Viewpoint: Los Angeles in Turmoil: A Metropolis Upside Down

(Editor’s note: This first appeared in the Westside Current https://www.westsidecurrent.com/news and is printed with permission.)

Part of a city’s responsibility is to take care of its streets.

By TIM CAMPBELL

There’s a rather ungainly street tree outside our home.  Judging by its mass of tangled branches and forlorn appearance, it’s a safe bet it hasn’t been trimmed in several years.

If a recent report from the City Controllers is accurate, it may not be trimmed for several more.   The HOA up the street from our house has hired a 24-hour security patrol to try to prevent a wave of break-ins.  Police response to active burglaries, if a caller can connect to a 9-1-1 dispatcher, gives criminals ample time to gather valuables and escape.  The red No Parking curbs in our neighborhood have faded to a delicate pink.

Los Angeles’ current population is around 3.8 million people. They are a polyglot mix of races, ethnicities, religions, cultures, and beliefs. But the one thing we have in common is the need for city services.  The City of LA provides our drinking water and handles our waste.  It supplies the electricity to light our homes and businesses.  It (should) maintain our roads.  Its public safety departments (should) keep us safe.   Without local government, our lives would be chaotic and desperate.

And yet, to ordinary citizens, it often seems city government is working against us, where the special interests of a few select groups take precedence over the needs of ordinary residents. Consider:

  • More than 10 percent of the City’s budget is being spent on less than one percent of our population—the unhoused.
  • That one percent also accounts for more than 50 percent of LAFD calls.
  • The city sponsors programs to help small businesses but does nothing to clear the sidewalks in front of them of tents and waste. Legendary businesses like Studio Sunset Sound struggle to deal with open-air drug use and a large encampment around its buildings.
  • There are programs to assist first-time home buyers, but current policies heavily favor high density development. Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing (NOAH), what we’d define as “starter homes” are disappearing from the landscape as policies and government money support large projects.
  • We are told our unhoused neighbors must be treated with dignity, but they are allowed to accumulate unlimited amounts of trash, commandeer scarce parking spaces, and have their encampments regularly cleaned at taxpayer expense.
  • We’re told the City is facing a $700 million deficit, but after the March 5 election, 19 percent of registered voters decided to carve out between $250 and $300 million per year from the street repair budget for the personal benefit of less than one percent of regular commuters.

When we question these priorities, we are called reactionary and NIMBY’s.  Let’s look at some facts to put things in perspective.  According to Christopher LeGras, the LAUSD spends about $23,791 per student per year. At the same time, the City spends $21,895 per month to keep the few people  housed through Inside Safe in their apartments.

The City and County will spend about $4 billion on homelessness this fiscal year; that’s $52,980 for each of the County’s 75,500 homeless. Per the US Census, the 2022 per capita income in LA County was $41,847.

About $52,980 per homeless person is spent in L.A. County and City.

So local government is spending about 126 percent of a working person’s income on each homeless person. And yet the majority of the unhoused—73 percent according to LAHSA’s 2023 PIT count—are unsheltered, living in squalid tent encampments or derelict RV’s.

We are spending more than double what we pay to educate our children, and all we have to show for it is 55,000 people living on our streets. There is an awful lot of money being spent on homelessness with precious little to show for it.

In the topsy-turvy world of homelessness, the City spends millions of taxpayer dollars on nonprofits like Urban Alchemy, an outreach organization known more for the political connections of its CEO than for the services it provides.  In January 2024, a video of an Urban Alchemy employee spraying a homeless person with a hose made the rounds on the Internet.

At the time, the City had paid the organization at least $14 million for outreach services.  The agency’s CEO said the employee was fired and the City Controller announced he would perform a review of the City’s contract, but as of this writing, Urban Alchemy still has a contract with the City.

In L.A., homelessness policy often reaches the realm of the surreal.  So much deference has been paid to the advocates’ abstract ideas of “personal agency,” we are literally killing people.

To advocates and the organizations supporting them, the theoretical idea that someone with untreated mental illness or a substance abuse problem should have total control over their life decisions outweighs the real-life cost of more than 2,000 deaths per year.

On March 12, a homeless man was found crushed under a Northridge resident’s car, where he apparently crawled to sleep. We don’t know anything about the man who crawled under the car, but perhaps he was offered, and refused, treatment or shelter, as many homeless do.

Perhaps an organization like Knock L.A. protested on his behalf so he could live on the street.  Now he’s dead. And a resident, who anticipated nothing more than another morning commute, will live with the trauma of taking a human life.

In this case, State Senator Susan Talamantes-Eggman words were literally true when she said California’s mental health laws ensure “people are dying with their rights on.”

If a resident accidentally spills some antifreeze or fails to immediately clean up a minor oil leak, her or she can be fined for a stormwater violation. If that same resident parks his or her car on the street for too long, chances are good there will be a parking ticket on the windshield, or worse, he or she can expect to deal with the City’s byzantine system for recovering a towed vehicle.

If, however, the vehicle happens to be an RV claimed as a “home” (and recognized as such by the City), the owner can park virtually anywhere and pour unlimited amounts of human and other waste into the storm drain system. If the RV owner is lucky enough to park in a District where the Councilmember thinks it’s compassionate to allow people to live in squalor, he or she can count on parking indefinitely.

The homeless are allowed to live in squalor.

There is perhaps no better example of how upside-down LA is than the use of the word “compassion.” When confronted by the fact RV encampments are often centers for drug manufacture and sales, for sex trafficking, and other personal crimes, advocates insist these are just fables and we’re showing a lack of compassion for our unhoused neighbors.

When someone points out homeless people have mortality rates almost four times higher than housed residents, including skyrocketing deaths from opioid overdose, we’re told Harm Reduction programs are the answer because they take a “compassionate” approach to substance abuse.

Except the version of Harm Reduction practiced in LA is little more than institutionalized codependency, and County programs have failed to effectively respond to the epidemic of overdoses, (Report on County Homelessness programs, pp. 33-41).

In the world of homeless advocacy, “compassion” means leaving thousands of people on the street until “acceptable” housing—of the type and in a location of the advocates’ choosing—is built.  To advocates, it’s acceptable to leave people with untreated mental health issues, substance abuse, exposure to violent crime and medieval diseases, on the streets, as long as they maintain their “rights.”

If residents advocate for our communities and try to address the issues of property crime, deteriorating infrastructure, dehumanizing upzoning, and the fact that city assets from parks to sidewalks, have been commandeered by homeless encampments, we’re called entitled.

And yet encampment dwellers are lauded for standing up for their “rights” when they demand the City provide them with regular medical care, sanitation, and other services, for which they do not pay. The “open letter” Knock LA sent to Mayor Bass on behalf of the Aetna Street encampment is far more entitled than any request from a resident who expects the City to provide needed services—a resident who probably pays thousands of dollars per year in property taxes and utility fees.

In the upside-down city, residents must have alarm systems to protect their homes, and install guards to protect their catalytic converters. If they want to walk to a store, they have to consider the best route to avoid disturbed people occupying our sidewalks and other public places.  Business owners have to hire guards or watch helplessly as organized mobs casually stroll out with their products.  An RV parked for more than just a few hours is suspected of being the seed of a new encampment.

Residents are left to be their own advocates, often fighting months-long battles to get the City to remove an encampment or have the burned-out hulk of an RV towed away.  While our elected leaders engage in performative theatre, showcasing the latest tiny home facility or citing shelter statistics with no basis in reality, citizens, business owners and visitors must deal with the reality of a city that no longer serves them.

L.A. City infrastructure needs to be upgraded, but there’s no budget for that.

Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process.

This entry was posted in City, Community. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Viewpoint: Los Angeles in Turmoil: A Metropolis Upside Down

  1. K.C. Soll says:

    Relying on the City of Los Angeles, SCE, SoCal Gas, and for WATER in a disaster scenario is folly (!!). Store drinking water for your family for at least three weeks (one gallon per day, per person), and make a plan with family members to connect! Give out-of-area relatives or friends a means to communicate on your behalf. Get together with neighbors to plan how to help each other. Get smart on fire suppression and evacuation from 2nd story bedrooms. Take annual CPR and First Aid refreshers. Community Emergency Response Team (LAFD CERT) training is good planning on steroids.

  2. Theresa says:

    First, an informing article about our current, unproductive system – thank you.
    I’m a resident of Santa Monica. What can the people working , paying taxes, property taxes, crime with no consequences, violence, homelessness, mental health and drug addiction. As residents of LA county we need to find ways to protest and address the problems and services that aren’t providing results.
    A citizen forum, protests, meetings with elected officials – sometime of action needs to be taken.
    What can we do?

  3. Kathleen Jensen says:

    Thanks to author Tim Campbell & Westside Current for publishing his article. I will forward it to LAHSA Chair,Wendy Greuel, in hopes she will provide a response. Wendy also served on the LA City Council before running for Mayor against Eric Garcetti, so she has a unique perspective on LA’s homeless situation.

  4. Bruce Schwartz says:

    Spot on !

  5. Karen Jones says:

    I have been a resident of Venice for 30 years. Mr. Campbell’s piece is spot-on. I remember at least 25 years ago we were being asked to vote on whether a person could sit/lay on the sidewalk. I couldn’t vote for a law that prevented a human, exhausted, weary from walking or just from life, to lay down to rest. Decades later, I still think I made the right decision morally, but the situation we’re in is untenable. The unhoused I see on a daily basis aren’t people who have been priced out of the housing market. They are seriously mentally ill and have addiction problems. For these problems there is little help. ‘Housing first’ hasn’t worked. We need stricter laws governing encampments, and more mental health facilities. L.A. is in deep trouble.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *