Officials including Governor Gavin Newsom were behind outrageously expensive efforts that only made the crisis worse
“The plan produced by the Ten-Year Planning Council is both a blueprint and a bold step toward a new and revolutionary way to break the cycle of chronic homelessness.” San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, June 30, 2004
“This crisis has been more than a half century in the making, and this Administration is just getting started on solutions.” Governor Gavin Newsom, October 19, 2019
“This Bring L.A. Home plan initiates a 10 year plan to end homelessness in Los Angeles County.” Bring L.A. Home final report, co-authored by Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti, April 2006
“We can cut this problem in half in five years. And in 10 years we can end life on the street.” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, March 2018
Advocates for changes to California’s approach to homelessness were disappointed last year when the Supreme Court denied certiorari in City of Boise v. Martin. The petitioners in that case sought to challenge a 2018 Ninth Circuit ruling preventing cities from citing or fining people for camping in public spaces overnight unless alternative shelter is available. In reality, even though more than a dozen cities in the western U.S. urged the Court to take the case, like all petitions to the high court review was always a long shot.
Nevertheless, it was viewed as another setback as California’s homeless crisis continued to spiral with no end in sight. In Los Angeles public anger erupts routinely and with increasing frequency on social media, at community events, and at town halls hosted by city councilmembers. It spawned an effort to recall Mayor Eric Garcetti and prompted calls for the resignations of Councilmembers including Mike Bonin and Paul Kerkorian. Mr. Bonin has all but stopped appearing in public outside of carefully stage-managed events.
In fact, officials in Los Angeles and across California have been failing for far longer than most people realize. In 2018 Mayor Garcetti promised to end chronic homelessness in ten years. The pledge came on the heels of his 2014 pledge to house all of the city’s homeless veterans, first by 2015 and then 2016 (he eventually scrapped the timeline). Back in 2013, during his first mayoral run, Garcetti vowed to end chronic homelessness in ten years. Likewise, upon assuming office as Mayor of San Francisco in 2004, Gavin Newsom pledged to end homelessness in that city within – wait for it – ten years.
California’s political class has not lacked for grand plans, all of which seem to fall under the ten year category. Mayor Newsom’s pledge was accompanied by the formation of a “Ten Year Plan Council” comprised of 33 local leaders. Advocates criticized the body for being too heavy on political insiders and light on subject matter experts. Nevertheless, they released their Ten Year Plan to Abolish Chronic Homelessness in July 2004.
Likewise in 2004, the City and County of Los Angeles convened their own “blue ribbon commission” called Bring L.A. Home, to study homelessness and recommend workable solutions. Like San Francisco’s Council the 60 members comprised a who’s who of ensconced city insiders and power brokers, including Eric Garcetti, Wendy Greuel, Jan Perry, Mike Feuer, Cardinal Roger Mahoney, then LAPD Chief William Bratton, and Antonio Villaraigosa.
The result of Bring L.A. Home’s efforts was a report released in April 2006. As in San Francisco the authors promised “a 10-year campaign to end homelessness in Los Angeles County by setting forth a broad range of strategies that address a multitude of issues related to homelessness.” They declared, “Nothing of the magnitude proposed by this Plan has been attempted before in Los Angeles.”
It turned out that nothing proposed by the plan was attempted, either. Today the website https://www.bringlahome.org redirects to what appears to be an Indonesian consulting firm (caution: possibly unsafe website). Email and telephone inquiries to several members of the blue ribbon committee were not returned.
Officials like Messrs. Newsom and Garcetti have been failing for nearly two decades
When Bring L.A. Home released its report and recommendations, Eric Garcetti was president of the City Council. No one other than Mayor Villaraigosa himself was better positioned to turn words into action. Yet nothing happened. No new housing was built, no programs launched. Now, fifteen years later, Mayor Garcetti rarely goes a month without a new, equally grandiose plan.
The road to Hell, as the saying goes, is paved with good intentions. Bring L.A. Home and San Francisco’s Ten Year Plan were nothing if not ambitious. The Chair of San Francisco’s Council, the consummate insider Angela Alioto, declared, “For the first time in the twenty years that I have been in public life, I feel the united excitement, the electric energy, the profound intelligence, and the strong will to end chronic homelessness in our great City.”
Likewise, L.A.’s blue ribbon commission said, “In the last twenty years, bold initiatives to end homelessness have come and gone.” Ironically their plan quickly joined that sad retinue, as the city’s approach to the issue devolved into a money grab by officials complete with allegations of impropriety, nepotism, and outright fraud (an excellent 2012 article in CityWatch by then-mayoral candidate and current president of L.A.’s Public Works Commission Kevin James highlighted some of the abuses).
Then again there’s good cause to question whether the reports themselves, and the individuals behind them, were serious. L.A.’s plan was replete with gauzy lingo that belied an underlying lack of focus, much less specific actionable steps. Indeed, much of it consisted of virtually incomprehensible bureaucrat speak: We must build, support and develop funding and legislative strategies for 50,000 new units. As a matter of urgency, we must create at least 11,500 units of housing targeting homeless families and individuals earning less than 30% of the area median income (AMI) and 15% of AMI, including 4,900 units of housing linked to services and 2,845 units made affordable through tenant-based deep subsidies. We cannot be complacent, however, as we need to develop an additional 38,500 units of housing targeting homeless families and individuals earning less than 30% and 15% of AMI, including increasing from 4,900 to 21,000 the number of units of housing linked to services and from 2,845 to 12,452 the number of units made affordable through deep tenant-based subsidies.
If you can translate that, please email us.
Moreover, consider that over a decade later, with none of the units proposed in Bring L.A. Home having been built, voters in the City of Los Angeles approved Measure HHH, a $1.2 billion bond measure to support 10,000 new units in 10 years. That works out to $120,000 each, compared to the 2008 Plan’s anticipated $165,000. Apparently, officials thought that in ten years construction costs in L.A. had dropped by 30%. Of course, Angelenos know now that the actual costs are averaging more than $500,000 per unit, with some projects potentially exceeding $700,000 per unit.
Worse, in October of last year Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin released a damning report that concluded, “Not a single bond-funded unit of homeless housing has opened since voters approved the bond measure three years ago.” His office followed up with an update this summr. And if the units end up costing on the low end of $500,000 each it would require $18 billion to house all of the city’s 36,000 homeless. That’s nearly twice the city’s total annual budget. To house all 59,000 homeless people in the county would cost nearly $30 billion.
Suffice it to say, these are not real numbers. They are no more real than the math found in Bring L.A. Home all those years ago. Meanwhile, according to San Francisco’s 2004 Plan there were an estimated 15,000 homeless people in the city by the bay that year. Last year there were at least 17,500. And the conditions in which homeless people exist statewide continue to deteriorate, in many places reaching downright post-apocalyptic scenes on a regular basis.
While the political classes in L.A. and San Francisco are the worst offenders, they are tragically far from alone:
- In 2006 the City of Sacramento released a Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. The homeless population in that city has continued to increase, including a 20% spike in 2017 alone.
- In 2006 Marin County issued a report called “The Next Decade: Marin County’s Ten Year Homeless Plan.” Nearly ten years later the Marin County Grand Jury released a report entitled “Homelessness in Marin —A Call for Leadership.” That report concluded that County-wide efforts were “unfocused and disorganized due to a lack of collaboration between the County, the cities, and the service organizations.” A subsequent 2018 “progress report” concluded, “This Grand Jury sees homelessness as a continuing and urgent problem in the County worthy of reconsideration” (Marin did report a drop in its official homeless population last year).
- In 2006 Alameda County released a report called Everyone Home, which “outline[d] a reorientation of housing and service systems to end chronic homelessness within ten years and significantly reduce housing crises for these vulnerable populations in Alameda County over fifteen years.” Over the last three years Alameda has led the state in the rate of increase in its homeless population.
Numerous studies have concluded that California’s official homeless numbers, based on federally-mandated annual counts, are highly suspect. The true numbers are significantly higher. To cite one of myriad examples, a 2014 report from the National Center on Family Homelessness at the American Institutes for Research estimated that 526,708 children were homeless for any amount of time in California in 2013. One in four Californians live in Los Angeles County, suggesting that as many as 131,677 children experienced homelessness in L.A. that year, or more than three and a half times the total number of reported homeless that year.
As the cliche goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. While not strictly accurate it’s an excellent description of conditions in California. How many more chances will Californians give to the same failed leaders?
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Property owner captured video of St. Joseph Center staff dropping the woman and her belongings
On Monday afternoon the owner of The Wood Restaurant in Culver City filmed two staffers from the nonprofit St. Joseph Center appearing to drop off a wheelchair bound homeless woman and her belongings in his parking lot.
The lot is big enough for about 20 cars. It’s private property and the restaurant is closed temporarily due to the coronavirus economic shutdown, so no one else was around when owner Demetrios Mavromichalis happened to stop by (disclosure: Mr. Mavromichalis is a personal friend). As he started filming, one of the staffers called their manager, who offered to speak with him. He refused, not wanting to share a phone with a stranger in the coronavirus pandemic. He said that they remained in the parking lot for about an hour, mostly on their phones, then loaded the woman and her possessions back into the van and left.
Ironically, the parking lot is where Mr. Mavromichalis hosts food giveaways by Nourish L.A., a youth-driven grassroots organization that provides families in need with healthy, restaurant quality food. Every Sunday lines of cars stretch many blocks down Washington Boulevard. According to the program’s director they feed more than 1,000 people every week. The organization’s efforts recently were the subject of a New York Times feature.
On the video, when Mr. Mavromichalis asked the St. Joseph Center staffers why they were leaving the woman on his property, the female staffer can be heard saying, “We have offered shelter and everything to her but she declined it at the last minute. We tried to take her somewhere else and she’s just like ‘leave me here.’ She had a shelter to go to and she turned that all down. She literally declined it. Everything was set up [for her].”
The telephone number for the manager to whom the employees referred Mr. Mavromichalis has gone straight to voicemail for the last 48 hours, and she has not returned messages. However, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit provided the following statement:
[A]t no time was this client going to be left or just dropped off. I spoke to our outreach team Director, and the situation was that the client had been in a motel for over two months, and we needed to move her, but she refused to go to the new location at the last minute. It was communicated to her that we couldn’t continue to pay for that motel, but we could take her to a shelter. The woman became irate and asked to get out of the car. To deescalate the situation, our outreach team stopped the car and let her out as she requested. Since she was in a wheelchair, it was better to let her out somewhere safer than along the street or curb until she calmed down. When she refused to go along with the team, they called their manager to ask what they should do. They were told to bring her back to the motel, and the manager would try to work something out for her to stay longer. Our staff was able to secure another motel, and that is where she is now. We are continuing to work with her and hope to find her permanent housing with her voucher.Dierdre Robinson, VP of Marketing & Communications, St. Joseph Center
On the video the woman did appear to be in emotional distress, though she claimed she didn’t turn down shelter. She said a motel voucher was available and the room was “wide open.” When Mr. Mavromichalis told her the staffer said she had turned down shelter she said “bulls**t.” Eventually she said she wanted to “get away from” them because they “weren’t doing the right thing.”
The situation, and the competing stories, raise more questions than they answer. Most obviously, if the St. Joseph’s staff were trying to deescalate things why did they also unload the woman’s belongings, including two bags they placed next to a dumpster? Why did they park the van – which did not have St. Joseph logos or other identifying markings – at the back of the large parking lot, and in the position they did?
In a subsequent email Ms. Robinson explained that St. Joseph Center has “limited funding for motels due to the cost so clients are only able to stay in motels a relatively short period of time.”
The nonprofit is funded by tens of millions from city and county sources, as well as foundations and high net worth individuals. Are they still stretched thin? How often are St. Joseph’s clients downgraded from motels to homeless shelters or the streets? And if staff were able to secure another motel on such short notice that same afternoon, why didn’t that happen in the first place?
The situation raises another issue: Starting about five years ago videos of ambulances dropping homeless patients on sidewalks and in camps prompted outrage throughout L.A. In 2018 Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation prohibiting hospitals from releasing homeless patients onto the streets. No such law applies to nonprofits.
To be sure, one of the central challenges of L.A.’s and California’s homeless crisis is that in all too many cases individuals are unwilling (or unable) to accept shelter. That’s a big part of the reason so many shelter beds go unused every night. A significant portion of the homeless population suffer from mental illness that makes it all but impossible for them to exercise sound judgment, or even free will. Many more are addicted to drugs or alcohol and are unable or unwilling to abide by rules inside. And some simply prefer life outside and have no interest in shelter or services.
A May 2018 investigation by KPCC radio determined, “Reviews conducted at 60 shelters funded by [Los Angeles County] last year found more than half — 33 — were not filling all of their beds. Overall, LAHSA-funded shelters had a 78 percent utilization rate, well below the 90 percent required in their contracts. Monitors also found that 25 of those facilities were failing to meet the minimum standards required by their contracts to get people off the streets for good.” The report added that in many cases the conditions of the shelters themselves are deterrents, citing “Rats, roaches, bedbugs, and mold.”
Still, it has long been clear that the city’s network of nonprofits is falling short despite generous funding from public entities, private foundations, and high net worth individuals. Their budgets balloon while the crisis gets ever worse.
Indeed, public records reveal that St. Joseph Center is swimming in cash. According to IRS Form 990 filings the organization received more than $130,000,000 in funding between 2010 and 2018. In that span its annual receipts increased from $7 million to more than $25 million and the CEO’s salary almost doubled, from $126,250 to $240,570. In comparison middle and lower class Americans saw their salaries increase by barely 13%, representing a net decrease when factored for inflation.
Its funding sources are diverse. In 2017 St. Joseph Center received more than $11.3 million in public funds from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) through Measure H. In 2018 it received nearly $10 million. Since 2005 St. Joseph Center also has received millions in funding from Culver City, often in the form of no-bid contracts. Last year the nonprofit received a $5 million grant from Jeff Bezos’s Day One Fund for its eleemosynary work.
These numbers are difficult to square with the spokeswoman’s statement that St. Joseph Center could no longer pay for the homeless woman’s motel room.
The nonprofit seems less generous with its rank and file: According to Glassdoor, case managers and regional coordinators make just $39,000 a year. About half the employee reviews are negative, referring to mismanagement, lack of transparency, and misappropriation of funds. An anonymous current employee wrote, “Employees are taken advantage of for their good nature and asked to work in unacceptable working conditions at offsite locations with no air conditioning, no break space, 1 toilet for all staff, and no parking.” Even many of the positive reviews complain of low pay, high case loads, and lack of support from management.
According to public records the public funds St. Joseph Center has received were for programs including “Homeless Prevention for Single Adults” and “Partnering with Cities to Expand Rapid Re-Housing.” The nonprofit has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the City of Los Angeles for efforts including “efforts to find permanent housing for homeless city residents.”
Yesterday, at least, it appeared St. Joseph Center did not meet those obligations.
Note: We contacted the woman, Shawna, and she gave permission for us to use her pictures. This story is developing. Check back for updates. If you have information related to the homeless woman and/or St. Joseph Center, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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Councilman Mike Bonin’s idea would swap one homeless population for another while doing nothing to address the underlying crisis
Los Angeles city councilman Mike Bonin stunned constituents on Saturday when he announced that he intends to introduce legislation ordering the city to explore using federal coronavirus relief funds to purchase distressed properties and give them to homeless people. While he was silent on details – such as which city agency would be responsible for what would amount to the largest exercise of eminent domain in history or the legal basis for redirecting desperately needed federal dollars – his announcement sent chills through his west Los Angeles district.
According to the councilman, who along with his husband owns two houses, targeted properties would include homes as well as hotels (the All Aspect Report has the exclusive audio of Mr. Bonin’s announcement):
I intend on putting in another proposal in the next week or two that asks the city to look at the federal bailout or stimulus funds we’ll be getting as a result of this crisis…and using some of that to either buy hotels that go belly up or to buy the distressed properties that are absolutely going to be on the market at cheaper prices after this crisis is over. And use that as homeless and affordable housing. It’s going to be a hell of a lot cheaper to purchase stuff that is already there and move people in there than if we start from scratch. A lot of good stuff is being done.Los Angeles city councilman Mike Bonin
The cynicism of Mr. Bonin’s proposal is exceeded only by its hypocrisy: Along with most of California’s political class he has claimed for years that the only solution to L.A.’s homeless crisis is, to coin a phrase, “build, baby, build.” Saturday’s proposal effectively admits that approach has failed, as anyone paying the slightest attention has long recognized. The problem is that he wants to replace a failed policy with a catastrophically destructive one.
Mr. Bonin’s constituents by now are well aware of the damage he can cause when he sets his mind to it. From business-killing “road diets” to neighborhood-destroying homeless shelters he long ago lost the confidence of many, if not most of the people in his district. Even his firewall of wealthy benefactors in places like Brentwood are questioning his motives and competence. He is as responsible as anyone for the homeless crisis ravaging the westside and has turned a blind eye to the rampant criminality consuming neighborhoods including Venice, Mar Vista, Brentwood, Marina del Rey, Del Rey, Westchester, and elsewhere. His office has all but stopped responding to constituents’ concerns and these days he only appears publicly in carefully stage-managed events flanked by reliable city bureaucrats and his own lackeys.
Having failed his constituents and communities for the better part of a decade he now wants to exploit Angelenos being devastated by the coronavirus shut down. He would give homes for which they worked and saved for years or decades over to the homeless, the majority of whom are unstable, often violent addicts who come to Los Angeles because it’s the best place in the country to live the lifestyle they’ve chosen (the protestations of Mr. Bonin and his fellow travelers aside, the majority of hardcore homeless are not struggling families or blameless working class people evicted from their homes – people who want shelter and services in Los Angeles find them).
It is unprecedented for a public servant to propose using the people’s own money to buy their homes at a discount in the midst of a crisis. Moreover, the fact that people who lose their homes to foreclosure would by definition become homeless themselves seems lost on Mr. Bonin. His idea amounts to poverty musical chairs. It would do nothing to solve the city’s homeless crisis, and almost certainly would make it worse. It would also be another huge step in the hollowing out of the California middle class.
Mr. Bonin and other self-proclaimed progressives on city council claim to care about the poor. Yet the first people to be evicted will be those who are barely hanging on as it is. Those foreclosed properties he wants to buy for a song would be the homes of hardworking Angelenos, many of them people of color. Meanwhile, Mr. Bonin himself continues collecting his $285,000 a year taxpayer funded paycheck. He doesn’t have to worry about losing his home(s).
Mr. Bonin could have proposed a mortgage assistance plan that actually would help struggling Angelenos stay in their homes (and which would be considerably cheaper than purchasing properties, even at foreclosure discounts). He finally could have proposed using the federal funds to establish rapid deployment emergency shelters, as many have been urging for years.
Instead, while millions of tax paying, law abiding Angelenos face financial ruin as a result of the now two month long government shutdown, Mr. Bonin – a man who has never run a business or been responsible for a payroll – casually refers to hotels going “belly up.” He sounded positively giddy at the possibility of the city using taxpayer money to snap up people’s homes, which he says will be available on the cheap.
Never let a crisis go to waste, indeed.
The failure of L.A.’s elected officials to solve the homeless crisis is well-documented, and some of the largest encampments in the city are in Mr. Bonin’s district. Despite years of pleas from his constituents the councilman has done virtually nothing to tackle the crisis. Indeed, even some of the homeless themselves have castigated Mr. Bonin for his incompetence. A man living in a small homeless camp near the Mar Vista post office who identified himself as “Hippie” told The All Aspect report late last year that, “I’ve heard him talk, but I never see anything happen.”
Mike Bonin long ago proved he is not worthy of the office he holds. He is a pawn of big developers and a tool of the homeless industrial complex. This latest proposal proves once and for all that he could care less about the hardworking Angelenos he is supposed to represent.
It’s a shameful moment for the city of Los Angeles.
A government that prioritizes prosecuting surfers and beer drinkers over pimps and drug dealers is a government adrift
Since the first states issued self-isolation orders in early March Americans have surrendered a shocking portion of their rights to the political class. In a matter of weeks 250 years of constitutional law has collapsed upon itself like a spectacular legalistic quasar. Like an imploding star the collapse has generated a massive release of energy, only instead of electromagnetic radiation the energy here is frenzied governmental activity.
To be sure, a pandemic like coronavirus requires robust public sector action. But the brute force of the official response is deeply disconcerting, more so in light of history: Governments that seize control rarely relinquish it.
At the same time, two months into the emergency people are discovering that every level of their government was utterly unprepared for a 21st century public health crisis that wasn’t just foreseeable but inevitable. The precursors were SARS, H1N1, and avian flu. To not have seen something like coronavirus coming amounts to willful ignorance bordering on criminal negligence.
Of course the very officials and bureaucrats whittling away at civil liberties (while continuing to collect their taxpayer funded paychecks) are the ones who failed to prepare in the first place. In late January the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – an agency whose $5 billion annual existence is predicated on preparing for and responding to public health issues – was still reassuring Americans that coronavirus was not transmittable between people. In March, with the crisis in full bloom, the agency still was fumbling its response. So much for disease control and prevention.
The political class is proving that while they can’t contain a virus they can extinguish constitutional rights. Much easier for a governor or mayor to sign a one-page order written by staffers than to spend the months and years necessary to actually prepare for something like this in the first place. Much easier to bloviate at daily pressers than to devise a strategic response.
The price of their incompetence has been lost lives, lost jobs, lost wages, and lost futures. These countless individual tragedies have been compounded by a sudden, massive deprivation of civil liberties. In places like New York and California the deprivation has become virtually absolute.
With few exceptions people have accepted the diminution of cherished rights willingly, voluntarily, even enthusiastically. They’ve surrendered rights for which millions sacrificed, fought, and died over the course of two and a half centuries at the behest of a political class that in the best of times can’t keep the streets paved.
Virtually no one blinked last Thursday when Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the city was closing all public parks for 36 hours, from Saturday afternoon to Monday morning, specifically to prevent people from gathering to celebrate Easter mass. The order effectively suspended two of the Constitution’s most precious protections, freedom of religion and assembly. Churches, of course, have been closed for weeks already.
People convening for a few hours to observe the holiest day of the Christian calendar warranted draconian measures and the full force of the state’s police powers to suspend core constitutional rights. Mr. Garcetti said, “I know this is a time of the year when many of our families and friends celebrate Easter by getting together outdoors –– and we just can’t take any chances right now.”
Yet he’s been taking chances with tens of thousands of homeless people since the crisis started, which in turn threatens the well-being of every single Angeleno. Make no mistake: Mr. Garcetti, like California’s entire political class, has concluded that homelessness, prostitution, drug dealing, addiction, crime, and public disturbances are acceptable exceptions to self isolation orders.
As millions of Angelenos shelter in place public parks have remained havens for homeless, vagrants, and criminals. Dealers openly sell meth, opiods, fentanyl, even home-brewed liquor without the slightest fear of consequence. Open-air drug deals go down in plain view of law enforcement. The All Aspect Report observed a resident of L.A.’s “A Bridge Home” shelter in Venice yesterday dancing on a sidewalk screaming, “It’s corona time, baby!” A few minutes later shelter staff allowed him back inside, no questions asked.
Homeless people gather in close quarters and in small and large groups without any law enforcement response. Quite the opposite, in fact: The Los Angeles City Council ordered that illegal encampments and entire tent cities will remain in place 24 hours a day, indefinitely. Council’s tortured logic is that homeless people are safer in filthy, vermin infested, crime ridden camps. In reality they’ve simply given up. San Francisco quickly followed suit. Meanwhile, across California politicians’ bold plans to house tens of thousands of homeless in hotels, motels, and recreation centers has quietly fallen apart. And just today the Los Angeles Times reported that the LAPD has all but ceased enforcement of sex trafficking laws, exposing the most vulnerable girls and women to new levels of danger and exploitation.
In one of the more infamous examples a man paddle boarding near the Malibu Pier was arrested two weeks ago for refusing to comply with orders that he leave the water. While the man behaved foolishly in defying law enforcement’s orders, it beggars belief that a single individual in the middle of the breakers required two lifeguard boats, a half dozen Sheriff’s cruisers, and two dozen personnel. He was literally the only person for hundreds of yards in any direction.
When people (again, foolishly) crowded L.A. County hiking trails last month the official response was to close all trails completely. Instead of such drastic measures perhaps some of those Sheriff’s deputies who spent time arresting an errant wave enthusiast could instead have been dispatched to enforce social distancing on trails. Then again that would require planning, strategy, and creative thinking, all of which are in dangerously short supply among our city’s and state’s electeds. Last weekend the Santa Cruz sheriff’s department handed out $7,000 worth of fines to a group of young people whose offense against the state consisted of purchasing beer.
Meanwhile, the county is dispatching enforcers to small businesses perceived as violating shut-down orders. Most of these visits are unannounced. The owners of a small print shop in north L.A. report that they have received visits on consecutive days, first by the Sheriff’s department and then by an city official who refused to identify himself (he also claimed to be “out of business cards”) but who left orders from the county health department related to the shop’s operations. The owners, who asked not to be identified for fear official retaliation (let that sink in, by the way), have been keeping the shop open to serve residents seeking, among other things, to apply for relief or small business loans under the CARE Act. If that isn’t an essential service it’s hard to imagine one, but it remains to be seen whether they will be allowed to continue.
People need to be demanding answers from the political class. Why are hundreds of thousands of vagrants and criminals allowed to roam free, their lives virtually unchanged, while everyone else is subject to virtually unlimited control? Why are some kids buying beer considered a greater threat than vagrants assaulting women and dealing drugs?
Stripped to the essentials government’s purpose is protect the populace. At every level, government has failed. Instead of protecting the people the political class is stripping them of basic civil liberties. A government that prioritizes prosecuting surfers and beer drinkers over pimps and drug dealers is a government adrift.
The most egregious of the violations is the virtual suspension of due process. Stay at home orders, orders banning business from operating, and orders forbidding people from assembling amount to an unprecedented intrusion by government into every single American’s life and an unprecedented use of the state’s powers – and it’s happened with zero due process. The many constitutional infringements include:
- First Amendment. Stay-at-home orders by definition violate the First Amendment’s protection of peaceable assembly. In a very real way that right has all but ceased to exist. Meanwhile, city and state governments nationwide banned religious gatherings over Easter weekend. Some places like Los Angeles banned all gatherings, while states like Kansas banned more than 10 people. Regardless these orders are fundamental violations of the constitutional protections of religious freedom.
- Fourth Amendment. State and local officials across the country are urging people to report violations of stay at home orders to law enforcement. Last Tuesday Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti openly encouraged Angelenos to “snitch” on each other, and this week Riverside County released and promoted a mobile app that allows neighbors to anonymously report one another. As the print shop case proves in stark relief officials have abandoned standards of probable cause or even reasonable suspicion, in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.
- Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Due process has virtually ceased to exist. Extraordinary government orders have deprived tens of millions of their civil liberties, not to mention their livelihoods, without notice, an opportunity to be heard, nor a chance to rebut the justifications behind the orders. Procedural due process is the guarantee of a fair legal process when the government tries to interfere with a citizen’s protected interests in life, liberty, or property. Substantive due process is the guarantee that the government will not encroach on fundamental rights of citizens. Government at all levels has abandoned these precious guarantees.
- Fifth Amendment, part 2. Official orders also are depriving millions of Americans of business income without any compensation. The shuttering of millions of businesses amounts to the biggest de facto public taking in American history, which under the Fifth Amendment requires due process and just compensation. A twelve hundred dollar check doesn’t count.
- Sixth Amendment. Many official orders arguably are tantamount to criminal prosecutions. Shuttering a business, putting dozens or hundreds of people out of work, and destroying people’s life’s savings is a profound exercise of governmental police power. Every affected business owner is effectively presumed guilty. They have been given no opportunity to be heard, no trial by jury, no opportunity to present contrary evidence or witnesses, and no legal representation.
- Eighth Amendment. The Excessive Fines Clause prohibits fines that are “so grossly excessive as to amount to a deprivation of property without due process of law.” While stay at home and other orders aren’t strictly “fines,” they have the same cumulative effect: Forcing businesses to close amounts to a fine, because the order deprives them of normal income. Moreover, to the extent the orders are enforced by government’s police power they may violate the amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
- Fourteenth Amendment. Again, many of the orders issued at the federal, state, county, municipal, and local levels have deprived Americans of fundamental rights. No one has been given notice or an opportunity to be heard.
It remains to be seen how many of these new restrictions will become permanent or semi-permanent. Yesterday Governor Gavin Newsom justified more stay-at-home orders by remarking, “Not only is the past not equal to the future, but we also have to recognize that we are not just along for the ride as it relates to experiencing the future. The future happens inside of us.”
Because, you see, we have always been at war with coronavirus.
Despite official promises and plans lawlessness remains the new normal in many neighborhoods
While public health orders have ten million Los Angeles County residents hunkered down during the coronavirus pandemic, many of the region’s homeless – officially numbering nearly 60,000 in the county but in reality significantly more – are living as though nothing has changed. Encampments remain stubborn facts of life in virtually every community in the Southland, on sidewalks and in parks and public places closed to the general public. Homeless people socialize in close quarters and congregate in small and large groups, sharing cigarettes, food, drink, and drugs. Virtually none wear facial protection in accordance with the most recent orders.
In Venice Beach a group of homeless artists even put up a “permanent” art installation called The Tiki Bar where people have congregated over the last week (UPDATE 4/2/2020: The Sanitation Department removed the Tiki Bar. It will be kept in storage, as the department considers bulky items on sidewalks “not a health hazard” under the municipal code. The department left the remaining parts of the installation intact).
To be sure, the “homeless” are not a monolithic cohort, and people lose their housing all the time and for myriad reasons. Many are deserving of aid and assistance, and many do find it. But this surreal moment is a bona fide holiday for the criminals for whom homelessness is both cover and opportunity, as law enforcement has been ordered to stand down enforcement of all but the most serious crimes and to release thousands of “nonviolent” offenders early. Many L.A. communities were on edge even before the pandemic introduced this new level of risk, and Coronavirus has compounded people’s fear. Last week multiple Venice residents said that homeless people had “been walking up and down Paloma Avenue coughing loudly on all gates and screaming Corona.”
The All Aspect Report spent the last week documenting the situation in several communities around Los Angeles including Venice Beach, Santa Monica, downtown L.A., Hollywood, and Van Nuys. It was clear from the start that city officials are not enforcing stay at home orders against residents of shelters. There’s no enforcement of social distancing requirements in homeless encampments. In fact, from all appearances there’s no enforcement at all, at any level, of any aspect of the homeless crisis. As the pandemic cuts through Southern California, official failure puts everyone in danger, the unhoused themselves most of all.
The danger is no longer theoretical, and officials are running out of time. Last Monday, March 30 the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said two homeless people in L.A. have tested positive for coronavirus. Additionally, the Los Angeles Times reported last week that an employee of Union Rescue Mission, the largest homeless services provider in Skid Row, had tested positive.
The Mission’s Executive Director, Rev. Andy Bales, said an entire floor of the nonprofit’s five story shelter is in quarantine. And also as of Monday 24 LAPD officers had tested positive, many from the Central Division whose beats include Skid Row. Given how many 911 calls are related to homelessness it’s possible they contracted the disease that way.
All of this before the virus peaks in California sometime in the next three weeks.
Staff at homeless shelters aren’t enforcing health orders, allowing residents to come and go at will
On February 23 the City of Los Angeles opened a homeless shelter known as “A Bridge Home” in Venice. Mayor Garcetti and the City Council have promoted these temporary shelters as essential to the city’s comprehensive homeless strategy. A total of 30 locations are planned with a dozen open already. The Venice facility, which sits on an old Metro bus repair yard, houses 100 adults and 54 young adults (18-23) in a combination of modular units and a sprung structure.
The shelter’s location in the middle of a residential neighborhood and one block from an elementary school prompted strong community opposition, culminating in a lawsuit that delayed the project by nearly three years. Residents expressed fears that the shelter would attract criminals and endanger the community. As previously reported by The All Aspect Report, their worst fears were coming true before the coronavirus emergency compounded the dangers.
To take one of many examples: In mid-March a Bridge shelter resident was sentenced to 180 days in county jail for threatening two women outside the facility (including a death threat to onoe) and smashing a half dozen cars. The man, known to shelter staff as a problem, was released after just 10 days as part of the county’s coronavirus-related incarceration downsizing. He was allowed to return to the shelter and was only removed by staff when a neighbor noticed he was back and called to complain. His current whereabouts are unknown.
Over the course of several days last week, constant flows of people were observed entering and exiting the shelter. They came and went singly, in pairs, and in small groups. Most used the main entrance, where a security guard let them in and out through the gate, coming into close and in many cases direct contact with everyone. She was not equipped with any protective gear and was not wearing gloves or a mask. She remained on duty and did not appear to wash or sanitize her hands. There also is a second gate farther down the block which some residents used to let people in and out on their own accord.
While Angelenos (a few scofflaws aside) restrict their movements to the “Essential Activities” defined in the state public heath department’s orders, in a single afternoont Venice Bridge residents walked the streets freely and interacted with people living in nearby encampments. They smoked cigarettes and cannabis and socialized in close quarters with each other and shelter staff. They engaged in black market transactions. There were physical altercations and shouting arguments. Suffice it to say no one engaged in social distancing.
An email to the executive director of Safe Place for Youth (SPY), the organization responsible for the shelter’s young adult (18-24) population, was not returned.
The scene was similar at the Bridge shelters at El Pueblo de Los Angeles downtown and on Schrader Boulevard in Hollywood. At el Pueblo dozens of homeless people congregated in close proximity in the park and sidewalk near the shelter. As in Venice, shelter residents came and went at will. A pair of individuals walked across the street and into Union Station. Again there was no evidence of social distancing and no washing stations or other prophylactic measures. Also as in Venice there are hundreds of tents and temporary shelters on the sidewalks and overpasses around the shelter.
One of the core premises of the A Bridge Home program is that it targets local hardcore homeless and gets them off the street. Large encampments covered public spaces around all three of the observed shelters.
Officials promised that “A Bridge Home” shelters would reduce street living in communities. The Mayor’s website says, “As the new shelters open their doors, City Sanitation teams will work to restore spaces that were previously encampments into open and clear public spaces.” So far they appear to be having the opposite effect: Encampments are as sprawling as ever in public spaces immediately adjacent to all three Bridge shelters. People live in tents on a lawn directly adjacent the el Pueblo shelter, tents and campers occupy streets and sidewalks around the Hollywood site, and Venice Beach is virtually at war. If anything street living has increased in proximity to the “A Bridge Home” shelters and brought danger with it.
Officials are enforcing public safety orders against everyone but the homeless, endangering everyone
In a pattern that has become distressingly familiar to Angelenos, there are two sets of rules during the coronavirus emergency: One for the homeless population and one for everyone else.
Current emergency orders from the county and state health departments restrict people’s activities to things like grocery shopping, going to the doctor, pharmacy, or veterinarian, caring for relatives or vulnerable persons, and legally mandated activities. It strains credulity to believe that the scores of homeless people at the two Bridge shelters were engaged in these “Essential Activities” even part of the time. The shelters are open 24 hours a day, meaning people come and go at all hours.
Meanwhile, the city and county of Los Angeles shuttered public access to beaches and parks last week. Mayor Eric Garcetti admonished Angelenos, “Too many people, too close together, too often. The longer we do that, the more people will get sick, and the more people will die. There’s no way to sugarcoat that.” He’s threatened to cut off water and power to “nonessential businesses” that violate the city’s closure orders, and encouraged neighbors to report each other. “You know the old expression about snitches?” he said last Tuesday. “Well, in this case, snitches get rewards.”
Yet thousands of homeless people remain concentrated in parks and other public spaces, unmolested by the same authorities threatening everyone else with penalties and fines. The danger to them is palpable, while the danger to the general public grows by the day.
The city’s disjointed and inconsistent efforts endanger everyone, including city employees and contractors
Two weeks ago Mayor Garcetti announced the city would accelerate the “Pit Stop” program that provides temporary daytime (7a.m. to 7p.m.) porta-potties, hand washing stations, and drinking fountains at homeless encampments. Equipment is contracted with United Site Services and some (though far from all) of the sites are staffed by employees of a San Francisco nonprofit called Urban Alchemy. According to its website, the company employs former long-term felons and assists them on their path back into society.
Over the weekend UA employees at two sites on the westside described their responsibilities as part janitorial and part security. One said that in addition to keeping the units clean, “We make sure no one’s doing any funny stuff in there, doing drugs, sexual, anything like that.” They said they had received basic hygiene training and been told to practice social distancing. They were supplied with spray bottles, bleach, and paper towels. One of the workers had just come back from eating lunch in his car. “Takes an extra few minutes now, because I disinfect the whole interior every time I get out.”
All agreed that camp residents are grateful for the services, though one added, “A lot of people want to vent to us. Some are crazy, some just don’t have anyone else to talk to.” As if on cue, a woman walked up to the attendant and demanded to know why the city had closed the bathrooms and showers at the beach. “That’s the only place we got to go, and they’re shutting it down!” She yelled for several minutes as he tried to explain closing the bathrooms wasn’t in his control.
It was difficult not to wonder whether these employees are properly trained and equipped for the tasks they’re being paid $16.50 an hour to do. They are outside for the duration of their shift and are exposed to filthy environments. They wear rudimentary protective gear like standard surgical masks and latex gloves. One of the employees was visibly wearing her mask improperly, and the mask itself appeared to have been reused several times. As coronavirus makes its inevitable way through the homeless population these workers will be a new front line. They do not appear prepared.
United Site Services employees set up the Pit Stops each morning and pick them up in the evning. At the Third Avenue camp on Monday a single worker from United Site Services – who was aware he was being filmed – hauled two regular porta-potties, a handicap accessible porta-pottie, and a mobile sink onto a flatbed trailer, presumably either to be moved to another location or returned to a company facility. He wore no protective gear save for a pair of gloves and had only a standard size dolly to assist him.
He began by emptying liquid from one of the porta-potties onto the sidewalk. The liquid ran onto the street and toward the storm drain. It also immersed the wheels and platform of the dolly the worker was using, and he stepped through it repeatedly. Over the next 15 minutes he loaded the other structures onto the flatbed. He was in direct contact with the structures nearly at all times. Several times he struggled with the weight, rocking the porta-potties back and forth and at one point jumping onto the dolly to tilt a unit backward. Virtually his entire body came into contact with the plastic surfaces of the units. Scientists have determined coronavirus can remain on plastic for two to three days.
An email to United Site Services was not returned.
The city also has set up water fountains at homeless camps. The fountains, which are not tended by UA or other employees, quickly become filthy. Down the street from the Third Avenue Pit Stop a man brushed his teeth at a temporary fountain the Department of Water and Power had connected to a fire hydrant. He repeatedly spat into the sink, washed his hands and face, and touched virtually every surface of the fountain.
City homeless workers not observing social distancing
Even the city-county agency responsible for homeless services has been part of the problem. Members of the Facebook Group Fight Back Venice! captured video of LAHSA workers handing out water bottles and other supplies to homeless people at the Third Avenue encampment. Like the residents and workers at the Bridge facilities, the LAHSA workers did not observe social distancing and came into proximate and direct contact with homeless people. The workers were not wearing protective gear, though one man appeared to have a bandana tied around his face.
A similar video was posted from the boardwalk of homeless people lined up (again in close quarters) to receive bottles of water from a LAHSA worker. That worker was not wearing protective gear or gloves.
Some nonprofit and faith groups also are putting themselves in harm’s way. Two volunteers with an organization called Bread of Life spent Saturday morning handing out sandwiches and bottles of water to homeless people in Venice.
The problem is getting worse, not better
The dynamics of homelessness endanger the wider population as well. A decade ago the chronically unhoused, for better or worse, congregated in a few neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Tenderloin, Skid Row in Los Angeles, and north Bakersfield. Things were bad but still manageable, particularly given the billions of dollars in homeless-related public spending.
That’s all changed. These days L.A.’s homeless population is diffused throughout the region, a translucent parallel population superimposed upon communities. Encampments have developed social orders and some even have rudimentary economies and self-government. As previously reported by City Journal‘s Chris Rufo and others, once autonomous encampments are becoming interconnected and even interdependent. Mass transit and the profusion of scooters, e-bikes, bike share, and other “micro-mobility” programs provide ample opportunity for people to move among camps. Bike and scooter chopshops are commonplace in encampments. Last summer a resident of a homeless camp in Lake Balboa told The All Aspect Report that people know where to go to get which drugs and where to barter for electronics, bicycles, clothing, food, even sexual favors
This mobility presents an urgent challenge to public health officials during the pandemic. As the virus’s spread approaches its apex in the southland homeless people will be among the hardest hit: They live already with risk factors like poor sanitation, close contact, substance abuse, preexisting conditions, and compromised immune systems. A study released last week by researchers at UCLA, Boston University, and the University of Pennsylvania estimates that as many as 1,200 homeless people might die of the virus in the L.A. area alone. Unhoused victims could overwhelm the county’s medical resources, yet another source of danger for themselves and the wider community.
Whittier represents a prime example of this new dynamic. As soon as the first coronavirus cases were identified last week on Skid Row those who could began to flee. According to Paul Ramirez, founder of Whittier Town Hall, “Unfortunately, [the homeless] are not following any CDC or Public Health guidelines. They are congregating, sharing sleep areas, tents and needles. Local [homeless] are actually welcoming new arrivals, coaching them on our watch habits and directing them to our parks and vacated buildings. On Monday I spoke to a local homeless man and appealed to him to self-isolate, to seek assistance from his family and to take the Covid-19 crisis seriously. His response, ‘FU – If I die, I die.'”
It is well past time for city and county leaders to treat the homeless crisis with the urgency it requires during the coronavirus pandemic. The anemic response to date, the slow-motion rollout, is no longer acceptable. The challenge is compounded by years of poor planning, waste, and fraud.
Angelenos are doing their part. It’s time for the political class to do theirs.
“I feel like a prisoner in my own home”
They said it wouldn’t be like this. Officials including Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilman Mike Bonin promised that the “A Bridge Home” initiative, which provides temporary housing and services to the chronically homeless, would bring vulnerable people indoors while providing relief to communities from the street crime, drug use, and public endangerment that often accompany illegal encampments. They’re betting hundreds of millions of the public’s money on it.
In one Venice Beach neighborhood, unfortunately, A Bridge Home shelter has had the opposite effect.
In the week since officials celebrated the opening of a new Bridge facility at the old Metro bus maintenance facility on Main Street in the heart of a residential neighborhood three blocks from the Venice boardwalk, people have reported and documented dozens of crimes and public disturbances. The incidents occur at all hours of the day and night and include assault, sexual assault, fights, vandalism, graffiti, illegal camping, public defecation, drug use, and disturbances of the peace. On social media and via email residents have shared frightening experiences, videos, and pictures. A tense email thread between some 60 neighbors and Councilman Mike Bonin’s Venice Bridge Home Deputy, Allison Wilhite, began the day the facility opened.
Single women and mothers are among the most vocal residents. They’ve expressed fear for their personal safety and even their lives, and collectively their experiences reveal a worrying degree of lawlessness.
On March 3 at 8:20pm, resident Soledad Ursura wrote to Ms. Wilhite, “I was just on a nightly walk with my dog which I do at the same hour every night. There were three male youths coming from Bridge Housing walking towards me and they asked if they could get a cigarette off me. I said no, and as they passed me they started telling me things they wished they could do to me and that I was a bitch for not talking to them, and to keep my head down and keep pretending to talk to my dog. Something similar happened last night as well.” As a legal matter this amounts to a sexual assault.
On the morning of March 4 another neighbor wrote, “I’m a single woman 2 blocks away. It’s now unsafe for me to step out of my house without my dog and mace. And I’ve been here for 20 years and never experienced this before.” Within minutes yet another echoed her experience, “I too am a single woman living across the street and I don’t feel safe. I have already been followed twice. I can’t enjoy my life in Venice anymore.”
An hour later yet another woman wrote, “I am starting to feel like a prisoner in my own home while these vagrants harass and assault people, shoot up on our door steps, vandalize our homes, start fires and invade our properties! I have had several incidents when I am afraid to leave my home, another incident with someone very high and mentally unstable on my driveway when I came home from grocery shopping that I was afraid to get out of my car and unload my groceries into my OWN HOME. I fear for my life. I have had vagrants ring my door bell at 2:45 am and 12:15 a.m.”
There have been multiple instances virtually every day since the facility opened. For example, in a span of three hours on Wednesday, March 4:
- At around 4pm Venice resident Vicki Halliday called police to report that a man had threatened to kill her. The incident took place across the street from the Bridge facility’s entrance. After confronting Ms. Halliday he went on a spree and smashed the windows, hoods, and roofs of at least half a dozen cars – with his body. LAPD arrested the man, whom The All Aspect Report confirmed is a resident of the Bridge facility.
- An hour later another woman reported that her 14-pound dog was attacked by a resident’s much larger dog as they walked past the shelter entrance. Fortunately, her dog was uninjured.
- An hour after that, yet another woman reported a man defecating in her front yard.
These incidents occurred over just three hours on a single day. According to interviews with dozens of residents, it’s a typical afternoon in this neighborhood since the shelter opened.
There have been incidents inside the shelter as well. On Monday a resident posted a picture and message on the Facebook group Venice United: “Around 10:30 on Monday, March 2, at least five LAPD patrol cars were spotted responding to an apparent fight inside the shelter. Later that same night a man filmed several apparently intoxicated individuals walking down his street having a screaming fight.”
The community’s experience in the first week has been a far cry from official promises. On Councilman Bonin’s Bridge Home Venice webpage is the promise, “RESIDENTS WILL BE GOOD NEIGHBORS – Each temporary housing facility built as part of the Bridge Home initiative will be required to abide by rules that protect neighbors from any nuisance. There will be on-site management and on-site security, and opportunities for neighbors to discuss other operational rules before the facility is opened.”
Likewise, at a February 25 ceremony celebrating the shelter’s opening, Mayor Eric Garcetti declared, “Today’s opening is a reminder that people across Los Angeles are saying `yes’ to delivering the housing, healing and hope our unhoused neighbors need and deserve.”
It’s a safe bet that few people in Venice believed they were saying yes to this kind of “housing, healing and hope.” Other documented disturbances in the facility’s first week have included individuals passed out on sidewalks, in driveways, carports, and front yards. Individuals have been reported pounding on front doors and ringing doorbells in the middle of the night. On the shelter’s opening night a resident filmed traffic including a Metro bus stopped in front of the shelter as a group of individuals fought in the street.
Officials promise help is on the way, but concerns remain
City officials including Ms. Wilhite assure neighbors matters will improve once the LAPD sets up a Special Enforcement and Cleaning Zone (SECZ) in the area. SECZs include dedicated LAPD foot patrols, four days a week of bulky item pick-up, a weekly dedicated cleaning, and additional outreach by personnel from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA).
However, the city will not establish the zone until March 9, nearly two weeks after the bridge shelter opened. In response to queries from residents Ms. Wilhite sent a statement to neighbors and members of the media:
The decision to wait until March 9 was made after having conversations with the Unified Homeless Response Center (aka UHRC, the Mayor’s Office team that coordinates the enhanced services), LAHSA, LAPD Pacific Division, and other Council District Offices that have opened an A Bridge Home. Each have different perspectives on the best timing, and all for good reasons.
The experience in other Council Districts has been that starting the SECZ the same day as intake can cause a lot of movement and frustration among unhoused people and make it harder for our outreach teams to bring people to site for their intake appointment. We know residents have waited a long time for these enhanced services to start, and we want to honor that as soon as possible, while also ensuring we can effectively and efficiently open the site to our unhoused neighbors. There are requests from the community that we delay it longer, even upwards of 90 days, but we are hopeful these two weeks will let our outreach teams and on site service providers do their work to open the site successfully.
In the meantime she told neighbors to call 911 for emergencies, 1-800-ASK-LAPD and the local LAPD Senior Lead Officers for non-emergencies, and the city’s 311 neighborhood services line for issues like graffiti removal.
UPDATE 3/7: The All Aspect Report reached out to Ms. Wilhite via email on Thursday afternoon to ask about services, security, and rules at the Venice Bridge housing facility. She forwarded those questions to representatives at PATH, SPY, and LAHSA. As of the end of the day on Friday none had responded.
There are reasons to question whether the new services, when the do start, will have an impact. Thanks to laws like Prop 47 and initiatives like restorative justice many of the crimes neighbors are enduring in Venice Beach are no longer priorities for police, much less prosecutors. What can police do when politicians tie their hands? Across the City of Los Angeles it has become depressingly familiar to see homeless people and vagrants engage in lawless behavior in plain full of law enforcement, with no consequences. Those who are arrest all too often are back on the streets in a matter of days, often hours. How can neighbors trust officials who have already broken so many promises when they say this time will be different?
Indeed, Ms. Halliday told The All Aspect Report crimes already are being ignored. She wrote in an email, “All weekend, shelter residents hung out and smoked weed or did their meth doses. A dealer is conveniently located in an RV on Main Street across from the Google building.” However, she added, “LAPD has had a problem dealing with the dealer for some reason even though many of them have witnessed the exchanges.” She said she has personally witnessed transactions.
It has taken less than a week for three years’ worth of promises to be broken, with devastating consequences for countless neighbors. Meanwhile, officials are forging ahead with dozens more Bridge facilities throughout the City of Los Angeles.
It’s almost as if they have priorities besides helping the homeless.
UPDATE 3/17: Disruptions continued outside the bridge facility a week after the SECZ allegedly began: Video shows several young men fighting at the entrance to the bridge facility, several of whom subsequently approached and accosted a journalist covering the incident.
Thousands of fires break out every month statewide. “Sometimes I feel like we’ve already lost the war,” says on LAFD firefighter
Note: More than three dozen Los Angels Fire Department personnel were interviewed for this story. None of them were willing to go on the record, citing concerns over professional retribution. All told similar stories. First responders from other California cities did go on record.
During a recent tour of a downtown Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) station, the captain pointed at one of the trucks. “We call this one the dumpster fire tender,” he said. “Every day we get multiple calls to fires started by homeless folks. Cooking or heating fires jump to nearby fuel sources like trash cans and refuse piles. Some spread to houses, apartments, or other buildings. Of course, the first things to burn are the homeless folks’ own possessions. They’re most in danger.” He would not go on the record because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the issue.
The captain at a station on the west side, when asked how many fires in his area are attributable to homeless activity, replied, “All of them.” Interviewed at 5pm on a Sunday he said his crew had responded to eight just that day. “There are days we can barely keep up.” Shaking his head, he added, “Sometimes I feel like we’ve already lost the war.”
As Los Angeles and California brave another fire season, the attention of politicians and the media has focused on the role of utilities in starting wildfires. After the Kincade Fire burned 77,000 acres and nearly 400 structures in Sonoma County in October, Governor Gavin Newsom accused Pacific Gas & Electric of prioritizing revenue over safety. He said, “It’s about corporate greed meeting climate change. It’s about decades of mismanagement.” (Governor Newsom and his wife Jennifer Siebel have accepted more than $700,000 in contributions from the utility and its employees)
Utilities have caused fires, including some of the worst in the state’s history, but on balance homeless activity is responsible for far more blazes. While utility equipment has been blamed for some 2,000 fires statewide in the last three and a half years, an investigation by NBC L.A. found that there were 2,300 homeless fires in Los Angeles County in 2018 alone. That’s likely an undercount, as it often is difficult to ascertain how fires start. As Jonathan Baxter, Public Information Officer for the San Francisco Fire Department told the all aspect report, “If a 911 caller reports a trash fire in an alleyway, we’ll record it as a ‘small debris fire,’ even if the conditions on the ground suggest homeless activity.”
Homeless fires have had devastating consequences for communities and families. The October Easy Fire, which burned 6,000 acres and threatened some 7,000 structures including the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, is suspected to have started in a homeless encampment. In June a family in South Los Angeles lost their home to a blaze attributed to an encampment in an adjacent alley.
In the last three months fires attributable to transients have broken out in San Diego, Oxnard (Ventura County), Goleta (Santa Barbara County), Modesto (Stanislaus County), Stockton (San Joaquin County), Contra Costa, and Redding (Shasta County), among other places throughout the state. In July a homeless fire in the Bay Area city of Pittsburgh destroyed a family owned roofing business. San Francisco firefighters extinguished a half dozen fires in the same park in two weeks. In Oakland, residents call the situation a “crisis.”
The crisis endangers smaller communities as well. In the central valley town of Paso Robles, Fire Chief Jonathan Stornetta said that homeless fires spiked from 43 in 2017 to 115 last year. The number is on track to increase again this year, with 63 as of mid-June.
Chillingly, officials in Chico, adjacent the burn zone of the Camp Fire that killed 85 people and obliterated the towns of Paradise, Magalia, and Upper Ridge last year, report numerous homeless fires every week. Members of Facebook groups like Butte County Fires, Accidents, & Crimes post incidents every few days.
Homeless people themselves sometimes take matters into their own hands. Since July at least three fires have started at an illegal encampment at Lake Balboa Park in Van Nuys. The city began a cleanup of the camp, but the problem is there are four others in the park. At one of them, a man named Roberto said, “We put out fires all the time, usually before the firefighters get here.” Inhabitants keep shovels handy, and hoses they connect to public spigots. Still, electric cords zigzagged through dry undergrowth, past propane tanks, under garbage piles, and into dwellings. Gasoline generators chugged away.
The dangers aren’t just in illegal encampments. An official in the LAFD Fire Prevention Bureau said that transients often squat in buildings unfit for human habitation. The official, who declined to go on the record, said, “We can’t inspect buildings we don’t know about. We can’t warn people or get them out.” Homeless people routinely cook and heat with open flames inside buildings. “It’s Russian roulette,” said the official.
Homeless fires have become particularly common in wildfire hazard zones. Lydia Grant, a former Los Angeles City Commissioner and current member of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council, pointed out the locations of illegal encampments in the mountains surrounding her community in north east L.A. She said, “On average there’s a fire every day.” In 2017 the area endured two of the worst conflagrations in L.A. history, the Creek and La Tuna Fires. The causes remain unsolved, though many residents blame homeless encampments. Ms. Grant says, “We don’t have any support from the city.”
Meanwhile, in the face of threats to hundreds of communities and millions of lives, the state’s political class is busy trying to tax drinking water and eliminate plastic straws. While Governor Gavin Newsom’s 2019 budget increased funds for Cal Fire, the overall picture remains grim.
Do they not recognize what the rest of us have known for a long time now, that the next homeless fire could become the next Camp Fire?
Less than a week after Councilwoman Nury Martinez announced a third cleanup in Lake Balboa Park in as many months, piles of garbage remained and homeless people were returning to illegal campsites
Part Two of an occasional series
The man’s voice screamed from a dense grove of willow trees on the west bank of Bull Creek in Lake Balboa Park on Sunday afternoon: “Who the f*** is there? Who the f*** is it? My dog will f*****g kill you!”
As if to confirm the threat, with the man’s encouragement a dog started barking and snarling. Suffice it to say no one in their right mind would have ventured any further. It was one of countless places in the park that remained unsafe for anyone but the homeless who continue to live in illegal encampments despite multiple city cleanups and official promises to clear them once and for all.
Councilwoman Nury Martinez launched the latest effort last Wednesday. Gathered with select members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s and Police Departments she told reporters, “Today is part of an extensive cleanup on city of Los Angeles-leased property at the Sepulveda Basin that began in August and will continue until completed. The city has a duty to ensure that park hours are enforced and the Basin remains safe and accessible to all visitors.”
“Extensive” is a relative concept. Even where city workers had cleared campsites they’d left huge amounts of refuse. Indeed, garbage was everywhere, including piles of flammable clothing, wood, and electronic equipment. The stench of excrement hung heavy in the air. In places it was nearly suffocating. The water in Bull Creek was fetid.
Moreover, less than five days after the cleanup the homeless were reclaiming much of the space for themselves. Patricia Wilcox, 28, of Mesa, Arizona, said that she and her partner stayed on nearby streets for a few nights, and had returned to their old campsite on Saturday.
Many campsites appeared to have escaped attention altogether, including subterranean dwellings near the creek reminiscent of Viet Cong bunkers. There was a sense of defiance: Boomboxes blared music and the sounds of building echoed through the undergrowth and along the creek bed itself: Hammering, sawing, even power tools. People were carving new campsites into the undergrowth bare feet from the parking lot and from a hill where children rode bicycles and scooters. People unloaded everything from tents and cooking gear to furniture and electronic equipment – all of it almost certainly stolen – from dilapidated cars, vans, and campers.
In short, despite the Councilwoman’s rhetoric and the city’s activity, resources, and promises Lake Balboa continues to be a dangerous place. Indeed, if the last two days are any indication the park has become even more perilous since the cleanups, as if the homeless have circled the wagons.
When we visited in late July after a fire in another part of the park, the camp’s inhabitants were friendly if suspicious. We spoke with many of them, and a couple provided contact information. One even gave a cell number. They spoke openly of their lives in the camp. There were sentries, but they kept their distance and nodded in acknowledgement as we passed.
Not this time. On Sunday, an air of menace permeated the park. In addition to the man with his pit bull, sentries on stolen bicycles kept vigil over strangers, making no secret of their presence. At one point one of them said loudly to another camp inhabitant, “I’m following this motherf***r who’s taking pictures.” This is what has become of too many public spaces in Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, there is nothing unique about the city’s failure to clear out Lake Balboa Park. Two weeks ago the all aspect report exposed homeless fire dangers in a half dozen communities – all places where members of the City Council and other officials have promised action.
It’s almost as if L.A.’s political class doesn’t want to end the homeless crisis at all.
Utilities bear the brunt of politicians’ blame, but homeless activity causes many more blazes
Part One of an occasional series
Angelenos have awakened every day this week to pillars of smoke from wildfires. As of this writing the Getty Fire, which started early Monday morning in the Sepulveda Pass, has burned nearly 700 acres, destroyed at least eight homes, and forced thousands of people to evacuate. Also on Monday firefighters extinguished a small homeless fire in Calabasas, and battled three structure fires in empty buildings in downtown L.A. likewise attributable to homeless activity. On Wednesday morning residents in the San Fernando Valley woke to their own latest conflagration, the Easy Fire in Simi Valley. Early reports suggest that fire began in an illegal encampment. And this morning it was San Bernadino’s turn. In all there are at least seven active fires in southern California, part of a grim new annual tradition throughout the state. It’s just another week in Paradise.
Over the last two years much attention has (rightly) been focused on the role of utilities in starting wildfires. According to a Los Angeles Times analysis utilities were responsible for at least 2,000 fires between 2015 and 2018. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) in northern California is by far the worst offender. For years its management – with deep ties to the administrations of Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom – operated with virtually no oversight as its executives prioritized their own compensation and shareholder returns over public safety.
Nevertheless, the number of fires triggered by failed or damaged utility equipment pales in comparison to the number started by homeless activity. A recent analysis by NBC L.A. found that in 2018 alone there were more than 2,300 fires attributable to homeless activity in Los Angeles County.
For those of you keeping score at home, that’s 2,000 fires statewide in three and a half years caused by utilities, versus 2,300 in a single county in a single year caused by homeless activity. Neither Mayor Eric Garcetti nor the City Council have expressed the degree of concern, much less urgent action, the crisis demands. In fact they have been virtually silent on the issue.
It’s time to hold them accountable.
Over the last several weeks, the all aspect report has been compiling pictures and stories from around Los Angeles that demonstrate the terrifying extent of the fire dangers posed by the city’s burgeoning homeless population. From electric generators and cook fires to the use and manufacture of illegal narcotics, the homeless crisis poses a mortal threat to Angelenos every minute of every day. Until now, however, the true extent has remained somewhat elusive. Scroll down to see pictures and stories, and check back with the all aspect report often as we continue to add to the journal.
CD7: Monica Rodriguez refuses to order clearing of dangerous illegal encampments
Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez, whose district includes some of the highest fire hazard zones in the city, is the daughter of a retired LAFD firefighter. She emphasized her father’s bravery during her council run, filling her campaign materials with firefighting imagery, including pictures of herself as a little girl at her father’s station. She currently chairs the city council’s public safety committee.
Strange, then, that she has done virtually nothing to secure her district, which includes some of the city’s highest fire hazard zones, from wildfire threats posed by the homeless. Despite three catastrophic fires in the last three years (Creek, La Tuna, and Saddleridge) scores of illegal encampments remain throughout CD7, from Sylmar’s horse country to the eastern sections of Griffith Park in Glendale. Brush fires are not just a daily fact of life in Rodriguez’s district: They happen multiple times every day. Residents of Sylmar, Pacoima, Shadow Hills, Lake View Terrace, Sunland-Tujunga, and elsewhere live in fear virtually year round. Homeless encampments have sprung up in drainage ditches, ravines, mountains, and canyons. Nowhere seemingly is safe. Councilwoman Rodriguez’s much-ballyhooed homeless cleanups have come to naught.
Two weeks ago, while hotspots still smoldered in the aftermath of the Saddleridge Fire in Sylmar, the all aspect report visited the burn zone. The charred remains of homeless camps littered the hillsides above the Stetson Ranch Equestrian Park. There were numerous cook stoves of various types, scores of propane and butane bottles, batteries, electronics, and aerosol bottles. Many of the pressurized bottles had exploded, suggesting extreme dangers for firefighters. Which is not mere speculation: Exploding propane tanks were documented during both fires in the Sepulveda Basin.
The gallery below is a small sampling of the images from the fire area (Photographs by Christopher LeGras and Lydia Grant).
Officially the Saddleridge Fire is being attributed to a Southern California Edison transmission tower located on the eponymous hilltop. However, a wildfire expert who visited the site with the all aspect report said that charring, burn patterns, and other evidence strongly suggest the fire started in the canyon at or near the large homeless encampment pictured above. A spokesperson for the LAFD, after initially cooperating, stopped corresponding.
Regardless of whether the camp is responsible for the fire, tens of thousands of people and their homes remain in harm’s way thanks to Ms. Rodriguez’s inaction.
CD11: Mike Bonin walks away from fire dangers
The story repeats in council district after council district. Another prime offender is CD11 Councilman Mike Bonin. Two weeks ago he drew heavy criticism across the city after he was filmed standing idly by as a mentally disturbed homeless man played with a fire in a dry, grassy median in the Del Rey neighborhood. He stood over the man with his hands in his pockets for 30 seconds before turning and walking away without a word, even though there was an LAPD station less than 50 feet away on the other side of Culver Boulevard. After three days of silence, Mr. Bonin lashed out at his own constituents and residents, blaming the video on “right wing trolls” who “exploited” and “laughed at” the homeless man. The man was arrested two days later after a neighbor reported he was brandishing a large hunting knife.
The homeless danger continues to spread throughout Mr. Bonin’s district, and like Ms. Rodriguez he shows little appetite for tackling the problem in any realistic way. From decrepit RVs to sidewalk encampments to illegally occupied buildings, the danger increases literally on a daily basis.
The captain at a LAFD station in Mr. Bonin’s district, when asked how many fires in his area are attributable to homeless activity, replied, “All of them.” Interviewed at 5pm on a Sunday he said his crew had responded to eight just that day. “There are days we can barely keep up. Sometimes I feel like we’ve already lost the war.” His team echoed the sentiment.
Then again, with an armchair general like Mike Bonin in command it’s no wonder the rank and file feel abandoned.
CD6: Nury Martinez allows homeless to continue living in a park where they’ve already started at least two fires that threatened neighborhoods
After an illegal homeless encampment burned down in Lake Balboa Park in Nury Martinez’s district the all aspect report visited the area. It turned out the camp was just one of at least a half dozen scattered throughout the 80 acre recreational area. Electric cords zigzagged through dry undergrowth, past propane tanks, under garbage piles, and into dwellings. Gasoline generators chugged away. Some people had connected TVs and other devices in their tents to generators in RVs parked hundreds of yards away.
The city belatedly cleaned up the camp after it burned (though officials claimed the cleanup was scheduled before the fire broke out) but left the others untouched.
It was clear that the camps had been there for quite some time. Many of the people living there literally had dug in: Reinforced underground bunkers lined a long section of Bull Creek, which itself has been transformed into a fetid swamp by refuse and human waste. Walking through the encampment triggered a disconcerting frenzy of activity, as men on bicycles rode in constant circles around the area keeping an eye on a stranger. Barely five minutes elapsed between passes, which often were accompanied by intimidating stares. It was clear who ran the park, and it wasn’t the city.
The fire danger in the camps was omnipresent. At one camp a man named Roberto said, “We put out fires all the time, usually before the firefighters get here.” Inhabitants keep shovels and buckets handy, as well as hoses they can connect to public spigots. “There’s a fire every few days,” added Roberto, who asked that his last name not be used because he is in the country illegally. Confirming his statements, charred spots peppered the ground.
As in Rodriguez’s and Bonin’s districts these dangers are not secret, yet Ms. Martinez’s website is virtually silent on the issue. Ms. Martinez has publicly commented on them yet has failed to act beyond another half-hearted cleanup in late September that obviously failed to eliminate the danger: A fire broke out in the park last Thursday.
CD14: In Jose Huizar’s district, fires in RVs and abandoned buildings
During a recent tour of a LAFD station in Jose Huizar’s district, the captain pointed at one of the trucks. “We call this one the dumpster fire tender,” he said. “We get multiple calls every day to fires started by homeless folks. Cooking or heating fires easily jump to nearby fuel sources like trash cans and refuse piles. Inevitably, some spread to houses, apartments, and other buildings.” He would not go on the record because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the issue.
Another member of the crew invoked the Ghost Ship fire that claimed 36 lives in Oakland in 2016. Dozens of artists and squatters had converted a warehouse into a makeshift community. “We have a hundred potential Ghost Ships in our area,” said the firefighter, alluding to the epidemic of homeless people taking up residence in condemned buildings. “It’s incredibly easy for a trash fire to jump to a building. Fires seek fuel, and we have tons of it.”
Blazes routinely erupt in alleyways, buildings, and encampments in Mr. Huizar’s district. In July, an immigrant family of five lost their home to a blaze that started in a dumpster in the alley behind it. A week later firefighters doused a fire that started at a homeless encampment in Skid Row. They were responding to reports of a trash fire in a large homeless encampment, according to Los Angeles Fire Department Captain Donn Thompson.
Again, the story is the same as in other districts: Residents and business owners routinely report encampments, often for months and years, to no avail. It’s only when a fire breaks out that they see any action.
“If anything, it’s actually gotten worse,” Captain Thompson told KTLA News.
What is it going to take for officials to act?
Angelenos, like all Californians, have been asking themselves a singular question for the last two years. As the homeless crisis continues not only to spiral but accelerate, what is it going to take for officials to finally start acting with the sense of urgency – even desperation – the situation demands?
At least three people are perishing daily on the streets of Los Angeles, the richest city in the richest state in the richest nation in human history. Is that not enough? 2,300 homeless fires erupted in 2018. Is that not enough? Hundreds of Angelenos have lost homes, cars, and other property to homeless fires. Is that not enough? Tens of thousands of acres have burned, releasing enough CO2 and other greenhouse gases to wipe out the gains from California’s renewable energy push by an order of magnitude. Is that not enough?
Politicians constantly talk about the “new normal” of wildfires. In reality, the new normal is their own lack of competence in solving the crisis. Thanks to officials like Councilmembers Rodriguez, Bonin, Martinez, and Huizar, solutions are farther away than ever.
Buckle up, Los Angeles, the ride is only going to get worse.
Less thank a week after a homeless man died on the streets of his district, Mr. Bonin has settled on a strategy of doublespeak, obfuscation, and attack
MAR VISTA – There’s an old saying that the definition of chutzpah is the man who murders his parents then asks the court for sympathy because he’s an orphan. Today, Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin displayed his own version of chutzpah with a fundraising email in which he once again lashes out at his own constituents and other Angelenos for having the temerity to point out the failings of his stewardship.
Last week a video that captured him turning his back on a mentally ill homeless man who was starting a fire went viral. It exposed not just the reality of the ongoing homeless crisis in Los Angeles, but also the reality of the city’s elected officials and their response. It captured in 90 seconds what Angelenos have suspected for two years, that the people we elected to handle the crisis are out of their depth, lost, and increasingly inconsequential to the spiraling catastrophe they themselves created. The homeless man was arrested two days later for brandishing a large hunting knife and threatening passersby (LAPD case no. 191422115).
Mr. Bonin already responded to the negative publicity last week by attacking his own constituents. Through a spokesman (Mr. Bonin himself has yet to speak publicly on the issue) he told local blog Yo!Venice, “It is shameful that opponents of bridge housing in Venice have manipulated the incident and turned into a right-wing smear attack, aided by talk radio shock jocks and internet trolls.” On his personal Facebook page, Mr. Bonin redoubled his attacks, dismissing the concerned citizens who captured the videos as, “People who have filmed, photographed, mocked and sometimes taunted people living on the streets,” and called them trolls.
This is the same elected official who previously argued, “I can’t accept the idea that there is an inextricable link between crime and homelessness. It is wrong it is not backed up by the data, and it leads to bad policy.”
This morning’s email continues Mr. Bonin’s desperate efforts spin his way out of the inescapable facts captured in the videos, and the undeniable realities on the streets of his district. Using his own failures to try and raise money with a self-pitying email is Mr. Bonin’s ultimate act of chutzpah. He pleads for donations to help him fight reality – or rather, what he calls “an unprecedented onslaught of bizarre and baseless attacks.” Apparently three different videos capturing the same shameful scene, an elected official abandoning one of the most vulnerable members of society while that person endangers himself and his community, constitutes a “bizarre and baseless attack.”
Is it “bizarre and baseless” to assert that Councilman Bonin has all but lost control of the myriad problems and crises in his district, and that everyone is suffering every day as a result?
This week in CD11
The reality is that the carnage continued unabated in the week since the videos hit social media. There was crime, chaos, and death on the streets of Councilman Bonin’s West Los Angeles district, particularly in Venice Beach and Mar Vista. Mr. Bonin, too busy attacking average Angelenos and using his own failures to raise campaign money, has remained thus far remained silent on the issues that are threatening to destroy his councilship.
Last Friday night, three days after Mr. Bonin’s encounter on Culver Boulevard, a homeless individual died at a small encampment that has formed next to the Mar Vista Post Office on Venice Boulevard. According to people living in the camp Nicolas Newberry overdosed on heroin. There was dispute among camp inhabitants as to whether it was accidental or intentional, and the death remains under investigation with the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office.
In conversations with a number of those residents, however, there was no dispute that Councilman Bonin has been MIA as the crisis spirals. Newberry’s body was discovered nearly a week ago and yet there’s been nary a word from the councilman’s office. One would think that a tragic, avoidable death would elicit a response, that Mr. Bonin would acknowledge Newberry’s passing.
The camp’s inhabitants described Newberry as a generous, gregarious individual. They said he had begun transitioning from male to female. They described him as an inveterate jokester, and said that he had recently starting asking people to refer to him as “Tits.” Newberry’s death – which was not reported on the Citizen app – is another tragic example of the continuing downward spiral in Los Angeles’s Council District 11.
Mr. Bonin’s silence helps explain why several people at the encampment, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from the city, blamed Mr. Bonin for allowing the camp and dozens more like it to fester. “He’s lost control,” said one last night. The fact is that the very people Mr. Bonin constantly claims to be championing have come to view him as a central part of the problem (check back with the all aspect report for in-depth interviews with camp inhabitants about the changing dynamics of homelessness in L.A. as officials continue to lose control).
There were other violent incidents in Mar Vista and Venice last week. On Saturday, a man was stabbed on the Venice Boardwalk near Windward Avenue (LAPD case no. 191422302). According to crimemapping.com, there were fourteen car break-ins, six assaults (including four with a deadly weapon), six burglaries, five thefts, four stolen vehicles, and three robberies. And these are just the crimes that made it into the official system; the true number likely is substantially higher.
In response to the video and subsequent media coverage Mr. Bonin has lashed out at his constituents. Through a spokesman, he told local blog Yo!Venice, “It is shameful that opponents of bridge housing in Venice have manipulated the incident and turned into a right-wing smear attack, aided by talk radio shock jocks and internet trolls.” On his personal Facebook page, Mr. Bonin doubled down on his attacks, dismissing the concerned citizens who captured the videos as, “People who have filmed, photographed, mocked and sometimes taunted people living on the streets,” and dismissed them again as trolls.
This is the same elected official who previously argued, “I can’t accept the idea that there is an inextricable link between crime and homelessness. It is wrong it is not backed up by the data, and it leads to bad policy.”
There were other violent incidents in Mar Vista and Venice in the week after he tried downplaying the incident. On Saturday, a man was stabbed on the Venice Boardwalk near Windward Avenue (LAPD case no. 191422302). According to crimemapping.com, there were also:
- 15 car break-ins
- 6 assaults (including 4 with a deadly weapon)
- 6 burglaries
- 5 thefts
- 4 stolen vehicles
- 3 robberies.
These are the data from a single week in a small part of Mike Bonin’s district. And these are just the crimes that made it into the official system; the true number likely is substantially higher.
In light of this data, and people’s experiences on the streets of CD11, is it “bizarre and baseless” to suggest that Mike Bonin is out of his depth?