In the pretty northern Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, the staff of VMH (formerly Verdugo Mental Health) go to work in a brand-new building. It is elegantly constructed in Spanish colonial style, and when you wander the corridors you can still sniff out that fresh-paint odor coming from some of the cream-colored, plushly carpeted counseling rooms. On the surface, it all looks good. Spend a few hours at the clinic, however, and you realize that there’s something grievously amiss. The rooms, even during prime counseling hours, are almost all unoccupied.
VMH has provided counseling and medication to impoverished children and adults since 1957. But in August, shortly after the new facility opened, the clinic lost most of its funding for adult services when the state and county yanked their dollars, triggering huge matching-fund losses from the federal government. Eighty percent of the counseling staff, including nearly all of the site’s adult counselors, were laid off. Kids still receive some counseling, but the walls of the rooms in which they are seen by staff are bare–the clinic ran out of funds before it could decorate them–and the doors have paper signs taped to them instead of brass plaques.
Nowadays, VMH’s adult clients are treated exclusively with medication. And the indigent mentally ill–whose treatment had been paid for by LA County, which in turn received money from the state–are turned away at the door. Many of them end up sleeping on park benches near the clinic. “These are the chronically mentally ill,” says psychologist Janie Strasner glumly, “who will end up being the raving lunatics on the street.”
What makes this all the more troubling is that Glendale isn’t an outstandingly poor neighborhood, Los Angeles isn’t a poor city and California certainly isn’t a poor state. And yet something is seriously wrong with the organism that is California. The state’s savage budget cuts–$26 billion in 2009, an expected shortfall over the next year that could reach $20 billion–now serve as anti-stimulus to the federal stimulus package. Its basic educational, public safety and social service infrastructure is crumbling. As a self-sustaining political system, as a set of relationships between local and state governments, as a revenue-raising and revenue-spending mechanism, California is deeply damaged. And the impact of that damage is hitting an awful lot of people awfully hard.
The state’s unemployment rate stands at more than 12 percent, and in some poorer counties it’s in the 25 percent range. In Los Angeles, that number is 12.2 percent. “It boggles the mind,” says LA’s mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa. “Not since the Depression have we had numbers this bad.” To make matters worse, in an attempt to slow the state’s fiscal implosion, halfway through 2009 Sacramento forcibly borrowed billions of dollars from city coffers statewide. “They took our community redevelopment dollars that are capital we need to create jobs and housing in this town,” the mayor argues.