LOS ANGELES’ FAILURES - In a few weeks, we will mark the 79th anniversary of D-Day. On June 4, 1944, the Allies landed 150,000 men from at least four countries on the beaches of Normandy. The immense logistical effort behind the landings included building and transporting an artificial harbor that supported the millions of troops who followed the initial landings. Allied commanders had less than a year to plan every detail of the invasion, and they did it without the use of computers. The D-Day landings took place in the context of a wider war in the Pacific and Italian mainland. D-Day is probably the most impressive single organizational achievement in history.
By comparison, the City of Los Angeles can’t seem to open and close a park gate, (more on this later). LA is well on its way to being a failed city. To understand what a failed city is think of Detroit; decades of losing high income families to the suburbs decreased tax revenues while at the same time increasing the costs of services to low-income residents. The demand for services sapped funding from critical infrastructure, and the city’s built environment deteriorated. The more unattractive the city became, the more people moved away, and the cycle worsened with each round of depopulation and revenue loss, until entire neighborhoods became ghost towns. Detroit is on a tenuous track to recovery, based on diversifying its economy and attracting residents to its core once again. But it’s still a shell of its former self.
Despite years of effort and billions of dollars, LA’s programs to reduce homelessness have only made it worse, and now affect nearly all aspects of city life. Working people can’t afford rent while urban campers live where they choose. Just over 10 percent of the City’s budget is spent on serving less than one percent of its population, while basic services like tree trimming and street cleaning are neglected. Due to understaffing, calls to the Police for anything other than dire emergencies are delayed or never answered. For lack of investment, sewer overflows are commonplace events. I could cite more examples, but, from the perspective of the average resident, who doesn’t expect much except basic safety and services, we are living in a failed city.
I believe there are three main reasons for L.A.’s failure: organizational inertia, fear, and leadership that’s divorced from reality.
Los Angeles is a huge organization. About 50,000 people work for the City in 44 departments. There is no single point of authority; unlike most other big cities, L.A. has a weak mayor form of government. The mayor may propose and approve legislation, but the position has little authority over the whole organization. Each Council member runs his or her district like a fiefdom, and enforcement of city ordinances are subject to each member’s priorities. The city’s highest professional position is Chief Administrative Officer, but that position is primarily responsible for routine operations, and has no authority over career department heads. This structure supports silos and empire-building. It is much easier to claim a complex problem isn’t in your jurisdiction than it is to take action that may upset another agency; that is why so many people who call the City are transferred, often in circles, and can never find anyone willing to take responsibility for a problem.
Hence the park gate. For nearly a year, residents around Westchester Park have pleaded with the city to clear derelict RVs from the park’s municipal lot and secure it with a gate to prevent new campers from moving in. A few months ago, a gate was finally installed but is still not locked at night. Campers move in and out of the lot like migratory birds, while a small group of hardcore campers have never left. The RV’s often block disables parking and access ramps, and campers block walkways with their possessions. The Recreation and Parks Department claims the lot is under the General Services Department’s authority. GSD says it’s the Department of Transportation. LADOT says its Parks. 50,000 employees and not one seems capable of locking a gate. While denying responsibility for closing a gate may seem bureaucratically proper, all the public sees is a City that can’t close a gate.
One of the reasons nothing seems to put a dent in homeless encampments is fear. Ask a Council member why RVs can’t be cleared from a street, and you’ll get the response that the City may be liable for seizing someone’s “home” and property. Forcing a delusional person who threatens shoppers on the sidewalk may result in a lawsuit for violating the person’s “personal agency.” Council members and their staff are quick to blame the ACLU or advocacy groups like Knock L.A., but the real driving factor is fear. Fear of sparking a lawsuit. Fear of looking heartless by a media that jumps at every opportunity to make the city look cruel. Fear of rabid “advocates” who disrupt Council meetings and harass Council members in the community. Fear is paralyzing and makes inaction the most attractive option.
But, like any parent can tell a child afraid of the dark, reality is seldom as bad as one’s fears. Activists may bluster and threaten lawsuits, but there are limits to what they can really do, and the cost of defending the City would certainly be less than the billion dollars a year now spent with no results. Fear makes us tell stories in our heads; city leaders are no more immune to catastrophic thinking than other humans. The problem is, fear-based leadership rarely works.
Finally, we are burdened with City leaders divorced from daily reality. Council members blame car manufacturers for catalytic converter thefts. The City adopts traffic-strangling “road diets” to force people to use public transportation, but bus schedules are inconvenient and constantly changing, and you can’t ride a bus or take a train without fear of being attacked. "Progressive" council members are considering "social housing" when well over half the unhoused don't have the ability to take care of themselves, no less self-manage an apartment complex. The city spends an average of $600,000 per unit on building homeless housing but ignores the plight of hundreds of thousands of working people who can’t afford the average rent. Ordinary people have lost the use of their parks and sidewalks and small businesses are losing clients because customers don't want to navigate tent cities outside their doorsteps. Property owners are held to a double standard, where they are cited for minor code violations while the city looks the other way at campsites that cause 54 percent of the city’s fires and pollute our storm drains. We are routinely lectured about respecting our unhoused neighbors while our leaders ignore the scourge of untreated substance abuse and mental illness common among the homeless.
Some leaders, like Eunisses Hernandez and Hugo Soto-Martinez, are so blinded by their ideology they can’t recognize the lived realities of their constituents. Others are addicted to campaign funds from the Homeless Industrial Complex. Some may be driven simply by ego, unwilling to admit their pet programs aren’t working.
There is no single reason for Los Angeles’ failure. We can blame our leaders, but we elected them. We can blame faceless bureaucrats, but they work within a structure that has evolved over decades. We can blame the homeless for their own plight, but they are forced to live in a system that keeps them on the streets. We can even blame ourselves for allowing all of this to happen as we watched. But blame has no value. If we are to save Los Angeles from total failure, we must all do our part. Civic leaders must embrace the responsibilities of leadership. Activists and advocates must reconsider what they’re really advocating. The unhoused should demand a seat at the table instead of allowing others to make sheltering decisions for them. Above all, we, the electorate and residents of a real, living city, must do the work to hold our leaders and ourselves accountable for the city we create.
(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.)