California is home to some of the world’s toughest environmental and public health laws, but skyrocketing homelessness has created an environmental and public health disaster. The 44,000 people living, eating, and defecating on the streets of L.A. have brought rats and medieval diseases including typhus. Garbage is everywhere. Experts fear the return of cholera and leprosy.
And homelessness is making people violent. “We are seeing behaviors from our guests that I’ve never seen in 33 years,” said Bales. “They are so bizarre and different that I don’t even feel right describing the behaviors. It’s extreme violence of an extreme sexual nature. I have been doing this for 33 years and never seen anything like it.”
Bales says he was one of the people who urged the US Government’s Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) to intervene. “We’ve been crying out for a National Guard-like response,” said Bales, whose church provides food, showers, and shelter to 1,350 people camped nearby. In 2016 Bales lost the lower half of his leg to a flesh-eating bacteria from contamination on Skid Row.
How did things get so bad in California? The state has long prided itself on being humanistic and innovative. It is home to some of the world’s largest public health philanthropies, best hospitals, and most progressive policies on mental health and drug addiction. The Democrats have a supermajority. What went wrong?
According to Bales and other experts, California made homelessness worse by making perfect housing the enemy of good housing, by liberalizing drug laws, and by opposing mandatory treatment for mental illness and drug addiction.
Other states have done a better job despite spending less money. “This isn’t rocket science,” said John Snook, who runs the Treatment Advocacy Center, which advises states on mental health and homelessness policy around the country. “Arizona is a red state that doesn’t spend a ton on its services but is the best scenario in every aspect. World-class coordination with law enforcement. Strong oversight. They don’t let people fall apart and then return to jail in 30 days like California does.”
What happened in California isn’t the first time that we progressives let our idealism get the better of us. To understand how the current disaster unfolded, we have to go back in time, back to the post-World War II era when progressive reformers convinced themselves and others that they could destroy the country’s system for dealing with the mentally ill and replace it with a radically different and wholly unproven alternative.
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