Interviews in Westchester, Santa Monica, elsewhere confirm what residents suspected — Homeless moving to those communities from Venice — Not offered services or housing — But Mr. Bonin’s senior staffer demanded a homeless person be removed from in front of her office
Meanwhile, a homeless person was injured in a shooting in Westchester Park in front of Mr. Bonin’s office on Saturday night — Witnesses, including homeless themselves, live in fear — Mr. Bonin’s staffers caught on camera assaulting a news crew
L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin’s last ditch effort to clean up the homeless encampments on the Venice Boardwalk appears to be floundering. Under intense pressure from constituents, his peers on council, and most recently Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, late last month Mr. Bonin launched the “Encampments to Homes” program. He promised to house 200 people from the boardwalk for $5 million (for the mathematically inclined that’s $25,000 per person for temporary shelter with no guarantee – for that matter no mention – of long term solutions). For the last two weeks he’s posted regularly on social media about the number of people allegedly removed so far. As of this he claimed that 110 people were “sleeping indoors” (again, doing a little math, at a rate of 110 people every three weeks it will take 54 weeks to house all 2,000 estimated homeless in that part of Venice alone).
While it’s impossible to verify the numbers, interviews, research, news, and common sense suggest a very different scenario is unfolding. According to a story in the Washington Examiner over the weekend, many Boardwalk homeless are not accepting services and moving indoors but simply are relocating to new illegal encampments elsewhere. Ira Koslow, the president of the Venice Neighborhood Council’s (VNC) Board of Directors, said, “There are empty spaces now, but if you go to the north…that’s now doubled and jammed. They moved from one end to the other, and there’s no repercussions.”
More than a few Venice residents share his hunch. VNC Public Safety Committee Chair Soledad Ursua told the all aspect report, “We knew this was coming when Bonin announced the initiative. He’s had seven years to clean the boardwalk and now he expects people to believe he can do it in six weeks? Now we learn that he’s essentially rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. And no one in CD 11 should be surprised. He’s not solving the crisis, he’s running for his political life.”
Mr. Bonin’s track record justifies residents’ skepticism that “Encampments to Homes” will prove any less of a failure than Mr. Bonin’s many other broken promises. There are still links to videos on his council website in which he boasts that the Rose Street Bridge facility, which he rammed through over vehement local concerns, would shelter the homeless living in the immediate neighborhood. In its first year and a half the facility had the opposite impact, turning the area into what many describe as a veritable war zone.
In all of this, of course, it is most often the homeless themselves who suffer the worst and longest. Every day living in a tent on the Boardwalk or on a sidewalk is one day farther from home, hope, and even sanity. It is well-documented that extended periods of street living can inflict permanent mental and emotional damage. Coupled with the mental illness and addiction that are homelessness’s cause and handmaiden and the depths of their hell become unimaginable. Yet that is precisely the place Mr. Bonin has consigned thousands of his “unhoused neighbors.” People in CD 11 and across L.A. can be forgiven their skepticism that his new effort will help people who need it most.
Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic
On Sunday I joined Jessica Rogers, Communications Director for EnvisionLA, and a camera crew as they visited locations in Mr. Bonin’s district (disclosure: I’m on the board of EnvisionLA). We spoke with homeless people living in Westchester Park, where Mr. Bonin coincidentally has a field office, and confirmed people had arrived from the Boardwalk in the last few days. A woman who asked that her name not be used because she lives in fear of an abusive ex-boyfriend told Ms. Rogers that she knows about a dozen people in her immediate area of the park who previously lived at the Boardwalk encampment.
We meet up with Westchester resident and advocate Julie Zahler. She regularly checks on folks living in the park, has gotten to know many of them and established a degree of trust. She brings food, clothing and other essentials. In a videotaped interview she confirmed to Ms. Rogers that she had just met with “a group of new individuals to the park who all have moved from Venice Beach with the clearings and found their way up to the park.” She had just spoken with four individuals who witnessed last weekend’s shootings and were understandably reluctant to give their names or appear on camera. All had just arrived from the Boardwalk.
Later that afternoon we visited Ocean Park Beach, just over the border from Venice in Santa Monica. One of the first things we noticed in the parking lot was a battered old school bus with a badly faded American flag paint job. Venice residents came to know that bus all too well as it was parked near the Whole Foods on Lincoln Avenue for several months. It’s another indication of the migration of Venice’s homeless population to other areas and even other cities. Walking along the bike path we encountered an individual in a tent who identified himself as Matt. He was in a sort of stupor, whether psychological or drug-induced it was impossible to tell. Sprawled on a filthy mattress he said, “Just came up here. Was just down there, now I’m here. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be over there.”
Mr. Bonin has even abandoned is own back yard
Miguel Centeno keeps his orange van parked about 50 feet from the front door to Mr. Bonin’s field office. A graduate of nearby Loyola Marymount University, where he recently applied for a Masters program, he’s dubbed himself “The Mayor of Mike Bonin’s Parking Lot.” Asked if he had been offered housing or services he echoes what the others told Ms. Rogers: “I’ve been here two to three months, and no one has ever approached me.” He even tried walking into Mr. Bonin’s office and was told no one could help him “immediately.” Given that he has lived fifty feet from the office door for months one wonders how Mr. Bonin and his staff define that concept.
It’s bad enough that Mr. Bonin hasn’t offered services to the homeless people living literally within feet of his own office. It’s even worse when you learn that his senior staff actually sought to have them removed. Two weeks ago The Venice Current and other outlets obtained a copy of an email from Hannah Levein, Mr. Bonin’s “Acting District Director” for Westchester, to another city department in which she sought the removal of a homeless person from the doorway. Again, it cannot be emphasized enough: Even though neither Mr. Bonin nor his staff have lifted a finger to assist the homeless people outside the office, they demanded that at least one of them be removed. Because “my office looks directly at the entrance” and apparently actually seeing a homeless person caused her some personal discomfort. She demanded a response ‘as soon as possible.” Mind you, this was at 10:28am on the first Monday she was back in the office. Of all the issues confronting CD 11 and the city of L.A. her own personal discomfort was paramount.
PLEASE let that sink in for a long, long moment. Because at this point it’s really all anyone needs to know about Mike Bonin and the sorts of individuals he chooses to employ.
Even that isn’t the whole story – with apologies to every late night commercial ever, but wait, there’s more. Last week a news crew from Fox11 Los Angeles approached Ms. Levien as she walked to her car. The reporter was trying to ask about the email, but another of Mr. Bonin’s staffers physically accosted the reporter – a woman barely half his size – even brandishing an object to push her away. Based on the footage Mr. Bonin’s staffer committed felony assault, battery, and false imprisonment, while violating a journalists’ First Amendment rights. He initiated physical contact and forced the woman out of his way, even brandishing an object at her. He used his height advantage to intimidate her. Real tough guy.
As of today he remains on the city payroll.
So Mike Bonin is failing yet again, even in his own backyard. He’s lying and dissembling again. And now his staff are assaulting and violating the rights of reporters. At this rate, Mike Bonin is going to recall himself.
Eric Garcetti’s departure is a rare moment of opportunity in L.A. Will his successor seize it or continue the same failed policies?
It’s difficult to conjure a more spectacular fall from political grace than the implosion Angelenos are witnessing of soon-to-be former mayor Eric Garcetti (it’s like music, that phrase: “former mayor Eric Garcetti”). The man who is about to accept the ultimate political consolation prize, an ambassadorship, once spent more time traveling around the country networking than running the metropolis of which he has been the titular leader for seven years. Two years ago he seriously believed he was going to be the next President. Even six months ago he still held out hope for a respectable second tier cabinet position like Secretary of Transportation. Instead, a man who thought he was going to be charting national and international policy will be organizing cocktail parties for the sorts of people who populate consulates, which is to say, overwhelmingly people of little consequence.
He will leave a city in far worse shape than he found it. He will be remembered not for securing an Olympics no one wanted even before the COVID-19 pandemic, but for the meltdown in basic civic institutions that occurred on his watch and for which he bears ultimate responsibility.
Make no mistake: Los Angeles was in free fall long before 2020 unleashed the one-two punch of pandemic and mass civil unrest, and no one was more responsible than the mayor. To be sure, the City Council isn’t exactly a bunch of slouches when it comes to their preternatural ability to screw things up and hurt people. But Garcetti has been around the longest, from two terms in council, three years as its president, and seven years as mayor. This is his Los Angeles, a place where people already were living a looking class existence in which officialdom consistently proclaimed new accomplishments while conditions for actual people continued deteriorating. Garcetti boasted about new lows in crime even as streets from Venice Beach to Wilmington devolved into post-apocalyptic nightmares. He trotted out “road diets” and “complete streets’ for nonexistent bicyclists even as Angelnos languished literally in the world’s worst traffic. It became downright Orwellian at times.
Historians will require neologisms to describe the new circle of Hell into which the City of Angels descended during the Garcetti Era. Indeed, a lexicon emerged to express the contours of what many have come to call the Homeless Industrial Complex. That, not Olympics or prosperity, is his legacy.
Mr. Garcetti departs his hometown, the city he sought to lead, in the midst of a out-of-control homeless crisis, a historic crime wave, thoroughly demoralized police and fire departments, and an entrenched bureaucracy of patronage that renders terms like Byzantine laughably superfluous. As zombies roam the streets the backrooms of 200 North Spring Street are choked with vape smoke as cronies, ideologues, and useful idiots divy up the spoils of voter approved initiatives to the tune of billions of dollars. At least, the rooms that aren’t boarded up or quarantined due to rat, cockroach, and termite infestations. The capital of a great city no longer.
The Garcetti chapter ends not with a bang, much less an oath of presidential office, but with the feeblest of whimpers. Should this post find its way to our friends and allies in India, a country I’ve twice visited and for which I have great fondness, I can only say I’m sorry. For America is sending you a schemer, a chameleon, a nakedly ambitious narcissist. A person so fundamentally dishonest that he lies about essential aspects of who he is. He is charming, no doubt, so much that even his adversaries sometimes find themselves beguiled in his presence. Do not be fooled. Remember how little time his ambition left for him to run Los Angeles, the place he was born and raised and where his father previously served as district attorney, and ask whether you can have confidence that he will treat a foreign nation any better. Look at the pictures below and understand they portray his handiwork.
Hope for the future?
Garcetti’s abrupt, albeit widely anticipated, departure creates a rare moment of political opportunity in L.A. His successor could be the most consequential interim mayor in the city’s history, maybe the country’s. Angelenos are desperate for new solutions to homelessness, crime, poverty, traffic, sustainability, and a host of other issues that languished under this administration. We know that the current approaches are not failing – they have failed. We are ready to try new things, to take chances and risks to save our city. Like our counterparts in that weird vertical city on the east coast we’re ready to embrace a law and order candidate so long as they’re not too extreme.
On their first day in office this “17 monther” could chart a bold new course. The first thing the next mayor must do is to declare a state of emergency over the homeless crisis. There is no longer any excuse. By any reasonable standard the situation qualifies as a humanitarian crisis. It’s that simple. City and county resources are overwhelmed: Despite (or more accurately, because of) the city spending some $6 billion over the last fifteen years the homeless population has exploded. The city/county homeless agency, LASHA is in chaos and can barely even keep an emergency shelter telephone number connected. A state of emergency will allow state and federal resources to be brought to bear. Instead of homeless encampments we’ll have Red Cross and National Guard humanitarian relief camps.
The models are out there. Look at Venice Beach. Councilman Mike Bonin sat on his ample haunches claiming impotence for seven years as the crisis spiraled and people suffered and died. No matter how you feel about L.A. Sheriff Alex Villaneuva it’s indisputable that he has forced long overdue action on the Boardwalk, in a short window of time. Within a week of the Sheriff’s visit Mr. Bonin started to clean up the boardwalk for the first time in his term. That’s no accident.
The question is, can an interim mayor learn those kinds of lessons? In the early stages Joe Buscaino has certainly said many of the right things. Showing up in Mr. Bonin’s backyard in Venice Beach at 7:30am on a Monday morning was a baller move. Assuming he can sustain, and that he can muster real support, starting in his own district, he’ll contend. Angelenos will be watching him, as well as City Council President Nury Martinez. One would like to think that Mr. Garcetti took the right steps behind the scenes to ensure a smooth transition of power, such as communicating with Ms. Martinez and her staff. Then again, over the last decade Angelenos have learned not to expect even basic competence from their elected and appointed officials.
If the interim mayor plays it right, Garcetti’s departure will mark the close one of the darkest chapters in the history of Los Angeles. The city is on the brink, and we can only hope and pray that Mr. Yoga Pants’s successor is smarter, more competent, more honest, and more forthright. It isn’t just right, it’s one of the biggest political opportunities in recent memory.
Don’t look now, but they tried to do journalism. It didn’t go well, as they didn’t even grasp the basics.
Today the writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times published a very long story about homeless fires that does nothing to increase the public’s understanding and everything to reveal that the writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times apparently live under a rock. They are shocked, you see – shocked! – to discover that the number of homeless fires has increased dramatically around the city and that with the increase has come increased damage, loss, and even death. In their El Segundo offices this fact, which pretty much everyone else in the city of Los Angeles not to mention the state of California has known for several years, qualifies as breaking news.
It is lost on them that the story does not come anywhere near qualifying as news to the vast majority of Angelenos, even in previously unaffected areas like Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, and Beverly Hills (don’t rest on the Garcetti Machine, Bel-Air, the homeless are headed your way, too). The only people who need a full color, illustrated, 5,000-plus word essay on the subject are, again, the writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times themselves (as per all aspect report policy I won’t link to the story because I will not sully even a simple blog with inferior prose).
If the only sin committed by the writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times was discovering reality a few years late, the story wouldn’t be noteworthy. Unfortunately, today’s story rehashes many of the lies people like Mayor Eric Garcetti and councilman Mike Bonin have been shoveling about the crisis for literally decades now, with devastating consequences.
Right out of the gate: After telling the horrific story of Dr. Courtney Gillenwater and her dog Togo, the story’s very first substantive point is how the crisis is partly caused by Angelenos’ “indifference” to homeless human beings. Let that sink in a moment. The writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times apparently believe that their fellow Angelenos – who have voted on three separate occasions to tax ourselves to the tune of more than $2 billion to help the homeless – are “indifferent” to the unspeakable human suffering on display on the streets of the richest city in the richest state in the richest country in human history. These news professionals believe we drive past the tens of thousands of human beings living in subhuman conditions in their own excrement and filth and think, “Meh.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the only reasonable response to the writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times is, “Screw you. You don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about and at this point you’re just embarrassing yourselves.”
Make sure you’re not sipping a beverage as you read the story because there are plenty of other spit-take inducing moments. We are told – lectured, really – that the crisis is difficult to solve because of the need to balance “residents’ rights” with homeless peoples’ “constitutional rights” to destroy themselves slowly and hideously in said feces and filth. I wasn’t valedictorian of my law school class but I’m still pretty sure I’d remember learning about that right being tucked somewhere in the Constitution. Maybe it’s hiding in one of Justice William O. Douglas’s penumbras. Also, writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times, don’t think for a second that we didn’t catch the fact that residents enjoy vaguely referenced “rights,” while homeless people have full “constitutional rights.” You’re journalists, you know those details matter. And if you don’t you really need to find new work.
The story is replete with such tergiversation: “Business owners are left wondering if a random blaze will scar or destroy their property. For homeless people, the fear is much starker, as a fire could swallow up what little they have left.” Left unanswered is why a law abiding business owner’s fear of losing their property is somehow less “stark” than a homeless person’s fear of losing their property. To read (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times the daily fears of people like Dr. Gillwater’s neighbors are just paranoia.
The story rehashes the ultimate political get-out-of-jail-free card: Litigation. The Homeless Industrial Complex and its armies of lawyers in California and national – people like execrable Carol Sobel, who profits off human misery while accepting millions in PPP relief, but I digress – have effectively ground to a halt the public’s ability to fight the crisis with anything besides continuing to tax ourselves to buy $900,000 units of “permanent supportive housing.” That L.A.’s version of housing first is a catastrophic failure is a secret to no one, yet here come the writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times, giving councilman Bonin a platform to shill for the developers who bankroll his political career.
Let’s be crystal on one very important subject: Any news outlet that quotes Mr. Bonin on the issue – for that matter, on any issue these days – has zero credibility. None. Mr. Bonin is the epicenter of the crisis, and his outright sociopathic responses – including most recently his bloodcurdlingly cold public response to Dr. Courtney – have been documented more times than could be so much as summarized in a blog post. His place in city history has long been secure, and it’s not a pretty place. Allowing him a platform is nothing less than journalistic malpractice.
At this point media outlets like (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times are doing far more harm than good with their coverage of the homeless crisis. Tellingly, the 5,000 word, illustrated, interactive story makes nary a mention of the addiction, mental health, and crime issues that are absolutely fundamental. The story mentions health only in passing and the word “addiction” doesn’t appear at all. Again, that’s malpractice. The homeless people starting fires are either suffering from mental breakdowns or addiction, or they’re criminals. Period. It’s common knowledge that criminals use homeless camps, and homeless people, as shields and cover. It’s equally well-known that many homeless fires are intentional acts of revenge or intimidation – messages from those criminals.
The writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times even flubbed the human interest angle: Dr. Gillenwater is straight out of central casting. She isn’t just a pediatrician, she spent years volunteering in relief camps in Africa, flew to Nepal after the 2015 earthquake, and is known around her neighborhood for helping homeless people. She rescued Togo barely half a year ago. Both she and her dog are extremely photogenic. Et cetera, et cetera. (What’s left of) the Los Angeles Times couldn’t be bothered with any of that.
Just like they couldn’t be bothered to learn the truth about homeless fires, they didn’t learn the full story behind the tragedy in Venice. And last but far from least, they accept the city’s numbers at face value, unquestioningly. Again, I’m a ocassional bordering on infrequent journalist, and I’ve learned more through interviews than the full-time (allegedly) professionals at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times. One of the first thing I learned that the official number of homeless fires, like the official number of homeless themselves, is off by as much as a couple orders of magnitude. For example, I interviewed a LAFD crew on the west side several months ago. It was a Sunday afternoon around 5pm. Off the record I asked them how many calls they’d responded to so far that day. The number was nine. How many were fires? Eight. How many of those were caused by or related to homeless? Eight. At one station, in less than one day.
The death of local media is one of the great tragedies in recent American history. Today’s embarrassment from (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times is another sad chapter.
Governor Gavin Newsom and local leaders have failed. Only national, and even international, resources can meet the magnitude of their human-caused crisis.
[NOTE: A previous version of this story appeared on January 18, 2019. It has been updated, and is even more relevant and urgent two years later]
One of the first things you see after a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis virtually anywhere on earth is the arrival of a United States Air National Guard C-17 Globemaster loaded with food, medical supplies, and personnel. Within 24 hours of the devastating 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia the United States dispatched Globemasters along with C-5 Galaxy and C-130 Hercules strategic lifters to the region. National Guard and regular service personnel immediately began providing shelter, clean water, food, medicine, sanitation, and search and rescue operations for millions of people from Indonesia to Madagascar. They were the first wave of what would become Operation Unified Assistance, the largest humanitarian relief effort since the Berlin Airlift. Within ten days of the earthquake the USS Lincoln aircraft carrier arrived in the region and began 24-hour-a-day flight operations, including search and rescue. The effort involved some 30,000 personnel, two aircraft carrier task forces, a Marine expeditionary unit, a U.S. Navy hospital ship, and hundreds of rotary and fixed wing aircraft and vehicles. Along with the offshore resources they established more than 500 individual relief camps and other sites throughout the region. At the peak the U.S. and a dozen other countries were delivering more than 100,000 pounds of supplies every 24 hours. Less than a year later, some of those same personnel and resources were on the ground in cities and towns throughout the southeastern U.S. providing relief to survivors of Hurricane Katrina. The number of lives saved is well into the millions.
It would take a fraction of that response to aid virtually every single homeless person in California in a matter of weeks. If we could muster that kind of effort for strangers 10,000 miles away there literally is zero excuse to not do it for our own neighbors here at home. Of course, that’s not the profitable solution, nor the one that enables politicians to aggrandize ever more power over actual working people. So instead of taking the blindingly obvious course and declaring a national emergency, our political roll out multi-billion dollar plans for dozens of $9 million “bridge housing” and $900,000 units of “permanent supportive housing.” Governor Newsom’s current grand plan, the latest of many previous failures, is to throw another $2 billion at the problem, to go along with the billions already flushed away on what has become known as the Homeless Industrial Complex. Meanwhile, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti continues his Quixotic (but highly profitable) quest to spend a billion dollars to build 10,000 units in 10 years. In other words, housing sufficient for less than a third of the city’s current (official) chronic homeless population, in a decade.
These are not serious plans. These are not serious people.
In contrast, the military has a tradition of assisting in and coordinating humanitarian efforts in extreme circumstances, often performing heroically. Historians credit an Army general, Frederick Funston, for saving what was left of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fires. He was deputy commander of the division stationed at the Presidio. Within hours of the quake, his troops were throughout the city fighting fires, establishing relief camps, setting up kitchens to feed the survivors, providing medical aid to the injured, re-establishing sanitation, establishing security (there was a spate of looting), and assisting in rescue operations. They saved thousands of lives and prevented the complete annihilation of the city by fire and human mischief.
The military responds to human-caused disasters as well. Operation Tomodachiwas the U.S. response to the March 11, 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. It lasted two months and included 24,000 personnel, 189 aircraft, and the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier task force along with two amphibious carriers, two destroyers, an amphibious dock ship, and other surface vessels. U.S. service members assisted in everything from harbor cleanups to freshwater delivery, search and rescue to decontamination.
The military often is the only entity with the experience, human and material resources, and discipline to respond to major crises, and they often are the most effective resources on the ground. Even as the George W. Bush administration and FEMA bungled their responses to Hurricane Katrina, the disaster was hailed as one of the National Guard’s finest hours for its rescue efforts. Certainly there were hitches, but as with so many other examples the military saved countless lives and properties and prevented the outbreak of mass lawlessness.
The scale of the California homeless crisis demands a national response
It’s time to call in those resources to tackle California’s homeless crisis. The magnitude of the catastrophe, which state leadership has allowed to metastasize for decades, is every bit as dire as any of the global examples mentioned above. The impacts on neighborhoods and communities are as devastating as anything you’ll see in actual war zones: Murder, rape, shootings, bombings, targeted assassinations, out of control fires, torture, disease, infestations, flesh eating bacteria, vandalism, assaults, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria. In places like San Francisco’s Tenderloin and Venice Beach in L.A. conditions have devolved to post-apocalyptic mayhem. Anarchy doesn’t begin to describe many places in the Golden State.
The death toll is in the hundreds of thousands. Since 2000 at least 10,000 homeless people have perished in Los Angeles County alone. Officially, some 130,000 people were homeless in the state last year. The official number likely is off by as much as an order of magnitude. According to an authoritative 2014 report by the American Institutes for Research, in 2013 as many as 526,000 children experienced homelessness in California. And that was six years ago, before the crisis truly began to spiral. The report also ranked the state 49th in planning and policies related to child homelessness.
Approximately 1,833 people lost their lives during and after Hurricane Katrina. In 2017, the last year for which numbers are available, at least 2,000 homeless people died in California. In 2019, more than 1,000 homeless people died in Los Angeles County alone. That’s a death every nine hours, in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history. And again, those are just the official numbers. The truth is certainly far more horrifying. Meanwhile it has been widely reported that diseases associated with the middle ages – typhus, typhoid, tuberculosis – are spreading in homeless camps across the state. There are legitimate fears of an outbreak of bubonic plague as soon as later this summer, and God help the Southland if coronavirus arrives. Police officers, firefighters, and volunteers working in homeless communities routinely report all manner of ailments, ranging from inexplicable coughs to influenza and typhus.
Homeless encampments also present terrifying risks of fire. In December 2017 a homeless cook fire got out of control in West Los Angeles and sparked a brush fire that consumed seven houses in Bel Air and threatened the Getty Center and its priceless art collections and research centers. A fire captain in downtown Los Angeles recently told The All Aspect Report that his crews are called to douse dumpster fires several times a day. He said they refer to one of their trucks as “the dumpster fire tender.” Homeless fires are a daily occurrence from the San Fernando Valley to the Bay Area, the state capital to remote Butte County. It’s a literal version of Russian roulette, and it’s only a matter of time before one of those fires gets out of control and becomes the state’s next Camp Fire.
The fires are just one aspect of the lawlessness that California’s homeless crisis has created. Vandalism, assault, drug sales, public intoxication, disturbing the peace, public defecation, even prostitution and attempted murder all have become terrifyingly commonplace. Meanwhile, thanks to laws like Prop 47, more than a dozen felonies including armed assault have been downgraded to misdemeanors. Prosecutors like San Francisco’s Chesea Boudin have all but stopped prosecuting so-called quality of life crimes. Even violent felons, attempted kidnappers, attempted rapists, routinely walk after a few hours in jail. As a result of these fundamental breakdowns in criminal law, many – perhaps most – crimes aren’t even reported anymore. Why bother calling 911 when you know no one’s coming, much less following up and prosecuting?
Local and state services are overwhelmed, and officials aren’t up to the task
If the scope of these issues doesn’t justify federal intervention it’s hard to see what would. California has hit rock bottom. It’s been clear for several years that state and local authorities are overwhelmed. As previously reported in these pages, under Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “bridge housing” plan the City of Los Angeles is spending an average of $55,000 per bed for temporary dormitory style housing. Accepting the official count of 36,900 homeless in the city, it would cost more than $2 billion to provide rudimentary shelter to all of them. The shelters also cost an average of $50,000 per bed per year to operate, meaning the city would spend $2 billion to construct the shelters and then $2 billion a year to maintain and operate them. These are not real numbers.
In contrast, consider that an Army mobile hospital and shelter can be set up for a few hundred thousand dollars in a matter of hours. These facilities provide a range of emergency and supportive services, including sanitary and medical facilities, triage, accommodation, security, kitchens, pharmacies, storage, and communal gathering places. In a fraction of the time that city and state governments spend dithering over what color to paint a new bridge facility, the National Guard and other military elements could have shelters up and running statewide, helping people, saving lives, and rescuing communities.
The military branches collectively possess countless years of experience in confronting all manner of humanitarian disasters. Who better to solve California’s homeless crisis than the men and women who have been on the ground in places Paradise, New Orleans, Haiti, Indonesia, and hundreds of other crisis points? Would Californians rather continue to trust that the politicians will figure it out, eventually and given enough money? It is time to call in the professionals who have demonstrated time and again their capabilities under the most challenging circumstances.
Potential legal and constitutional questions
The President has authority to deploy military units domestically for certain purposes. Under the Posse Comitatus Act the military can conduct non-law enforcement operations including humanitarian missions so long as they do not act as a police or quasi-police force. Likewise, National Guard units can be activated by either their state government or the federal government. The differences are in who pays the bills and who’s in charge. When a state deploys its National Guard, the state pays and the governor serves as commander in chief. In contrast, the President or Secretary of Defense can call up units to support overseas military operations, in which case the federal government pays and is in command. Guard activation also can be a hybrid: Federally funded while remaining under state control, such as during Hurricane Katrina and the Camp Fire.
Suffice it to say it is highly unlikely that Governor Newsom will activate the Guard at the state level to respond to a homeless crisis he himself had a hand in creating over the last twenty years. It would be to admit the failure of state and local efforts to address the crisis. Moreover, in the current environment of Democratic politics it simply would be untenable: Before the first tent was erected the cries of “concentration camps” would begin from the party’s newly dominant Sandersnista Left wing.
There is, however, another alternative.
Precedents in the Civil Rights Era
There is at least some precedent for Presidents using the military and calling up the National Guard without a state declaration, under extraordinary circumstances and even in defiance of state government. For example, the President can use the military and activate a state’s Guard units when citizens’ civil rights are threatened by state action. The most famous examples were President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s use of the Guard to enforce public school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 and President John F. Kennedy use of the Alabama and Mississippi National Guard to enforce desegregation efforts in those states in the early 1960s. In all cases presidents acted over the strenuous objections of governors.
Perhaps the most salient example is President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to federalize the Alabama National Guard in 1965. Johnson had been deeply troubled by images of peaceful civil rights protestors being attacked by police dogs, doused with fire hoses, and tear gassed and beaten in the streets of Selma on March 7, 1965, known as “Bloody Sunday.” Infuriated after the state’s governor – the noxious Democrat segregationist George Wallace – reneged on a promise to use state authorities to protect the protests, Johnson unilaterally activated 10,000 Alabama Guard troops and dispatched them to the city. From March 20-25, 1965 some 3,000 Guard and regular Army troops escorted Martin Luther King, Jr. and 50,000 protesters on their march from Selma to Montgomery, where King delivered one of his most famous orations, “How Long, Not Long.”
The 1965 example is particularly applicable because Johnson’s legal and constitutional justification for taking control of the Alabama National Guard was civil rights. Albeit in a different context, today’s homeless are subject to routine civil rights and constitutional deprivations by the very authorities charged with preserving them. Hundreds of thousands of Californians live on the streets, in beat-up campers, in abandoned buildings unfit for human habitation. Hundreds of thousands of children languish in similar and sometimes worse conditions. Millions of innocent citizens also have their rights trammeled every day, from the handicapped little girl who can’t get down the sidewalk in Venice in her wheelchair because dozens of tents block her way to the average Jane or Joe who has to navigate sidewalks covered in human excrement while wondering if today will be the day the plague arrives.
It will require diligent research by constitutional scholars. A process may look something like this: President Trump could declare a national state of emergency over the homeless crisis (while California is by far the worst, states nationwide are grappling with their own versions of the catastrophe). He could demand that governors in the worst affected states call up their Guard units to begin immediate humanitarian operations. When those governors invariably refuse, the President could activate their National Guard units as a necessary to the preservation of millions of people’s civil rights and safety.
Of course, for many in this deep blue state the idea of giving Donald Trump authority to do anything is a non-starter. There would be inevitable comparisons to the President’s decision to send troops to the southern border. Then again, military professionals haven’t been shy about shutting down Trump’s more jingoistic tendencies in that arena. Moreover, Californians would do well to look at the Camp Fire as an example. Despite the occasional (and characteristic) inflammatory Tweet the President stayed out of the Guard’s way and let them do their job. That is what should be expected of federal efforts to deal with homelessness in the state.
Greed is the only thing standing between California and help
It’s time for Californians to acknowledge the state’s abject failure to solve the homeless crisis. It’s time to acknowledge that the bureaucratic amateurs had their chance and only made things worse. Californians are starting to make those demands. Governor Newsom faces recall largely for his inept, corrupt response to COVID-19, but a lot of people who signed that petition were fit to be tied long before the pandemic. Mayors have lost control of their cities, and a new generation of ideologically insane district attorneys is ensuring that failure meets no consequences. These “leaders” have had literally decades to solve a problem of their own creation. At this point it’s a minor miracle when people like Gavin Newsom tie their own shoes on the first attempt.
It’s time to declare a state of emergency in California.
It’s time to send in the military, before it’s too late.
The state’s political class will never solve the homeless crisis. In fact, they depend on it.
History is replete with tragic examples of powerful rulers sending citizens to die in futile wars, often with little more at stake than the rulers’ own egos. The term “cannon fodder” was coined by François-René de Chateaubriand during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1814, as Napoleon Bonaparte grew ever more desperate to preserve his collapsing empire Chateaubriand wrote a pamphlet called “Bonaparte and The Bourbons” in which he excoriated the French dictator: “The contempt for the lives of men and for France herself has come to the point of calling conscripts ‘raw material’ and ‘cannon fodder.'” Thousands of young men were killed or wounded on the battlefields of Nivelle, Bayonne, and Toulouse in a vain effort to sustain a dying imperium. The most visceral example of cannon fodder is the World War II Battle of Stalingrad, in which the combined megalomania of Josef Stalin and Adolph Hitler led to the deaths of some two million combatants and tens of thousands of Soviet citizens in the bloodiest military confrontation in history. Two million deaths in the name of two men’s imperial ambitions.
In the twenty-first century California’s political class has created a new kind of human silage: Bureaucracy fodder. The state’s homeless population supports a head-spinning array of well-funded government agencies, nonprofits, charities, foundations, think tanks, law firms, consultants, and developers, all funded and enabled by the state’s (allegedly progressive) political class. As people suffer and die on the streets by the thousands these Brahmins rake in the paychecks, plan scores of multimillion dollar “affordable” and “low income” development projects, hold extravagant galas, and attend posh retreats and “team building” events while clothing themselves in the guise of altruism and community.
While developers vie for literally billions in project funds, many executives on both the public and private side of this archipelago make handsome six-figure salaries, such as disgraced former Congresswoman Katie Hill. Before leaving to run for office she was making nearly $200,000 a year as deputy CEO of a nonprofit called People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) – at the age of 27. That organization itself has grown its revenue from $8.3 million in fiscal year 2012 to $45.8 million last year. The organization’s CEO, Joel Roberts, made $241,370.
In Los Angeles County, homeless services are coordinated by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). According to Transparent California, in 2014 LAHSA had 118 employees, nine of whom made over $100,000 a year. As the homeless population grew so did LAHSA’s staff: By 2018, the agency had grown to 424 employees, with 31 earning six figures and another 16 earning more than $90,000. The Director pulled down $242,242 (coincidentally nearly identical to Mr. Roberts’s salary at PATH). Assuming an average salary of $50,000 LAHSA spends $21.5 million annually on salaries alone. As LAHSA has grown so has the county’s homeless crisis. Coincidence?
At the state level, the Department of Social Services employs more than 4,200 people whose jobs – theoretically – are to help California’s poorest residents get back on their feet. Nearly 100 employees make more than $200,000 a year, with the Director, William Lightbourne, receiving $313,760. And the state’s homeless crisis grows. Coincidence?
These numbers, which are just a few of myriad examples, raise obvious questions: What would those 424 LAHSA employees do for a living if they were to actually end homelessness in Los Angeles? The answer is equally obvious: If they were to eliminate homelessness and poverty, they’d have to find new jobs. And no one in their right mind intentionally puts themselves out of work.
It’s important to understand that these people are not contractors, nor consultants hired to solve a problem and then move on to the next one. They are full-time, salaried employees. Public employees also receive generous benefits packages and as many as 45 days of paid vacation annually (many take even more time off). Presumably most of them expect to have their jobs for years and decades, and many will retire with their nonprofit or government agency. For that to happen the homeless crisis must continue in perpetuity.
Equally important is the fact that the public employees are dues paying union members. LAHSA’s employees are part of the Service Employees International Union, one of the most powerful in the country (their most recent collective bargaining agreement is quite the read). Those unions are among the most important sources of campaign contributions for California’s Democrat majority, adding yet another layer of self-interest.
The famed economist William Niskanen developed the budget maximizing theory of bureaucracies. He showed how bureaucrats acting in their own rational self-interest seek to increase their budgets in order to increase their power. It’s axiomatic that success in government is a matter of raising your department’s budget and headcount. In the context of homeless services this phenomenon creates the ultimate paradox: The only way for an agency whose mission is to end homelessness can justify increasing its staff and budget is if there are ever increasing numbers of homeless people in the state. Perhaps that’s why Governor Newsom said during a recent tour of a homeless shelter in L.A. that, “Many [homeless people] see California as a place of compassion. If that’s the case, we match our values with action, and as people of faith, we have a responsibility to all of them, regardless of whether they got here last week, last month, or were born here 30 years ago.” That statement amounts to a blank check thrown at the feet of bureaucrats and nonprofit executives.
As barbaric as tyrants’ use of human beings as cannon fodder was, it arguably was more humane than California’s bureaucratic fodder. Soldiers died relatively quickly from combat wounds or – more frequently – illness and exposure. In contrast, California’s bureaucratic fodder suffer excruciating circumstances for months, years, even decades. So long as the solutions are in the hands of self-interested bureaucrats, nothing will change.
Friday evening tweet storm also disparages rank and file L.A. police union that spent more than $45,000 supporting his campaigns
It started in June, when Los Angeles Councilman Mike Bonin, long an advocate for increased policing in his district, jumped on the defund the police bandwagon. He staked a position far beyond most of his colleagues on council (except Council President Nury Martinez, who has had her own problems on the subject) and Mayor Eric Garcetti. He introduced legislation to cut LAPD funding, spoke out against the police, and posted pictures of defund protests, including a flier with the caption “F*** the federal police!” to his personal social media pages. His endgame, a declaration of war on the Police Protective League, the Los Angeles police union, came in the form of the plaintive Friday afternoon tweet pictured above. More on that virtual utterance in a moment.
Politics aside, Mr. Bonin’s constituents found his newfound evangelism on the subject of reduced law enforcement puzzling. He made increasing police resources in his district central to both of his campaigns for city council. As recently as January 2019 he boasted of putting more than 600 new patrol officers on the streets, having pushed to take them off desk duties. Even now his official council website features pictures of him with cops and promises to bring more officers to the Westside. [UPDATE: Mr. Bonin has removed the pro-police pages from his official council website.]
He’s also accepted thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the PPL itself. According to a June 2020 Los Angeles Times story the PPL spent more than $45,000 backing his two runs for council (Mr. Bonin has said he won’t accept any more PPL money or support).
Then there is the inconvenient – for Mr. Bonin – fact of his own experiences with LAPD. According to public records obtained exclusively by The All Aspect Report there were 29 police calls for service to his home between January 2015 and June 2020. According to a department analyst many of the calls – logged in the reports as Code 6 – were made either at the department’s or councilman’s initiative. Additionally, neighbors and constituents have documented at least six instances of police responses to Mr. Bonin’s residence not included in the logs, bringing the total to 35.
For now the records raise more questions than they answer. The biggest questions surround the sheer volume of police activity at Mr. Bonin’s residence. The vast majority of people in upper middle class neighborhoods like his go years or decades without calling the police once. Thirty-five service calls over five years, regardless who initiated them or the circumstances surrounding them, is all but unheard of.
For example, records show that between April 2015 and August 2018 there were 15 “false alarm” calls to Mr. Bonin’s residence. The department analyst didn’t have additional details but suffice it to say either Mr. Bonin has the world’s worst home security system or there is more to those calls. Either way those 15 false alarms must have cost the councilman and his husband a pretty penny: According to the LAPD’s website, the penalty for a first false alarm is $216, assuming the system is permitted. By the fourth offense the penalty rises to $366, meaning all those calls cost more than $5,200. The All Aspect Report has submitted public records requests related to the fines.
There are other oddities in the records. One of the false alarm calls at his house – at 12:53am on June 25, 2015 – is listed as responding to a “government building,” as is a valid alarm call on the morning of June 8, 2017. Two other false alarms, on January 8 and May 24 of 2017, are listed as “acts of nature.” 2019 was a quiet year, with a 16th false alarm call in August 2019 (bringing the total to $5,566 and counting) and a call in October logged as “other.”
There was a spate of calls for service to Mr. Bonin’s home in April of this year. On the night of April 4-5 there were three calls between 11:19pm and 12:39am [UPDATE: Additional information provided by LAPD on August 12 indicates that there was only one call for service to Mr. Bonin’s house that night, at 11:19pm. The others are “administrative actions. We continue to investigate.] There were two more calls on April 7 and April 9, which a LAPD source told The All Aspect Report were “additional patrols.” The most recent calls were May 21 and May 24.
This information came out in response to California Public Records Act requests the All Aspect Report submitted to the LAPD earlier this summer, and to which the department responded last week.
On Friday evening FoxLA reporter Bill Melugin discovered the responses and tweeted about them. He wrote, “A public records request reveals that LA city councilman Mike Bonin, who voted to defund LAPD by $150 million, has called LAPD to his home 8 times since 4/4/20, including to provide extra patrols and protection from peaceful protesters at his house.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Melugin and Fox did not get the entire story, but nevertheless his tweet went viral and sparked a local firestorm. Within hours it had more than 3,000 likes and 2,000 retweets – no mean feat on a Friday evening in the middle of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement. Mr. Bonin himself responded about a half hour later. He asserted that of the eight calls since April he only made one: A personal request to the captain of Pacific Division to remove hypodermic needles he alleged were left on his porch (suffice it to say discarded needles are commonplace in his district, but only Mr. Bonin himself can call the captain personally to deal with them).
[UPDATE August 9: The story appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight (Mr. Carlson also did not get the story correct) and even prompted a story in the UK Daily Mail]
Mr. Bonin said that the seven other calls were initiated by LAPD themselves “sending patrols without my request and often without my knowledge.” It’s an odd turn of phrase from a man who used to work as a newspaper reporter: “often without my knowledge.” Meaning, of course, that at least some of those eight calls so far this year, as well as some of the other 35 total calls, were at his request or with his knowledge. It also raises the question why he didn’t turn down the LAPD initiated patrols he did know about. Most importantly, why did LAPD feel the need to patrol his house so often in the first place?
Mr. Bonin’s tweetstorm continued:
Which leads us full circle to the spectacle of a public servant who aspires to the mayorship and beyond, turning a legitimate question of public interest into a full frontal attack on his constituents, along with peaceful protestors, the rank and file of the Los Angeles Police Department, and anyone else with the temerity to disagree with or challenge him. It was an astonishing act of political self-immolation, made even more inexplicable by its gratuitousness.
To be clear: Mr. Bonin himself made his relationship with law enforcement an issue, both because of the number of times LAPD have served him personally and his newly discovered anti-police fundamentalism. Whether or not he called the police or the police provided patrols and checks at their own discretion on those 35 (at least) occasions, is irrelevant. At any point in the last five years he could have called up Pacific Division and asked the Captain for a stand down order. Would have taken five minutes.
Indeed, until seven or eight weeks ago Mike Bonin had that kind of relationship with the LAPD. He was one of the their biggest supporters both in his district and in City Council, as numerous news accounts and even entries on his CD11 web page attest. He could have used that goodwill – or leverage, for that matter – and played a central role in police reform efforts in Los Angeles. He could have been the guy who told hard truths and demanded accountability from LAPD while still showing support for police who despite months of attacks retain the respect of three quarters of the population, including the 81% of Blacks who don’t want police defunded. He could have shown national leadership on the issue and struck a brave, independent course that recognized the urgent necessities of the moment without discarding the men and women who risk their lives every day to keep the rest of us safe.
In response to Mr. Melugin’s tweet Mr. Bonin could have said something like, “Yup, I admit it, LAPD has come to my house a lot. Like most people calling the police has been my default, and as a public official with a young son I’m especially sensitive. That said, the last few months have caused me to reflect, and like many Americans I embrace the urgent need for change. We will have difficult discussions in the months and years ahead, and we won’t always agree. But I’m committed to working with my constituents and the incredible people of L.A., including our brave men and women in blue, to make this the best city for all of us.”
Thirty seconds, firestorm avoided, leadership established. Heck, that’s the kind of guy people start thinking of as mayor material.
Instead, Mike Bonin has declared war. On virtually everyone. He had a once-in-a-career opportunity not just to score political points with an increasingly hostile electorate but to show real leadership by doing right by the people of this city. He stepped on that opportunity and – well, complete your own metaphor. This isn’t the first time he’s turned on his own voters. See below for examples from The All Aspect Report and elsewhere. Most despicably, in January of this year he attempted to blame a bomb scare at the then under construction Bridge Home shelter in Venice Beach on his political opponents.
It’s enough to make you wonder how he made it this far. It’s also enough to make you wonder if this guy should have this job anymore.
A final note: The current political moment demands clarity on one issue. Mr. Bonin has not aligned himself with the overwhelming majority of passionate, determined, sometimes enraged protestors demanding real change and forcing long overdue conversations about race in America. By showing support for the likes of street rioters and defund the police – a project of the self-declared radical Marxist group Black Lives Matter, not the movement from which they appropriated the name – he has aligned himself with the likes of the (overwhelmingly white) bomb throwers who spent two months attempting to destroy the Portland federal courthouse. He has aligned himself with the likes of ANTIFA and those who practice violence for the sake of violence. Friday evening’s tweet, his declaration that he is “standing up to the police union,” after 25 years of using law enforcement both personally and politically, settles any doubt as to where his allegiances lie.
For previous examples of Mr. Bonin turning on his own voters, see some of these stories from The All Aspect Report and elsewhere:
LAPD Investigating Pipe Bombs Left at Future Site of Venice Bridge Home (NBC L.A., January 4, 2020) (Mr. Bonin said, “This is an appalling incident perpetrated by a disturbed and cowardly person or persons. If it was meant to slow or halt progress on providing bridge housing, it failed. It is unacceptable and inhumane for people to be living and dying in sidewalk encampments in our neighborhoods. It is imperative that we get people off the streets. We will not be intimated, and we will not back down from providing solutions to our homelessness crisis.”
In a world of scarce resources they’re turning a short-term public health crisis into a long-term national catastrophe
As the United States enters the second month of a historic government-ordered lockdown a few realities are emerging into relief. The first and most inexorable is the fact that the nation’s political class were utterly unprepared for this – “this” being an entirely foreseeable, indeed inevitable public health crisis. In an era of mass travel and global commerce it is inexcusable for officials and bureaucrats in urban centers like New York City and Los Angeles to have been caught so flat-footed. The consequence is the grim spectacle of politicians making it up as they go along. Americans in every demographic are suffering the consequences of the political class’s maladministration.
Ignore the glowing headlines about what a great job we’re doing here in California. Everyone should be watching the official response the Golden State with a combination of disgust and horror. As reported earlier this month in The All Aspect Report parts of L.A. are verging on anarchy as officials have effectively shut down civil society while simultaneously hamstringing law enforcement (the reality on the streets makes laughable the official claims by LAPD Chief Michael Moore and others that crime is “plummeting” as a result of stay at home orders).
This is a state that closes churches, synagogues, and other places of worship while allowing marijuana shops and liquor stores to remain open for business. A state that closes parks and beaches to families while allowing vagrants and drunks to occupy those very places by the thousand. These are warped priorities.
California, a place where the next major natural disaster is not a question of if but when, doesn’t have sufficient hospital capacity to handle a moderate pandemic. Officials at the state and local level failed to establish substantive plans in place to surge emergency services in a crisis. For example, the official San Francisco earthquake response plan from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services contains a single sentence about fire response and overall is impossibly vague. Likewise, the City and County of San Francisco’s official Emergency Response Plan is not a plan but an 89-page compendium of org charts and bureaucrat speak that would be useless in an actual emergency.
The results are obvious in the misallocation of scarce resources and manpower. Two weeks ago a dozen law enforcement officers from three different agencies arrested a man for paddle boarding in Malibu, even as city officials ignore countless crimes committed daily by the city’s homeless population. A man boasted to The All Aspect Report that he’d been pulled over by LAPD last week with an open beer in his cup holder, and was let go without so much as a warning. Meanwhile, Mayor Garcetti urges Angelenos to snitch on each other for violating city orders (he actually said, “snitches get rewards”) while vagrants congregate in close quarters on the steps of City Hall a few feet away from his press conference. So much for California’s “leadership.”
The only place where the official response has been worse is New York City. Like their suntanned counterparts on the Left Coast everyone in the Big Apple ought to be appalled. The leadership of a city that experienced 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy failed to plan for this kind of emergency. Maybe they were too busy building bike lanes. The city so far has the highest number of coronavirus deaths in the country, with more than 11,000 to date. With less than six percent of the nation’s population the state of New York accounts for a third of all coronavirus deaths. It’s gotten so bad that the media and pundit class are rewarding Governor Andrew Cuomo for giving entertaining press conferences with his brother (who staged his own coronavirus quarantine). Not for handling the crisis, but for looking good on TV. Let that sink in.
The official response doesn’t just amount to political malpractice, it’s an existential failure that calls into question fundamental assumptions about the modern neo-liberal state. The relentless expansion of public bureaucracies since the Great Depression was based on a contract between the people and their governments (plural, because the contract is in effect at the local, county, state, and national levels). The people accept the proposition that the complexities of modern political, economic, and social systems demand the commitment of full-time subject matter experts (technocrats) who receive salaries from the taxpayers. In return the people/taxpayers expect those employees to dedicate their careers to sustaining, protecting, and improving those systems. That contract was fraying long before coronavirus as government at every level failed on issues including education, housing, health care, homelessness, infrastructure, and mobility.
Now, as official responses to the pandemic prove more chaotic and perhaps more destructive than the disease, Americans’ remaining faith in the political class is being shaken to its core. Tens of millions have lost work and income, their futures cast into doubt. All because of bungled responses to a public health crisis that every mayor, governor, legislator, and bureaucrat should have seen coming. In an era when the next terror attack, natural disaster, or public health crisis was a matter of time the political class was bickering about pronouns.
If government were like any other industry it would already be in receivership, its executives terminated, its rank and file radically reshuffled, its budgets slashed. Yet in the perverse logic of the public sector many officials see their coronavirus failures as opportunity. As Mr. Newsom said two weeks ago, it’s a chance for “re-imagining a more progressive future.”
Only in the realm of public policy does failure respawn stronger. Only in politics does one fail upward so spectacularly.
A second realization is emerging in the form of a question, albeit a clichéd one: When does the official cure become worse than the disease? The same political class who bungled the nation’s response to a crisis they should have seen coming is in the process of cratering the U.S. and global economies. As a direct result of their actions millions of Americans have lost their jobs in a matter of days while millions more have seen their incomes plummet or disappear. The stock market has erased more than $5 trillion in gains from the last four years. The unemployment rate is making the Great Depression look like the Roaring 80s, and it’s just getting started. Former Fed Chair Janet Yellen has estimated that unemployment rate reached 13% by early April, and some observers suggest that it could exceed 30% before the crisis is over. Countless thousands of small businesses have been shuttered, many never to reopen. Lives are being shattered, livelihoods destroyed, college and retirement savings gutted.
As they continue to collect their own six figure, taxpayer funded salaries the political class that failed so thoroughly is warning everyone else that the worst is yet to come.
In a sense we are in another “9/11 moment” in which reality is obscured by the fog of the crisis (of course, many people have argued that the political class should have seen 9/11 coming as well). In response to the attacks the political class hurled the country into the catastrophic Iraq War. An attack that cost 2,996 lives triggered a response that killed as many as 600,000. In economic terms the hijackers spent roughly $500,000 to carry out their acts of cowardice. The total U.S. military response cost some $6 trillion.
In the fog the political class also convinced Americans that national security necessitated unprecedented governmental invasions of privacy – an “emergency measure,” of course. Nearly two decades later every email Americans send remains subject to scrutiny, every credit card transaction, stock purchase, telephone call, and doctor visit. County and local governments introduced mass surveillance of their populations in the form of cameras and drones, while even suburban police departments obtained military-grade equipment. All of this, said the political class, was necessary to protect us, just like the current national shutdown. The political class was profoundly, dangerously, fatally wrong then. Why should Americans trust them now?
A pandemic by its nature arrives, spreads, peaks, and declines. In contrast, the effects of mass unemployment grind on a populace for years or decades. Make no mistake: Unemployment and poverty are deadly. How many Americans already are sinking into depression, substance abuse, and lethargy because of lost hours, social distancing, and lockdown orders? New York governor Andrew Cuomo was dismissive this week of domestic violence, but how many are being victimized? How many addicts, no longer able to attend in-person meetings, are relapsing? How many people will resort to alcohol or drugs for the first time? How many will contemplate suicide? These are not rhetorical questions: Calls to suicide hotlines around the country are up substantially. A line covering North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota has seen calls spike by 300%.
Suffice it to say, if the political class’s panicked responses to the coronavirus pandemic triggers a long-term recession or even a depression, it will kill many more people than the disease itself. It will invariably result in higher crime rates, more domestic violence, more suicides.
In a world of uncertain choices and imperfect information, America’s political class so far has taken the most imperfect route imaginable.
*Yes, that sentence is an example of the old adage that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. Comparing a viral pandemic to chronic conditions linked to genetics and behavior is apples and oranges. However, the metric officials are using to justify the massive response is the number of deaths. The current worst case scenario for coronavirus is around 200,000 deaths. Annually, nearly 700,000 Americans die of heart disease.
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 reportedby 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 apexin 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.
2/25 NOTE: This post has been updated with information from the Gascon campaign and additional analysis.
The man running to replace Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey as the county’s top law enforcement official seems willing to bend ethics and campaign laws to advance his ambitions. George Gascon, who resigned as San Francisco’s District Attorney less than five months ago to run in L.A., faces staunch resistance from police. While he has been endorsed by a handful of retired law enforcement officials from L.A. County, most notably former Police Chief Charlie Beck, the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL) has endorsed Ms. Lacey and has spent more than a million dollars in an effort to defeat Mr. Gascon. The Los Angeles Times reported today that Lacey also has received funding and support from the L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies union, the Peace Officers Research Association of California, and the L.A. County prosecutors union.
In the face of this opposition from law enforcement it seems Mr. Gascon decided to conjure some police support in a way that raises questions.
His official campaign website prominently features an image, which as of this writing remains live, showing him walking and talking with a uniformed police officer in front of a police cruiser. The officer and the vehicle appear to be from the LAPD: The uniform color, style, and badge are consistent with the city’s police force, and the cruiser in the background looks like an LAPD Ford Explorer, with a black hood and grill. Given that Mr. Gascon is seeking office in Los Angeles, voters reasonably may conclude that the officer in the picture is with the LAPD.
The image thus implies police support for his candidacy: Indeed, it appears as the header on the campaign’s “Endorsements” page, with the word superimposed. The picture also appears on the campaign’s homepage next to a solicitation for $100 campaign contributions.
An email on Friday to the Gascon campaign was not initially returned. However, after this story was published attorney Maxwell Szabo wrote an email on the campaign’s behalf in which he defended the use of the image. “The officer in the photo was off-duty. The uniform was rented, as was the police car. We have receipts for both,” he wrote.
California state law prohibits uniformed police and other law enforcement officers from making endorsements while in uniform. Specifically, Government Code Section 3206 says that an officer or employee of a local agency may not “participate in political activities of any kind while in uniform.”
In 2012 Sheriff Lee Baca acknowledged breaking the law when he appeared in a video endorsing Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich for D.A. while in uniform. Sheriff Baca later apologized and Trutanich’s campaign removed the video. Last year, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Sheriff’s Department opened a criminal investigation into an event at the County Fire Authority’s headquarters. The O.C. firefighters union invited candidates they supported to wear official city firefighting gear, including fire department emblems. The candidates also participated in mock firefighting exercises.
The Gascon campaign’s photograph appears to be something of a legal novelty: The campaign used a real off-duty cop to simulate a real on-duty one. The active but off-duty LAPD officer wears a rented uniform that looks to the untrained eye to be LAPD issue, and he’s standing with Mr. Gascon in front of a rented car that looks like an LAPD cruiser. It raises the question, is it a violation of state law for a real police officer in a fake but realistic uniform to appear in official campaign materials, particularly on an “Endorsements” page?
It also raises the question of why the Gascon campaign is going to such great lengths to create an impression of police support. If, as Mr. Szabo says, the officer in the photograph is with the LAPD, and if he does endorse Mr. Gascon (law enforcement officers are allowed to make personal endorsements on their own time) why hasn’t the campaign identified him?
When contacted by the All Aspect Report, LAPPL President Craig Lally said in an email, “George Gascon continues to try and con voters into thinking he has the support of frontline police officers. He doesn’t and there’s a reason why. He was an absolute failure in San Francisco as DA, combining skyrocketing crime and out of control open air drug markets with a record of hiding evidence and making up phony crime stats.” Mr. Lally added, “It’s ironic that he mocks police officers one moment, then uses our image to raise funds for his deceitful campaign the next.” Mr. Lally’s statement also referred to an advertisement the LAPPL has been running on television stations in Los Angeles.
Mr. Gascon is running for a position of significant public trust in the County of Los Angeles. As the crime rate – whether prosecuted or not – continues to grow, the role of District Attorney is becoming more important than ever. The police oppose his candidacy, largely due to his co-authorship of Proposition 47. Police say that law, which reduced many felonies to misdemeanors and retroactively downgraded convictions for as many as 10,000 felons, was sold to voters misleadingly as “The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act.” Law enforcement agencies and associations statewide blame Prop 47 for increased crime, addiction, and homelessness (there is evidence for their position).
Regardless of any legalities, the fundamental issue remains that Mr. Gascon’s campaign went out of its way to give the impression of police support. Mr. Gascon obviously is aware of their opposition, and more to the point he’s aware of the law. Nevertheless his campaign appears to be trying to fool voters into thinking otherwise: Based on the totality of factors – the uniform, badge, sidearm, and apparent police cruiser – the picture seems carefully crafted to lead voters to conclude that Mr. Gascon has police support.
Angelenos should ask themselves if they want to entrust enforcement of the law to someone who seems determined to deceive them.
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The political class’s obsession with splashy big budget projects like light rail wastes billions and deprives vulnerable citizens of decent transportation. It’s also terrible for the environment, small businesses, and even global stability (seriously).
LOS ANGELES – Certain phrases come to define certain cities. Someone (probably not Mark Twain) famously said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Lost to obscurity is the first person to have remarked, “New York never sleeps.” Likewise unknown to history is whomever first observed, “No one in L.A. rides the bus.” Angelenos’ collective love/hate relationship with their cars, their obsessive quest for the quickest routes and best shortcuts, is as integral to the city’s identity as palm trees, side hustles, and the Lakers (RIP Mamba). It’s no surprise, then, that in the decade since the country emerged from the great recession Angelos have reverted more furiously than ever to their car buying and driving ways. As a result mass transit usage has plummeted to historic lows.
What’s playing out on L.A.’s streets, roads, and highways is the opposite of what decades’ worth of public planning anticipated. Starting in the 1970s politicians and bureaucrats began to focus more on modes of transportation other than the automobile. During his 1973 run for mayor, then councilman Tom Bradley made transit a city priority for the first time in over half a century. He promised, ambitiously, to break ground on a new rail line within 18 months of his inauguration. He consciously invoked the first half of the twentieth century, when Los Angeles had the largest light rail network in the world. And in 1973 the idea made eminent sense, as cars of the era were lead and smog spewing behemoths that bear as much resemblance to today’s efficient vehicles as the SpaceX Falcon Heavy resembles Sputnik.
Mayor Bradley’s initiative proved prescient, but for all the wrong reasons. It didn’t take 18 months but instead nearly 30 years for his promise to be fulfilled by the Red Line subway. The city’s experience with the project presaged things to come: It took twelve years just to break ground and another fifteen years to complete. It was more than a billion dollars over budget, and construction was plagued by route changes and accidents including a methane explosion, a massive sinkhole, and the deaths of three construction workers. As the New York Times observed at the time, “L.A.’s first subway will almost certainly be its last.” Indeed, it proved such a fiasco that officials scrapped plans for a citywide subway network modeled after New York’s. Nevertheless, by the 1990s the city’s political class was committed to the expansion of mass transit, as well as bicycling and walking (scooters and ride sharing were not yet gleams in Silicon Valley bros’ eyes). Angelenos today are living with the consequences of those decisions.
The planners have been wrong on virtually every front. Their imagined millions of transit riders instead have overwhelmingly chosen private vehicles. Thanks to increased supply, the availability of credit, and the rise of companies like Carmax, virtually anyone can afford a car. In 2015 the state also started issuing drivers licenses to some one million illegal immigrants (studies suggest many of those people already were driving). As housing became increasingly unaffordable, many Angelenos moved away from urban centers to suburbs and exurbs, increasing their reliance on cars. As a result of these and other factors millions of motorists remain behind the wheel, perhaps observing occasionally and with curiosity as a nearly empty billion dollar train whizzes overhead, on its way to nowhere useful.
Rather than adapt to reality, in a very real sense officials are seeking to punish Angelenos for their failure to embrace the mass transit Utopia. Every policy is predicated on the quest to increase congestion and slow traffic to the point that driving becomes so miserable and time-consuming that transit actually seems like a reasonable alternative. Politicians and bureaucrats use an entire lexicon of euphemisms – road diets, complete streets, livable streets, great streets, multimodal transportation, micromobility – to obscure this central fact. As accidents increase they declare streets safer. As businesses fail they claim economic booms. They seem to be following Vladimir Lenin’s edict that a lie told often enough becomes truth.
L.A.’s transit is bad and getting worse
None of the proffered transit alternatives are nearly as efficient as an individual automobile. The biggest failings are routes, travel time, and safety. In terms of routes, it was always fanciful to believe L.A. could recreate the Red Car system, which has reached positively mythical status among city planners. When the original system (really a network of interconnected operations) was being built much of L.A. was open space. In 1910 it was relatively easy to extend a line from Hollywood to the Pacific Ocean. Beverly Hills didn’t even exist. Zoning laws were rudimentary and routinely flouted, and there were no environmental laws. Today, of course, construction of even a single new station requires negotiations with property owners, years of environmental review, zoning changes, contracts and subcontracts, and the inevitable litigation.
As a consequence L.A.’s light rail and subway lines go where they can, not where they’re most needed. Consider the much-ballyhooed Expo Line that connects downtown L.A. with Santa Monica. It roughly follows the old Santa Monica Air Line route that was discontinued in the 1950s. Unfortunately that route bypasses the corridors where transit, especially light rail, makes the most sense. Particularly west of Culver City, none of the stations are located in high density commercial, business, or residential areas. Many of the stops, including Bundy, Sepulveda, Rancho Park, and Palms are relatively isolated from surrounding areas. The closest businesses to the Sepulveda station are Anawalt Lumber and a furniture store. The construction of a new 595 unit apartment complex doesn’t change the equation, as that development specifically targets Google and other tech workers at the newly converted Westside Pavillion mall. A mass transit solution it is not.
Buses should be a logical solution in L.A. but they are notoriously slow and unreliable. According to L.A. Metro’s new “NextGen” initiative, one of the agency’s primary goals is to “assure service is no more than 2.5x slower than driving.” Only in the world of government bureaucracies does being two and a half times slower than the alternative count as success. Consider what that would mean for the average Angeleno: If a person’s commute is 45 minutes each way they’ll spend an hour and a half in traffic every day. Bad enough, but that’s nothing compared to the 3.75 hours required on transit – in a best case scenario. Assuming that person works 48 weeks a year they’ll spend more than a month sitting on the bus. Thirty-seven and a half days a year, much of it in close proximity to drunks, addicts, lunatics, and vagrants. Add in the inevitable delays, inefficiencies, and other disruptions and the hours get even worse.
Lastly, the city’s spiraling homeless and crime rates make transit use dangerous, or at least create the perception of danger. According to a 2019 report in the Los Angeles Times, one in five Metro riders have reported being harassed on trains. Many more incidents go unreported. A 2016 survey found that 29% of riders had stopped using the system altogether due to safety concerns.
Many stations are poorly lit at night. Women in particular report feeling unsafe (though women comprise the majority of transit riders in L.A. it wasn’t until last year that Metro bothered to study their safety concerns).
Nevertheless, the city is doubling, tripling, and quadrupling down
Metro, the city’s Department of Transportation, Department of Public Works, and other departments are forever devising new ways to prioritize trains and buses over even the heaviest vehicular traffic. The city recently reconfigured the signals at dozens of intersections to give priority to the Expo Line light rail. It’s commonplace to see scores of cars and buses stopped for several minutes as a nearly empty train approaches and crosses. Elsewhere, such as on Lincoln Boulevard between El Segundo and Santa Monica, Public Works has timed stoplights to create maximum congestion at peak hours. The intersection of Lincoln and Washington, one of the busiest on the Westside, alternates two minute red lights on Lincoln versus just thirty second green lights. The result is gridlock in which it takes as much as fifteen minutes to cover even a couple of blocks. It’s congestion by design.
Meanwhile, thanks in part to historic congestion L.A.’s air quality at times has plummeted. Vehicles stopping, starting, and idling produce far greater emissions. So much for sustainability.
In short, L.A.’s current transportation policies, particularly the prioritization of transit, leaves everyone worse off. Even the most reliably pro-transit sources, including the Los Angeles Times and a network of blogs including Curbed, Streetsblog, LAist, and others have been forced to acknowledge the failure of transit in Los Angeles.
Immigrants and the working poor hurt worst
The city’s incoherent, ideologically motivated transportation system does the most harm to cohorts the city’s allegedly progressive leadership claims to care about most – low-income people, immigrants, the disabled and the elderly.
Immigrants have led L.A.’s ten-year car buying spree. According to a January 2018 report from the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies commissioned by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), between 2000 and 2018 vehicle ownership by both documented and undocumented immigrants grew at a faster pace than any other groups. Low income households also acquired private cars at a disproportionate rate compared to the population as a whole.
Critically, the authors of the report, entitled “Falling Transit Ridership: California and Southern California,” concluded “With very few exceptions, acquiring an automobile in Southern California makes life easier along multiple dimensions, dramatically increasing access to jobs, educational institutions and other opportunities.”(Kawabata & Shen, 2006) As a result, pulling low-income former riders out of their cars and back onto trains and buses could make transit agencies healthier but the region poorer.” (emphasis added)
The UCLA/SCAG report makes clear that access to a private vehicle opens up opportunities that are not available to transit users. Again, this is particularly true of lower income people who don’t have the luxury of doubling or tripling their commute times. The Mexican immigrant landscaper cannot haul hundreds of pounds of equipment on the bus. The domestic worker cannot haul supplies on a train. At the same time, the increased traffic and congestion steal precious hours from those who are paid that way.
In contrast, a car is a second office for many white collar professionals. Unlike the landscaper or domestic worker, a lawyer can bill hundreds, even thousands of dollars an hour talking on the phone. The same is true of many other service and creative professions. Indeed, for many people “car time” is quite valuable, an opportunity to make calls or brainstorm ideas without interruption from colleagues or family. Again, the same cannot be said of the immigrant worker idling in the next lane.
Alas, Metro itself has yet to face any of these realities, nor has L.A.’s political class. They’re doubling, tripling, and quadrupling down on transit. Their plans run from the mundane, like bus rapid transit (BRT) lanes, to the positively fantastical, such as a proposed monorail connecting the San Fernando Valley and LAX. The latter would cost an estimated $13 billion (count on that doubling or tripling if and when the project ever gets built; see also, California High Speed Rail). That would be on top of Metro’s already eyewatering $7.2 billion annual budget.
Angelenos are spending more time in traffic, burning more gasoline, and enriching foreign regimes
Global security comes into the frame. During the transition to new sources of energy and fuel petroleum will remain the economic backbone of the city, state, and country. Unfortunately California’s political class have adopted the policy known as “keep it in the ground.” Despite sitting on the fifth largest petroleum reserves and the third largest refining capacity in the country, not to mention potentially vast untapped supplies in the Outer Continental Shelf, California imports some 60% of its oil from overseas. A third of those imports come from Saudi Arabia, with supply also coming from other bastions of progressive human rights and environmentalism like Russia, Venezuela, Iraq, and Angola. Nearly half of this foreign crude transitions through the Strait of Hormuz, one of the most geopolitically volatile places on Earth. Indeed, even as the rest of the country shifts toward domestic petroleum, California’s imports have increased dramatically.
The consequences are evident: As the country moves ever closer to true energy independence, California remains at the mercy of foreign disruptions. The Iranian attacks on Saudi oil fields last September led many analysts to warn of a price spike. Thanks to domestic supplies, those fears proved unfounded – except in California. Prices here surged.
Even if the much-ballyhooed Green New Deal were plausible (it isn’t) it would be decades off, meaning that millions of people will continue to put gasoline and diesel into their cars and trucks idling on congested roads. Los Angeles, and California in general, could reduce our dependence on foreign oil by reducing fuel consumption in the sort term. The only way to accomplish this goal is to relieve congestion. Instead, the political class is making it worse. As a result billions more dollars will flow from Califorians’ pocketbooks to some of the worst regimes in the world. Mohammad bin Salman and Vladimir Putin no doubt are delighted with California.
With planning and systems based on outcomes and demand, Los Angeles could have a truly world class transit system. As long as those plans and systems remain in thrall to anti-car ideology, the system will continue to underperform, costing untold billions while increasing emissions, reducing economic opportunities, and costing billions of hours of wasted time. This is no way to run a mass transit system.