friendly, much less “sustainable.” Once you account for the massive ecological impacts of sourcing, mining, extracting, refining, forging, transporting, and installing the resource-intensive materials required for HSR, from rails and ties to batteries and propulsion systems — not to mention the environmentally catastrophic “renewable” energy sources, the vast majority of which currently are manufactured in China — that are supposed to provide the power to propel the system — the true environmental costs are readily apparent.
California’s bullet train has for many become a symbol of all that is broken, corrupt, and failing in the Golden State. What should have been a paradigm shifting infrastructure project has devolved into a brazen special interest feeding frenzy, consultants hoovering tens of millions from the public fisc while producing nothing for the people. Less than nothing, when you consider how those millions could have been better spent. Indeed, the backdrop was grimly appropriate: A construction site for California’s $90 billion train to nowhere rising through the polluted air like some post-apocalyptic industrial wasteland, framing a homeless wayfarer whose life could be transformed with a few thousand bucks and decent services.
I offered Ronaldo $20 to take his picture. He agreed. Afterward I gave him a ride to the next town. In the car I tried striking up a conversation but it quickly became clear that he was developmentally disabled. So I let him be, driving wordlessly as together we watched the scenes of decline and decay pass outside while a haunting tune called “Paris, Texas” by Ry Cooder played on the radio.
I let him off at a truck stop near Madera so he could at least get some food and maybe someplace dry to sleep. Hopefully. As I eased toward an onramp I glanced in the rear view mirror. Ronaldo had made it all of 20 feet, laying down on a bus bench and pulling his tarpaulin over his head as the mist swirled around him. It was the last I saw of him.
This is life in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history.
A long, strange trip
I didn’t know what was pulling me to the raw wound of the Camp Fire, what woke me at 4am and set my course 400 miles north. To this day I still don’t. I had no friends in the town, no connections except as a Californian and a human being. I’d yet to publish anything as a journalist and didn’t have a press badge – I was hoping my California bar card and a little blarney would get me into the burn zone itself.
Along with millions of other Americans, for days I had watched video after video on social media of people fleeing through the flames, a binge watch in a hellish alternate reality. By the time firefighters and Mother Nature snuffed the last of the flames 153,000 acres had burned along with some 19,000 homes and buildings. 52,000 people had evacuated and three towns had been wiped off the face of the earth. At least 88 were dead, some having succumbed in or near their cars when evacuations ground down into gridlock.
The place tugged at me like something supernatural – which is how many of the survivors I would meet described the fire itself. The night before I made the spontaneous drive north I watched two particularly powerful videos on Facebook. The first was posted by a man named Mark who filmed the sheer chaos of the evacuations from behind the wheel of his pickup. Gridlock and confusion – including intersections where overwhelmed police officers constantly changed the directions they sent people – forced him to reverse course numerous times, until he was repeating over and over, “This is it, man, this is it. I’m a goner.” Fortunately he survived.
The second was filmed by a woman named Avalon Kelley. Avalon, her husband Rocky, and their cat Loki drove through a sea of flames hundreds of feet high. As Avalon narrated the four minute video something in her voice – an almost inhuman combination of terror, grief, and disbelief – lodged in my mind like a red hot spike. She sobbed as she watched the inferno devour her friends’ and neighbors’ homes in minutes, sometimes even seconds, while Loki mewed mournfully in the background and Rocky, a Vietnam combat veteran, offered what reassurance he could from behind the wheel. I was as moved by the sound of Avalon’s voice as I was shocked they made it out alive. Their home, needless to say, did not. Their story was far from over that night and continues to this day.
I didn’t know what I was going to find in the ashes of Paradise. Nevertheless, the 72 hour journey would transform my view of the place five generations of my family have called home. Or, perhaps more accurately, it brought into consciousness and stark relief truths that had lurked in my subconscious for years.
The death of hope, the triumph of despair
Driving half the length of the state that November day I didn’t cover more than a handful miles at a time without passing a homeless camp, a tent city, a shantytown. People relieved themselves in broad daylight, shamelessly exposed toward the highway as families in cars and minivans passed. Others lay on the hillside shoulders as still as the dead. Given the numbers of homeless people who perish in California every year it’s entirely possible a couple of them were.
I stopped for a fill-up and road snacks on the outskirts of the agricultural town of Turlock. Behind the gas station convenience store was a neighborhood of decaying single family homes whose backyards were occupied by campers, trailers, and RVs. I wandered over to the fence and sure enough families were living in them. Children played in the mud amidst decomposing garbage. The scene was reminiscent of a refugee camp in a war-torn country, or a survivalist camp after an extinction-level event, which made its entirely quotidian aspect all the more horrifying. It’s how millions of people eke out their lives in the Golden State these days.
At 18.2% California’s poverty rate is the worst in the nation except for Washington DC. There are 151,278 homeless people in California, nearly half the nation’s total in a state that accounts for 12% of the population. Those are the official numbers, the kind of too-precise calculations that obscure more dire realities: According to an independent 2014 analysis by The National Center on Family Homelessness at the National Institutes for Research as many as 500,000 children experienced some form of homelessness in California in 2013. That was seven years ago, before the crisis truly began to spiral. Many other studies bear out similar conclusions. Suffice it to say, if half a million children experienced homelessness in a single year, the official number of total homeless is worse than meaningless. It’s catastrophically misleading.
As many as 15% of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District experience homelessness in a given year – roughly 75,000 kids. Kids who when the 3pm bell rings go to emergency shelters, motels, even cars and RVs. That number has jumped by 25% in the last three years. Many of those children will grow up to lead lives not all that different from Ronaldo’s. Or worse. As a whole California’s schools, once the envy of the country, have like so much else descended into decay. Today California has some of the worst public education systems in the country, with nearly half of the lowest performing individual schools. Meanwhile teachers’ unions rake in millions in dues and dole out millions in campaign contributions to politicians content with an educational system that by any reasonable standard should qualify as a crime against humanity. In 2017 barely a third of students the the LAUSD met or exceeded math standards and fewer than 40% did so in English Language Arts.
Those same teachers unions, who never miss an opportunity to blame “systemic racism,” are responsible for educational outcomes in predominantly Black communities like Compton, where the rates were 6.6% and 11.8%, respectively. It’s easier to blame people who have been dead for decades or centuries than to do the hard work required to help young people succeed in the present. The state’s high schools routinely graduate thousands of seniors who are functionally illiterate – young adults starting their life’s journeys without the ability to so much as fill out a fast food job application. It’s enough to make you wonder who the real racists are in the Golden State – graduates of failed public schools go on to become lifelong dependents of the very bureaucracies whose campaign contributions help sustain the dominant party. At the very least it’s food for thought.
No matter your politics, when you consider the numbers and these realities, California’s homeless crisis, and Ronaldo’s plight, become easier to explain.
Failing the future
When I started tutoring Leon* in February 2019 he was living with his mom, older sister, and two older brothers in a nondescript homeless shelter in Inglewood. He was 14 and going into seventh grade. Despite the fact that he was reading at a third or fourth grade level and couldn’t do multiplication beyond the number five his school routinely awarded him honor roll status. His school is among the lowest performing in Los Angeles, which is saying something.
Leon loves music, computers, and video games. He dreams of a career as a music engineer. I quickly learned he has a mischievous side and is a bit of a prankster. He also loves history. Whether Genghis Khan or Easter Island, the American Revolution or the Industrial Revolution, he couldn’t get enough during our all-too-brief weekly sessions. He has a remarkable ability to focus: Give him a set of math problems and the world vanishes until the last one’s solved. It’s a thing to behold. One day I gave him a set of 10 problems on the computer. After nearly ten minutes I asked him how many he had left. “Eight,” he replied. My heart sank until I glanced at the screen and realized I’d made a mistake: I’d given him 30 problems, not 10, and he was grinding away with fierce determination.
Leon’s ability to focus is all the more remarkable given the deafening noise in his world. He and his siblings take different routes to school everyday because patterns are dangerous in the neighborhood. He speaks with a pronounced stutter that started after he witnessed his best friend get gunned down in a random drive-by when they were both eight. They were playing in his friend’s front yard when a car pulled up, two men leaned out and sprayed the lawn and front door with bullets. Leon says he didn’t actually see the bullet hit his friend as they dove to the ground, but what difference? The killers were never found, his friend’s murder joining the nearly 50% of homicides that go unsolved each year in Los Angeles, the majority in South L.A. Leon would talk about the demons he sometimes sees at night. They crawl out of the air ducts and window cracks in the small two room apartment he shares with his family. He said they’re the ones that killed his friend. He keeps them at bay by praying.
After six months working together, through no fault of his own Leon broke my heart: His mom got a part time job in the baggage department at Long Beach Airport and the family moved away. I arrived for our regular Thursday session to learn they were gone. Of course my grief was selfish, yet the experience exemplified another persistent issue: California children with no sense of place, much less the kinds of stability and security that are essential to development and learning.
In a very real sense the state’s political class has abandoned millions of children (not their own, of course, who are safely ensconced in $50,000 a year private academies that are not so much educational institutions as today’s equivalent of Victorian era finishing schools). In the process they have abandoned the future to broken lives and government dependence – which may be the very point. Children like Leon grow up to be adults like Ronaldo – that is, if they don’t end up in prison. Either way their broken lives are extremely profitable for what many call the Poverty Industrial Complex.
The stark reality is that California’s political class depends on suffering and human misery. It is their sustenance. If they were to save our schools and solve our homeless crisis many thousands of government bureaucrats – not to mention armies of lawyers, consultants, nonprofits executives, and other white collar professionals making comfortable six figure salaries – would have to find real jobs. And we can’t have that.
Fleeing the fire on broken roads
Forty miles north of Sacramento you hit Yuba City. From then on you’re in mountain country, though the mountains themselves are another forty miles to the north and east. It’s one of those invisible California thresholds where little changes except the feeling, and maybe the air. You start to see more heavy agricultural equipment both on the roads and working the fields, a few more Bible passages on billboards and shunted tractor trailers beside the road.
On this trip Yuba City also functioned as another kind of break point, one that marked the edge of the fire zone. What had been occasional whiffs of smoke over the last hundred miles became a permanent sort of suffocation as the air slowly became a sickly brown-grey miasma.
Yuba City was where I saw the first RVs, campers, and overloaded cars filled with families fleeing the fire. A slow trickle quickly became a flood of vehicles of every imaginable sort. Some of the refugees flew defiant American flags, others flew San Francisco 49ers or Sacramento Kings pennants. Many had home made signs in their windows with home addresses and lists of family members’ names. A battered and charred blue F-150 pickup had a sign in the rear window with a single word: Gone.
I use the word “refugees” advisedly, for these folks were no longer evacuees. Evacuees are temporarily displaced people who fully plan to return home. In contrast, refugees know that all is lost. As a Californian I had seen evacuees over the years: From previous fires, floods, or earthquakes. My own family once evacuated our home in West Los Angeles in 1983, when I was eight years old and a fire threatened the canyon where we lived. The difference between evacuees and refugees manifests on people’s faces: Evacuees appear terrified and alert, refugees look defeated and resigned.
The conditions of the roads didn’t help their escape. Along with our schools and our social safety nets California’s infrastructure is collapsing. A May 2019 report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state an overall C-. The report also noted, “Googling ‘water main breaks’ in California will unfortunately yield a very long list of infrastructure failure stories covered by the media, and many more occur every day that don’t receive media attention.” Meanwhile, California – birthplace of the freeway – has some of the most decrepit roads in the country despite the fact that the majority of the state is spared the sorts of extreme weather that batters roads in regions like the Great Lakes and New England. Driving on those roads costs Californians $61 billion annually in congestion-related delays, gasoline, accidents, and increased vehicle wear and tear. It will cost $150 billion over the next decade just to to bring the system back to a state of good repair. Yet instead of spending money to mend the roads on which 40 million people rely cities and the state are spending billions on trains and buses no one rides and bike lanes that satisfy the lifestyle choices of a vanishingly small cohort of overwhelmingly young white men.
Meanwhile, state testing has revealed high levels of lead and other contaminants in the drinking water of 17% of public schools. According to a previously undisclosed report by senior officials at the California State Water Resources Control Board more than 1,000 water districts, accounting for more than one in three statewide, may be failing to deliver potable drinking water. These reports come on the heels of stories last year out of South Los Angeles, where the Sativa Water District in Compton became California’s very own Flint, Michigan. At least 678 dams are considered to be high-hazard potential. In February 2017 the Oroville Dam collapsed, forcing the evacuation of more than 180,000 people.
Human beings have been building and maintaining roads, bridges, and dams for millennia, yet here in the wealthiest place on Earth officials can no longer accomplish those basics of civilization. In California, potable water increasingly is a luxury. As I neared Chico and the flood of refugees became a veritable tsunami all of those potholes and cracks felt like insults added to the grievous injuries Camp Fire survivors already had experienced.
I soon learned that the survivors fleeing south were the luckier ones: They had somewhere to go. Thousands of others were less fortunate, relegated to campsites like the one in a field behind the WalMart in downtown Chico. Hundreds of tents and other makeshift shelters turned the rough ground into a literal refugee camp, the kind of scenes you’d expect to see in places like Cameroon, not California. Yet again my attention was on the children. They played muddy games of soccer and tag in the smoke filled air (in yet another insult, as the field continued to fill with families in tents a light rain converted the ground into a sticky mud). It is unknown how many Camp Fire refugees remain homeless today.
In yet another sign of the times the camps at WalMart and elsewhere already had attracted criminals and vagrants who preyed on the helpless. Suffice it to say the local police and Highway Patrol were otherwise occupied, leaving the refugees at the malcontents’ mercy.
Here and there were a few bright spots, if they could be called that. In contrast to the myriad failures of the state’s political class, private companies, charities, faith groups, and organizations like the Girl Scouts were providing food, clothing, shelter, and other essentials. Some were from out of state: A truck loaded with clothing sported Oregon plates, and a van full of food had tags from Oklahoma. In the ashes of one of the worst disasters in California history the only sign of government activity was a FEMA trailer.
As I pulled onto the aptly-named Skyway Boulevard and began the final climb to Paradise, the Spotify app played “Nowhere to Run” by Martha Reeves and the Vandalls. Hauntingly, the computers seemed to know where I was headed: The soundtrack to the rest of the afternoon included the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” and “Ticking Bomb” by Aloe Blacc.
Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide
Five miles up Skyway I saw the first burned out cars. I kept thinking of that sign in the pickup’s window: Gone. Amidst the devastation the atmosphere, and the world, felt a hundred times heavier. Everything pressed in, the air, the smoke, the sights. Even the sound, or rather the lack of it, seemed to have a physical presence. Time and space seemed somehow contorted, folded upon themselves. There’s an almost complete absence of color in burn zones, everything washed out in sepia: The ruins of buildings and houses, the burned-out cars, the hills, the trees, the sky.
Then there was the smell: Along with the people who lost their lives many thousands of wild and domestic animals perished in the fire, leaving behind the hideous, unmistakable odor of death. It would hang on my clothes, my skin and hair, and inside my car for weeks after I returned home.
We’re from the government, and we’re here to help
Ronald Regan famously quipped that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Perhaps the biggest revelation from my journey to the fire was learning the role the California state government, the Butte County Association of Governments, and even some leaders in the town itself played in creating ideal conditions for people to become trapped as they fled. The Camp Fire was not the first time fire evacuations had bogged down in these mountains. During the 2008 Humboldt Complex Fire, evacuations in many parts of Paradise and the neighboring town of Magalia similarly gridlocked.
The situation prompted an investigation and report by the Butte County Grand Jury. Among the Grand Jury’s main recommendations were that the county widen the shoulders and turnouts along existing evacuation routes, of which there are only three, clear vegetation the Skyway between Chico and Paradise, and add a new evacuation route to the north by paving an existing gravel road from Magalia to Butte Meadows.
Inexplicably, in September 2009, the Butte County Board of Supervisors called the grand jury report “not reasonable.” A couple years later the county actually narrowed dozens of miles of roads throughout Paradise. Without a hint of irony officials named the initiative “Livable Streets.” The three major evacuation routes, Skyway Boulevard, Clark Road, and Pearson Street, all were narrowed in places. The county also installed center medians, sidewalk bulb-out’s, bollards, and other traffic obstacles throughout the city, supposedly in an effort to make the streets more inviting for bicyclists and pedestrians.
After the fire officials implausibly claimed that the reductions – called “road diets” and obstacles had no impact on evacuations. Then Mayor Jody Jones told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t believe that [the changes] really mattered.”
The survivors I spoke with had quite a different take. An emergency room nurse who described fleeing on foot when traffic came to a halt said, “Even before the fire we wondered what in the Hell they were thinking.” Many people said that traffic in town had gotten so bad after the changes that they started calling it “Paradise’s 405” in reference to the notoriously congested Los Angeles freeway. During the frenzied evacuations many of these new choke points became what one Cal Fire captain described to me as “kill zones.” They were not exceptions.
Far from learning the tragic lessons of the Paradise road diets California is imposing hundreds of similar changes to evacuation routes statewide, part of an effort to combat climate change by discouraging people from driving. Some call it a war on cars. This summer, as another swarm of fires engulfed the region, the roads remain narrowed. Indeed, a recent picture in the L.A. Times showed traffic bogged down on the Skyway during the current fires (the picture, shown above, has since been removed).
It’s impossible to know how many people in how many towns are being put at risk because of these ideologically motivated projects. A study conducted by a San Francisco-based traffic analytics company called StreetLight Data has identified dozens of communities statewide that already have limited evacuation routes relative to their populations. Many are considering or have implemented road diets already. For example, in the Marin County city of Mill Valley plans to replace two of four lanes on part of a main evacuation route, East Blithedale Boulevard, to make way for bicycle lanes, widened sidewalks, and other obstacles. In the even of a fire thousands of people will have to negotiate the new obstacles as they evacuate.
California is a time bomb
Virtually no one I spoke with in Paradise that November weekend, and no one I’ve spoken with since, believes the official death toll of 88 from the Camp Fire. Most people believe it is substantially higher, perhaps by several times. When I asked a Cal Fire captain back in Chico about it later that Friday evening, he just shook his head and said, “I can’t talk about it,” before walking away. His thousand yard stare said everything. A survivor named Patricia Clark, an emergency room nurse who presumably had seen it all before the fire, broke down in tears on the phone with me as she described seeing at least three people burn to death in their cars as she ran through the flames. Others showed me images and videos to horrific to describe much less share.
The Camp Fire was triggered by faulty transmission facilities. Pacific Gas & Electric, the region’s quasi-public energy provider, recently agreed to a $25 billion settlement with victims, cities, and insurance companies related to the Camp Fire and others.
But these fires are going to happen no matter what. So far this year some 4 million acres have burned, by far the worst fire season on record (though an average year by historical standards – before white settlers arrived as much as 12 million acres burned annually). While the political class blames climate change the fact of the matter is their own policies are as much to blame. Environmental radicalism so dominates policy that logging and other vegetation thinning measures are little more than quaint memories. Old fashioned greed also plays a central role, as lawmakers and officials continue to encourage and even subsidize development in wildland urban interface zones, placing millions of Californians at risk. And the political class’s obsession with bicycles and mass transit means more and more evacuation routes will be severely limited in coming years.
A reckoning is coming to California. More than half the state’s residents (and nearly two thirds of young people in the state) say they would leaveif they had the chance. If not for immigration the state would have lost population over the last 20 years. Unchecked spending, particularly in the form of generous pay, benefits, and retirement packages for government employees, has put the state on the hook for some $1.5 trillion in unfunded future liabilities. That means it’s only going to get more difficult, if not impossible, to spend the money needed to save our schools, repair our infrastructure, and prevent mass casualties in future fires and floods. Forget about planning for the future: California increasingly is sliding toward a pre-industrial state of anarchy. We see it from Venice Beach to San Francisco.
Every bad policy decision, every ounce of corruption, and every example of rank incompetence from California’s political class was on full display during my journey to the fire. As I traveled back south, joining the endless caravan of refugees, I wondered if my beloved home state already is beyond salvation.
Passing through Fresno I scanned the highway shoulders for Ronaldo. He was nowhere to be found. Like a million other Californians he had simply vanished into the abyss. On the other side of the freeway an elevated bypass for the bullet train was under construction. It was already covered in graffiti.
I couldn’t make out the words, but it occurred to me that only one would have made sense: Gone….
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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.
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.