West Coast Wasteland | The Nation


West Coast Wasteland

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MATT BLACKHomeless in Fresno: Guillermo Torrez ended up on the streets after he lost his construction job and his family's home was forec

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Sasha Abramsky
Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s...

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The MacArthur Foundation’s $75 million pledge shows that political momentum is clearly on the side of reform.

Richmond, Virginia, is the eleventh-most-unequal big city in the country; its leaders finally want to change that.

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.

The network of public universities, long the country's most prestigious state-supported higher education system, is wilting. The state's schools, starved of money from a combination of thirty-year-old local property-tax revolts and the more recent budget implosion, are rapidly sinking into what can only charitably be called mediocrity.

There's a Mad Max feel to daily life in many neighborhoods. The Central Valley has a swath of cities whose home foreclosure rates rank in the top ten in the country. Friends looking to buy a home in a poor part of Sacramento tell me of foreclosed houses stripped of their copper wires, their toilets, their pipes, even their drywall. An ex-student reports visiting homes in which furious foreclosed owners and evicted tenants have urinated and defecated on the carpeting, abandoned pets to starve, left kitchens filled with rotting food. Sure, you can buy these properties for next to nothing, but you'll have to bring in the biohazard squads before you can safely occupy them.

University departments looking to pinch pennies are removing their professors' office phones. Judges in some counties have donated a percentage of their salaries back to the courts so that the courts will have enough money to stay open. And on furlough Fridays, downtown Sacramento--the capital city of the world's eighth-largest economy--is practically a ghost town. The restaurants are empty, the streets quiet. Nobody's at work.

Why this has happened, how the mess can be cleaned up, how big-picture fixes to a discredited political machine can be implemented--well, that's all up for debate. Political consensus is as rare a commodity in California these days as baseball-sized gold nuggets were after the forty-niners had picked the mountains clean. Practically the only thing conservatives and liberals agree on in Sacramento is that the decision-making system has stalled and that the state leadership's ability to implement long-term strategic plans in the face of economic crisis has been corroded in recent years. California, historically the country's most populous, wealthiest, most dynamic state, has become chronically anxious about its future. Its citizens have grown distrustful of those who govern them, increasingly aware that ineptitude is making a bad economic situation worse. Recent polling suggests only 13 percent of voters approve of the job their state legislators are doing.

Some residents want tax reform--though Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's tax reform commission recently issued recommendations that appear, in their chilly reception, to have been stillborn. Others want to tweak term limits; curb the sprawling, open-ended initiative process; introduce open primaries; further cut government services; even hold a constitutional convention to rewrite the basic governing mechanisms of the state. Few, though, deny the storm clouds overhead.

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