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The Fantasy Reality Of Downtown LA: The Costs And Economics Of Homelessness

Driving through downtown Los Angeles into the beautiful suburbs of this weird sprawl of a ‘city’ is a trip that provides a preview of the encroaching crack-up set against a landscape in which squalid poverty merges seamlessly and unremarkably with its blood relative, squalid wealth. If one were, for example, to begin by driving from the Arts District of downtown Los Angeles—a funky, smart area of technology company campuses, indie film studios, design bookstores and great wine shops—one passes through the once- mighty Broadway theater district, the splendor and gilt still dazzling from inside decrepit facades, into the attractive city center of Spanish-American architectural flourishes, the Nomad Hotel, 7thand Olive, and dynamic Figueroa Street, possibly then making one’s way up to Bunker Hill to catch a glimpse of the Walt Disney/LA Philharmonic stainless steel and Douglas Fir sculpture that is that arresting Frank Gehry concoction; the freeway then gets you into suburban Hancock Park and Beverly Hills in another thirty minutes; to the Palisades and the Pacific in another thirty from there.  The trip is one extended, lurid carnival: at every turn, the city’s perverse habituation to homelessness; the tiresome, cartoonish glee of free-wheeling lunatics harassing traffic mid-afternoon, bushy palms and clear blue skies; a mother in one of the new and jaunty pot shops with her small child; furtive illegals in old pick-up trucks; tent encampments, sub-human communities, a constellation of billboards selling the same movie, the same story and the same face over and again–and all this awash in oceans and oceans of money. In other words, a grand Hollywood tour of the hit-and-run carnage left behind by the dream once called American. This is not, lifelong Angelenos will tell you, the clean and healthy LA of twenty years ago.

On May 30, it was discovered that typhus had hit the downtown Los Angeles Police Department headquarters, the latest episode of this wretched drama stemming from the city homeless “problem”. Last November, when state officials inspected the LAPD’s Central Division station, they uncovered rodent infestations and other grotesque conditions at the facilities responsible for protecting the notorious Skid Row district—about a mile-long stretch on 6thStreet in the heart of downtown where the area’s homeless are concentrated, now about 54,000 in number. These conditions are so bad that officers are threatening to seek transfers and leaving Mayor Eric Garcetti to do his usual thing and tweet and post about youth programs, the importance of bicycles, how he is employing “every available resource” to combat the problem and the wonders of HomeWalk!, a plucky local initiative that assures us that “with each step, each dollar raised, each hour volunteered, we are working together to help bring everyone in and end the homelessness crisis.”  The crisis that hasn’t ended, won’t end, and has only gotten worse. 

The Fantasy Reality Of Downtown LA: The Costs And Economics Of Homelessness
Image by Levi Clancy

The issues at the Central Division are taking place at a time when disease and filth have become widespread downtown, most notably a vermin influx at City Hall last year. One city employee was diagnosed with typhus, the disease spread by rodents. City Hall workers said they saw fleas, rodent droppings and plants eaten by vermin in the building and when the LAPD announced the end of May that an employee fell ill at the downtown LAPD station, it was confirmed that that employee had contracted the strain of bacteria that causes typhoid fever (“typhoid” means typhus-like. It is a distinct disease caused by different kinds of bacteria than “typhus” or “typhus fever” which means a group of infectious diseases. There is no available vaccine for either). Some officers were getting sick from chemicals used to kill fleas, all the while among other violations at the station on East 6th Street was that the LAPD did not train employees about how the dangerous bacterial disease typhus is transmitted, its symptoms or measures for prevention, and also did not have a program to exterminate and control rats, fleas, roaches, gnats, mosquitoes or grasshoppers in the building.  Inspectors found all those in the facility.  As the board of directors for the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the police labor union, said: “Officers worry enough about being shot or injured policing the streets of Los Angeles and should not fear taking home infectious diseases.”

Meanwhile, the challenge worsens as the number of homeless on the streets continues to increase given that typhus, in particular, is spread by fleas that live on rats and then bite humans.  In short, the outbreak of the typhus comes from the outbreak of rats coming from streets full of filth—human, food, feces, waste and otherwise. In October 2018, LA County officials formally declared an outbreak of typhus to be linked to overcrowding around Skid Row. Thirteen people in the state were diagnosed with typhus in 2008, compared with 167 in 2018, while more than 95% of the people falling sick in California are in Los Angeles and Orange counties, including Pasedena and Long Beach. (The average number of typhus cases the county sees in a year is 60, which itself has doubled in recent years, according to the Los Angeles County Health Department in 2018). The latest numbers from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority show roughly 54,000 people are considered to be homeless in the LA area. “The homeless program in Los Angeles today at three in the morning is too oftentimes the fire department and the police department,” said LAPD Chief Michel Moore. Los Angeles voters approved a $1.2 billion bond measure to pay for new homeless housing back in 2016. And the county followed suit in 2017 with a sales tax increase designed to fund homeless. But the tents and boxes and people on the streets continue to multiply. They are everywhere. Down every street, at almost every exit.

Adding to this tragic scenario is that a record number of homeless people — 918 last year alone — are dying across Los Angeles County, on bus benches, hillsides, railroad tracks and sidewalks. Deaths have jumped 76% in the past five years, outpacing the growth of the homeless population, according to a KHN analysis of the coroner’s data. Health officials and experts have not pinpointed a single cause for the sharp increase in deaths, but they say rising substance abuse may be a major reason. The surge also reflects growth in the number of people who are chronically homeless and those who don’t typically use shelters, which means more people are living longer on the streets with serious physical and behavioral health issues, they say.

And the government’s response?  To hand out flea collars to the homeless, as suggested byLos Angeles County Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn. 

An NBC affiliate in Los Angeles back in October reported that despite 2,200 calls to a city help line in the last two years by people requesting trash pickup in the area, the city responded to less than half the complaints.  Nor can those who try to help really help: At the Midnight Mission, which serves three meals a day to as many as 1,000 people, the scene outside its doors is chaotic. “If you walk out of our building, you’re faced with the threat of assault, drug dealing and trash everywhere,” said Georgia Berkovich, the nonprofit’s director of public affairs, to KNBC News in October 2018. Ms. Estella Lopez, of the Central City East Association which is a business improvement district that overlaps Skid Row, said “illegally dumping, food being discarded, accumulation of blankets and pillows, and human waste” is creating “Third World conditions.” So much for improving business in the area.

What is this hell-hole? What is going on here?  As The Washington Examiner summarized last year: Los Angeles has a vast pension liability problem, a high poverty rate, and soaring taxes. Thanks to the hardline environmental policy, Californians pay nearly doublefor their energy bills what Nevadans next door pay. It is expensive to live here and this explains, in part, why the city has a surginghomeless population.  Mayor Garcetti has also presided over a steady increase in crime rates. Between 2010 and 2016, violent crime rates increased by a staggering 27 percent.

“Housing” is, of course, touted as offering some kind of magic solution. But according to theLos Angeles Times in its substantial reporting on this issue, building the kind of supportive housing that people with serious mental health or health issues require is also quite expensive, coming in at about $500,000 per unit and which Ms. Hahn, quoted above, recently called “unsustainable.”  The county and city have invested in other programs designed to reduce homelessness, from eviction prevention services, to short-term rental subsidies, to outreach teams that sign eligible people up for social security, veterans, and disability benefits.

But how will this be paid for?  Garcetti’s confused alter-ego in Sacramento, Governor Gavin Newsom, he of San Francisco’s “Poop Squad” fame and the California Assembly voted on Tuesday, May 29th, to extend the state’s Medicaid program to eligible adults who are in the country illegally, looking to spend about $98 million a year to cover low-income illegals between the ages of 19 and 25. The state Senate’s budget proposal would also add coverage for people 65 and older living in the country illegally. This, from the politician who in 2004, promised that by 2014, San Francisco’s homeless crisis would be over. Not so much. The city has now has spent $1.5 billion on the problem, but the homeless population is the same – and now needles and human waste can be found on nearly every city corner.  

The Fantasy Reality Of Downtown LA: The Costs And Economics Of Homelessness
Image by Alex Proimos

Garcetti appears to be following in these missteps. To fund the LA effort, the board put a ¼-cent sales tax on the March 2017 ballot, which voters passed. It is expected to raise about $355 million annually for ten years.  Garcetti has also proposed building temporary shelters in every council district in the city to help reduce encampments. In turn, homeless people in the vicinity of a shelter would not be allowed to camp out but that plan has met with neighborhood opposition in Venice Beach and at another proposed site in downtown LA in Koreatown. Then there is the fact of “documented sanitation and safety issues” with LA’s current shelter system, along with the fact that thousands of existing beds are not being used, as reported byLAist in June 2018, Effective shelters are also expensive to build and operate New York City, which provides shelter, by law, for the vast majority of its homeless residents, spends over $2 billion a year operating that system—“a figure that dwarfs L.A.’s overall homeless spending and reportedly has made it difficult for New York to invest in other types of programs”, according to The Los Angeles Times.

Of course, some predictable media have hastened to point out that this mess has an undercurrent of sinister Trumpism to it, as “right-wing media gleefully presented the situation as evidence of the failure of Los Angeles liberalism”, according to LA Magazinein February this year. But it is precisely that failure, fair and square. Ridiculous ‘correct’ attitudes that coyly refuse to call out the homeless themselves as responsible for the killer filth they are spreading city and county-wide; politicians who grandstand about “subhuman conditions” while shrugging off the actual sub-humans terrorizing citizens and passers-by; clueless morons chatting up the able-bodied, sane homeless and encouraging the vagrancy and the free housing that follows sunny, outdoor life; billions raised in bonds and taxes that result in these problems only getting worse. Needles, drug dealers, bags of human feces, the heartbreak of seeing elderly men or women in these conditions…And now the mighty LAPD itself infected by the sister-disease of the Black Plague. As native Californians have pointed out, this news would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. A once vibrant, clean, colorful city “has turned into a massive flop house and open sewer”, as one commentator noted and to date not one among these feckless politicians has enforced simple sanitation laws against the homeless because, “their hearts bleed so much their brains leak out”.  It is an intolerable crime that the City of Angels, so cool and beautiful in so many other ways, should see itself descend this far deep into a PC-political-bureaucratic circle of hell.

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2 comments

Avatar
Bob Oscar June 2, 2019 at 12:54 pm

I ain’t never coming to Cali.

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Dabigragu June 2, 2019 at 11:07 pm

I hear ya Bob.Conservative here. We left 15yrs ago, never going back.

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