The Disturbed Among Us

Recently I was walking home from work when I was approached by a street person. We have some “regulars” in our part of downtown, and over time you get to know them, but this person was unfamiliar. I immediately noticed that she had that kind of distracted, fidgety appearance that suggested that she was disturbed, or drugged up, or perhaps both. In any case, I kept my distance, and listened as she said she was a TikTok celebrity and asked for money to make a new video. (At least, I think that’s what she said.) When I demurred, she started fumbling in her pockets and dropped an unopened soda can, which started spraying all over. At that point the light changed, and I crossed the street and was on my way.

It was one random encounter on one early evening, and nothing came of it, but it got me to thinking all the same. If you live or work in a downtown area in America, you’ve no doubt had similar experiences. We’ve lived with street people in our midst since the U.S. adopted a deinstitutionalization policy decades ago, but lately it seems that a new layer of concern has been added to the interaction between the housed and the homeless. What used to be predictable panhandling has become more uncertain, and many of us have heard or read of encounters that have turned violent. The son of a coworker, for example, was attacked and stabbed with a screwdriver by a deranged street person in Denver. I’m not familiar with any such incidents in Columbus, where the homeless population seems to be smaller than in many other cities, but you don’t need to hear many such stories to be on your guard.

It’s difficult to get precise data about crime committed by the homeless, although there seems to be a consensus that it is underreported, because many such crimes are committed against other homeless people who don’t want to involve the authorities. Data from Los Angeles indicates that the substantial homeless population in that city accounts for about eight percent of the total amount of crime in that city, but 60 percent of that crime is classified as violent crime. Also concerning is the fact that many of the homeless among us are people who formerly were incarcerated; according to a recent study, people released from prison are 10 times more likely to become homeless than the general population. Drug use among the homeless population just adds to the volatility.

The issue of homelessness obviously is a complicated one, but the failure to address it has produced a culture in urban America where a street person seeking money might become suddenly aggressive, and a random encounter with a total stranger might become violent. That’s obviously not good for our cities, for people who live and work in them, or for the homeless people themselves.

Rail Yards And Front Porches

There’s a serious, new crime problem out in Los Angeles: As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, thieves have been breaking into cargo trains in the Los Angeles rail yard, stealing packages being shipped, breaking them open, and running off with the contents–leaving the railyard littered with shredded boxes, wrapping, and other packaging debris. The Times article describes the situation as a “wave of rail car thievery that officials say has been on the rise in recent months.” The Union Pacific railroad is reporting a significant increase in thefts and has brought in drones and additional security and is appealing to local law enforcement for help in policing the rail yards.

You may not have seen the reports on the rail thefts, but you might have unknowingly experienced them if you didn’t get a delivery of a product that you ordered on line. All of those packages that have been taken from rail cars and opened were being shipped to someone, and now they won’t be reaching their intended destination. Many goods being shipped in our internet economy are transported by rail, and if they are intercepted and stolen by thieves they aren’t going to make it to your front porch.

Why are the rail yard thefts spiking? The Times article quotes officials who say that the Los Angeles rail yard is a bottleneck, who note that a large homeless encampment is nearby, and who blame Union Pacific for not employing more security in the area. Others think there are deeper causes. The City Journal, in an article on the rail thefts, contends: “These recent rail thefts are an example of what happens when a progressive prosecutor—in this case Los Angeles County district attorney George Gascón—virtually eliminates nonviolent property crimes from a state’s penal codes by declining to prosecute such cases.” The City Journal article reports that Union Pacific has reached out to DA Gascon to ask him to reconsider his prosecution policies, and Gascon’s office has responded that it is working with law enforcement on the issue and says it has filed charges in some cases while not pursuing others due to lack of evidence.

Some people dismiss property theft crimes as minor and inconsequential and argue that police and prosecutors should focus on violent crimes rather than worrying about stolen and opened delivery packages. But not all of the packages being stolen and opened contain harmless consumer goods; among the items that have been stolen from the cargo trains are shipments of handguns and shotguns. And if criminals conclude that there is no risk in committing crimes, they have every incentive to expand their criminal activity. If a culture of lawlessness develops, it isn’t going to stop at the rail yard fence line.

Equally important, the security of every link in our fragile national supply chain is important: our ever-growing internet economy can’t work if thieves can brazenly steal packages destined for consumers from trains–or trucks, or other delivery methods–without fear of being caught or prosecuted. If Amazon and the countless other internet retailers can’t safely ship packages, the consequences in terms of jobs and economic activity could be immense. And if you are one of the many people who used internet shopping as a lifeline during the shutdown periods in the COVID pandemic, you should be concerned about that lifeline being snipped by unprosecuted crime.

Living In A Van (But Not Down By The River)

The Hollywood Reporter has an interesting story about people living in vans in the Los Angeles area.  Unlike Chris Farley’s Matt Foley character, they aren’t motivational speakers — they’re just everyday entertainment workers who happen to live in their cars.

thr_mobile_la_thr_joe_4547_hirez_splashAccording to the article, the number of Angelenos who live in their vehicles has spiked.  In 2017, 600 vehicles were being used as homes; now the number is up to 9,117.  There’s even an organization called Safe Parking L.A. that operates secret, guarded lots where people living in cars can sleep with some security.

Why do so many people in southern California live in their vehicles?  The high cost of housing factors into the decision-making of virtually everyone interviewed in the article.  Some people simply can’t pay the exorbitant rents; others could afford the cost but object to doing so and live in their cars because it allows them to move more quickly toward their financial goals.  But living in your car obviously comes at a cost, too.  You have to strip down your possessions to a minimum and configure your vehicle to allow it, you need to develop a strategy for taking care of basic bodily functions, you’ve got to figure out where to park your car at night, and there are obvious, ongoing security concerns — which is why an organization like Safe Parking L.A. exists.

And there are other issues that people who don’t make their vehicle their home would never consider — like the need to drive very carefully through those crowded southern California highways and byways, because if you get into an accident and your car goes into the shop, you’ve just lost your housing until the repairs are completed.

Humans are highly adaptable creatures, and you have to admire the grit of people who have figured out how to live in vans.  But I also wonder:  is living in L.A. and being part of the entertainment industry really worth it if it means living in a van?

Los Angeles Homelessness

Los Angeles has a huge, and growing, problem with homeless residents.  According to this article in the Los Angeles Times, as many as 58,000 people in Los Angeles are living on the streets.

It’s a staggering number.  Even for a city as big as Los Angeles, with a population of about 4 million, 58,000 people is a lot.  To put some Midwestern perspective on that number, those 58,000 homeless people are just a bit below the population of the 10th-largest city in Ohio.

Along some Los Angeles streets, rows of makeshift tents, shelters, and shanties house the homeless.  You can see some of the pictures of the encampments and the homeless here.  And what’s even more astonishing is that the tent cities of the homeless have been there for years, and seem to be spreading and growing — and nothing is being done about it.  The homelessness problem is getting progressively worse.

How can 58,000 people be homeless and living on the streets?  As for the why, there doesn’t seem to be one particular answer:  some are mentally ill, some are addicted, some are simply destitute.  And for that reason, there’s no single answer to the problem, either.  Some of the people need treatment.  Some of the people need a job and a hand up.  But whatever the solution, the notion of tent cities of 58,000 people raises so many obvious problems — health problems, sanitation problems, crime problems, security problems — that it simply can’t be tolerated.  And yet, in Los Angeles, it is.

I don’t know what the answer to LA’s homelessness crisis is, but if I were a voter in that city I would demand that the city government start aggressively dealing with the problem and determining appropriate, humane ways to get those 58,000 people off the streets.  And I would also ask:  why is the state of California spending billions of dollars to build a high-speed rail system in the California desert when there are thousands of people living in tents on the streets of L.A.?

In Favor Of More Police Cameras And Fewer Assault Vehicles

The fatal shooting of a homeless man by four Los Angeles police officers is the latest incident to show the value of cameras in police cars and on police uniforms.

The shooting occurred in LA’s Skid Row neighborhood.  Police say that the man, who had a history of mental illness, was the suspect in a robbery and was shot after he reached for an officer’s gun during a scuffle.  However, witnesses — including the man who shot the video of the incident that went viral on the internet — instead describe a situation in which four police officers tried to subdue the man, apparently Tasered him, and then shot him five times.  At least two of the officers involved had activated their body cameras, but the footage hasn’t been released yet and will be used as evidence as the incident is investigated.

Police officers have a difficult job and deserve our support.  However, that doesn’t mean they should get a free pass on whatever they do or that deadly force incidents shouldn’t be objectively evaluated and, where warranted by the facts, prosecuted.  In 2014 alone, 16 people were shot and killed by Los Angeles police; 252 people have been killed by LA police since the year 2000.  With so many instances of deadly force, in Los Angeles and elsewhere, we should ensure that we have meaningful evidence that allows us to fully investigate those incidents, protect police officers from false accusations of excessive force, and ensure that police officers are complying with use of force rules. Routine placement of cameras in patrol cars and on uniforms would supply such evidence.

I believe that the vast majority of police officers are well-trained and careful, and therefore video evidence of deadly force incidents will likely show that the use of force was justified in most instances — but I also think the recent wave of fatal shootings is undermining public confidence in the men in blue.  In addition, such shootings can fuel racial tensions and trigger large-scale public disruptions, like the riots in Ferguson, Missouri.  We would all be better served if our police departments refrained from buying more assault vehicles and instead invested in cameras that will allow the public to see the difficulty of police officers’ jobs, and how well they perform one of the most important roles in our society.

Wasting Tax Dollars — High-Speed Edition

They’re talking about building a high-speed rail connection between Las Vegas and Victorville, California.  Of course, they’ve been talking about that idea for years.  The difference now is that our government is seriously considering making a $4.9 billion loan — that’s billion — to help finance the project.

Amazing, isn’t it, that after the disastrous failure of Solyndra the federal government would still consider making any loans to private firms, much less loans of billions of dollars?  That’s not the only amazing thing about this proposal, however.

For those who aren’t familiar with California geography, Victorville is 68 miles from Los Angeles.  The concept for the “DesertXpress” train thus envisions L.A. residents bound for Vegas white-knuckling their way through the appalling southern California traffic and then, just as they reach the wide open spaces of the High Desert, getting off the road and waiting for a train!  If they want to play golf in Vegas, they’ll wrestle their clubs onto the train, too!  And then, after a ride that is only about an hour shorter than driving, the train will deposit them at a station in some remote part of Vegas, so they can catch a cab to get to the Strip!  And they’ll happily pay at least $50 one-way (or more than they would pay for gas, even at today’s high prices) for this privilege!

Nothing wrong with that well-conceived concept, eh?  Skeptics might contend that our leaders should follow a simple rule:  if a business plan is so fantastic that even venture capitalists won’t buy in, the federal government shouldn’t, either.  If DesertXpress can’t convince capitalists to invest, taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to fill the void — no matter what kind of phony feasibility studies or rosy projections of increased employment might be cited in support of the project.

Remember, too, that the United States doesn’t have money on hand right now.  If we loan money to DesertXpress, we’ll first have to borrow it from other sources and pay interest.  And when the DesertXpress goes toes up, as common sense dictates it must, our loan won’t be repaid, and we’ll have to dig even deeper into our own pockets to pay off what we borrowed.  Can our government seriously be considering putting us in such a position?  Seriously?

 

Worst “Stimulus” Story Yet

The Los Angeles City Controller has released a report that the $111 million Los Angeles received in “stimulus” funds “created or retained” exactly 55 jobs.

With stories like this, will people please stop trying to convince us that the “stimulus” bill was anything other than a gross exercise in pork barrel spending that utterly failed to deliver what was promised?

Was It Worth It?

As I noted recently, the President has been on a three-day bender of fundraising and campaigning, sufficiently leavened with “non-political” events to justify the taxpayers picking up most of the tab for the trip.  Monday night he was in Los Angeles to attend an upscale fundraiser at a Hollywood producer’s house that netted a cool $1 million.

That nice pot of cash came at a price, however.  Because the President traveled to the producer’s home by motorcade, the Secret Service had to close down roads that just happened to be some of the major arteries in the L.A. area.  Traffic ground to a halt and commuters were trapped in seemingly endless gridlock.  As the Los Angeles Times reports, virtually everyone who was unfortunate enough to be on the road at that time — regardless of their political affiliation — was furious at the President and his insensitivity to the impact he was having on their lives.

So President Obama came away from L.A. with lots of money but lots of bad feeling from voters, too.  His apparent lack of awareness of the fact that he was inconveniencing thousands of people just so he could attend a political event may end up being one of those little incidents, insignificant in its own right, that nevertheless accumulates in peoples’ minds until the balance gets tipped in one direction or the other.  President Obama and the First Lady already are being criticized for their vacations and lavish lifestyles.  A fundraising visit that mires thousands of tired commuters in a frustrating, unmoving hell of hot asphalt and exhaust fumes may well contribute to the President’s growing reputation as an elitist who doesn’t really understand average Americans or their lives.  If that reputation gets fixed in the minds of voters, it will be awfully difficult to change.