Wed, Mar

Garcetti’s Garbage Trains Are Rolling from LA to Sacramento

MAILANDER’S LA-It's undoubtedly the kind of branding that the Garcetti family isn't fussy for.  But it's happening all around town.  Mounds of rubbish--"garbage trains" to some and "sole possessions" to the dispossessed--are tailing off like long dragons along bluffs, in parks, and even on LA sidewalks.

I paced off one composed largely of blue bags and green pots on Sunset in Silver Lake--the heart of Eric Garcetti's old district--at 66 feet long. 

Two women, one black, the other burnt by the sun, are waiting, waiting, waiting for help. 


"How are you doing today?" I ask the black woman. 

"History!" she starts to scream. "History!"

The bags and bowls and Big Gulp cups spread out across the embankment reek with dilapidation.  A woman passes by, hoping to catch a bus soon.  A man walks by and shakes his head, as though to say, "Look at this--two months now!"

A temptation rises in the minds of inconvenienced Sunset boulevardiers, obliged to stroll past the result of all the squandered mental illness and homeless policy over dozens of years, to mutter an uncharitable thought:

When you think of Garcetti, think of garbage! And when you think of garbage, think of Garcetti! 

Such a garish garbage mnemonic is not likely why Garcetti toiled at Columbia and Oxford and for that matter on City Council for a dozen years.  But since the beginning of the Garcetti mayoralty, the City has been variously unable and unwilling to tame its profound homeless rubbish scatterings--especially not knowing how to handle the unusually long and unsightly garbage trains that the dispossessed leave behind on commercial strips to mark their would-be territory. 

And while Garcetti was narrowly defeated on a billion dollar affordable housing bond he brought before the voters in 2006, the agencies that are closest to his economic hopes are now angling for another kind of financial bonanza via Sacramento, in the form of Senate Bill 1, which has passed both chambers of California legislature but was withheld from the Governor at the last minute--and which the LA Times wants brought back. 

This was the downside of Garcetti leaving his district for the City's top job in July, and this is what the district has come to after twelve years of selling the public on very pricey homeless and at-risk housing solutions he and Villaraigosa once tried to market to a wary public as "not your father's affordable housing."  He leaves behind twelve years of iffy affordable housing results that have somehow not put meaningful dents in homelessness, and settles into his mayoralty seeking validation.

Of course, the garbage train problem predates Garcetti's mayoralty--and most notably was brought to a crescendo exactly one week before Garcetti took his mayoral oath.

As police tried to clear Skid Row of what is seen as personal effects by some and as detritus by others, the removal of garbage trains became an unlawful chattel absconding for the dispossessed.  In stepped National Police Accountability Project advocate Carol Sobel, who beat the City of LA in court over moving their homeless belongings in September 2012.  And she beat them again on June 24 of this year when the City appealed but the Supreme Court refused to hear LA's appeal.

Sobel has by my count either sued or substantively encountered the City at least five times on behalf of the homeless and their treatment. Her motivation is not only to help the homeless keep what little they have but also to get the city to deal with the homeless in a real way, offering higher numbers of them real housing rather than phony promises. 

Of course, on the particular strip of Silver Lake on which the big blue and green garbage train has resided for two months now, adjacent to graffiti murals and street art-bombed utility boxes, nobody driving by can really tell for sure if the long string of Hefty bags and refuse is a garbage train, a political statement, or an art installation. 

There doesn't seem to be much effort or interest expressed by any government or not-for-profit agency to distinguish personal belonging from littered Big Gulps either.

Police are now reticent to try their luck removing such problem belongings anywhere in town. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Garcetti pushes not to challenge the courts nor to enlist agencies to distinguish belongings from litter, but for reticence and a call for much more affordable housing funding. The trick from Garcetti's point of view is to work up demand for affordable housing projects--a tough proposition given the track record--and get some voters, any voters, to give dollars beyond what they have already given.

The garbage trains aren't helping sell the argument.

And it's not only happening in Garcetti's old district.  A very large array of shopping carts and messy bags was inconveniently spotted in Sunland Park a few days before a City of LA coordinated "Homeless Fair" event that nobody seemed interested in claiming full ownership of.  In fact, the City grew so nervous of the homeless fair that it barely even acknowledged its own role in it on the flyers it handed out.  The flyer listed Congressman Adam Schiff, Assemblymember Raul Bocanegra, Councilmember Felipe Fuentes (of what City, one was invited to wonder), a mystery called the "Sunland Tujunga Homeless Working Group," and the SFV Homeless Coalition all as sponsors.

The words "City of Los Angeles" appeared nowhere on the flyer promoting an event staged in a City of LA park and coordinated by the City of LA's own Wesley Hernandez of Councilman Fuentes' office. 

Though the event was said to be staged by local pols and some publicity-shy orgs, the City's real top civic partner for the day was LA Family Housing, a spendy, big budget, city-wide not-for-profit agency and developer, which boasts one of the largest local homeless housing development budgets in Southern California. 

LA Family Housing can and does spend over $300,000 a unit on its special kind of homeless and at-risk housing--housing that services a tiny sliver of LA's homeless population. As the 800-lb gorilla in any room, it also serves as a triage for other agency services.  Various government funding agencies continue to toss money at it, a million here, ten million there.  It's even received Federal stimulus money, as well as California Prop 1C money.  When it hosts a golf event, as it did a week before the Sunland Park homeless fair, its top donor tier solicits duffers at $10,000 a round.

While the City planned a homeless housing fair with LA Family Housing in its own nether reaches of Sunland-Tujunga, Garcetti's most beloved poverty specialists at the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy--an organization with Amy Wakeland and no economists on its boards--continued to urge the State legislator and Governor Brown to reconsider the bill that would create many more such developments through "Sustainable Communities Investment Authorities."

SCIAs are visualized as a kind of reformulated CRA that would hand over a quarter of all its development-tagged money to pricey, sustainable, solar-and-gizmo tricked-out affordable housing projects such as the kind that LA Family Housing develops. 

The track record of such agencies with regards to spending, effectiveness, and even public accountability is not good. Affordable housing programs have been around for thirty years and housing is not only less affordable than ever but LA has nearly as many homeless as it has ever had. But a larger part of the problem is accountability, which is minimal.

Presently, the City of LA doesn't even feel that the organizations with which it partners for such events as the recent homeless fair in Sunland Park merit enough public accountability to even maintain meeting minutes or say who's really on their local planning committees. Persistent requests over the past week of Felipe Fuentes' office to provide real names for the Sunland-Tujunga Homeless Working Group--one of the groups listed on the flyer--drew no confirmations.

"This group, which is not subject to the Brown Act, was designed to bring together service providers and local community stakeholders with the Council office to help address homeless issues in the area," Fuentes spokeswoman Connie Llanos told me.  After ten days of persistent inquiry, she would not even go so far as to name by name the invitees of the private, privileged group determining the fate of the future of homeless operations in Sunland-Tujunga.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich's office provided a list, garnered from LA Family Housing, that was obviously erroneous. The officials pleaded "client privacy" while the public was invited to continue to wonder how the group accounted to the public even while conducting the very public business of staging homeless fairs in public parks. 

Ironically, the multi-million dollar affordable housing organization that co-opted Sunland-Tujunga's local homeless for a day, luring the dispossessed to Sunland Park like pigeons with salted peanuts and Jack's Links on a table (I'm not making this up) to "register" for services, had earlier pleaded poverty to Sunland-Tujunga's own Neighborhood Council.  They made the para-government group pay $50 a piece for homeless application fees if they wanted any of their own residents to get a chance at housing in their own neighborhood. 

When the event began to raise eyebrows in the community, a flustered Fuentes ran for Council cover. He came to Council the day after the homeless fair and made a motion on the fly to take steps to rid the Big Tujunga Wash of homeless encampments--something that happens periodically with or without any Council action at all. The motion wasn't even xeroxed yet when acting President LaBonge called the special motion to the floor. Council Chambers waited while John Walsh tapdanced through some wildly eccentric public comment comparing some Latino pols to Capo Jews. The motion finally made it to the horseshoe, where it passed unanimously without any debate whatsoever.

Not since the days of Alarcon has the Chamber seen such a Council motion thrown together so hastily and with such little regard for public dialog. Even the head of LA Family Housing expressed surprise. I imagine the motion's real purpose was to draw attention away from the Homeless Fair of the preceding day. It succeeded with the Daily News and the Times and the LA Family Housing community publicists, who generally made minimal mention of the homeless fair, but it did not succeed in baffling the community at large.

Indeed there was good incentive for Fuentes to try to draw attention away from the homeless housing event.  Late last spring, the City's Rec and Parks Department had just jacked up park fees in Sunland-Tujunga to such an unreasonable degree that the community was obliged to ship its own Watermelon Festival out to Pasadena for the first time ever this year.

But well-oiled LA Family Housing got Sunland Park for free, of course, and even had the City of LA write up the park permit request on their behalf. Now, why should a homeless housing event get use of a park for free while a commerce-building festival be required to pay through the nose? 

Garcetti, who told many local affordable housing agencies at an affordable housing debate (to which one of Garcetti's opponents, Public Works Commission President Kevin James, wasn't even invited) that he thought housing all the homeless is possible, has long favored big spending rather than smart planning policy as the way out of the City's homeless conundrum.

And Garcetti and his wife, who is on the advisory board at LAANE, aren't the only two big spending, poverty-scrambling lobbyists in town hoping for another chance at an affordable housing bonanza via a prospective LA-based Sustainable Community Investment Authority.  The old LA Weekly neo-bolshevik alums now residing on the LA Times' editorial board favor the creation of such an agency too, and editorialized as much just last week.

While the LAANE board remains woefully short on real economists, an actual economics professor at Cal State Northridge named Shirley Svorney warned the LA Times this week that "Government attempts to influence housing markets to increase affordable housing have been uniformly unsuccessful." She also noted the irony that "the lack of city services in poor communities has been the most effective of the affordable housing policies."

"People elect a mayor to get the trash off of their sidewalks," The Atlantic declared earlier this week, evaluating a new book on cities and the people who govern them.  In LA, whether you see the possessions of the dispossessed as a garbage train or personal property, the Mayor is not even accomplishing this much as he approaches 100 days in office.  And from LA to Sacramento, with or without SB1, Garcetti's garbage trains keep a-rolling.


(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs here.)




Vol 11 Issue 78

Pub: Sept 27, 2013