Henry Rollins on the Future of L.A.

Assume, as risky and exercise as that can be, that at some point the daily grindings of Los Angeles return to a normal that allows us to collectively do over things with relative ease. We will then have to refocus our concern to what was pre-COVID, one of the most widespread and agonizing problems the city has: homelessness.

Over the last several weeks, you might have witnessed a version of this: a major artery like Sunset Blvd. where most of the people on the street are the homeless. They simply have nowhere else to go. This is their version of “stay at home.” If you think this has been hard on you, consider what they’re going through. Just my opinion but I don’t think we’re “going back” to anything. I think we’re going to adapt, innovate and beyond that, show a lot of other states a safe and efficient way forward. However, some things from our past reality will still be with us. 

All art by Ed Brescia

How we handle our homeless population is how we handle our health security in total. We’re all in this together, for better or worse, whether you like it or not.  

Ask anyone who does it for a living; helping people is one of the most difficult tasks you will ever undertake. No matter how good willed you are, how committed, how patient and open minded, humans can often escape your best intentions and remain immune to the effects of your great efforts.

It’s not your fault nor is it theirs. We are an exceedingly complex species and it’s safe to say that one size only fits one. You do what you can and hope for the best. Even then, the results can be at best minimal, and at worst, disastrous.

Helping humans in need can not be a “one and done” hero swoop. When it comes to people, nothing is easily or permanently resolved. Marriage leads to divorce, partnerships to litigation, etc. Even in the most thriving environments, like the United States, which Lincoln characterized as “the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil and salubrity of climate,” there are myriad problems created by the fact that there are humans everywhere. How to help? Those are the big ideas every politician takes on the campaign trail, from employment, healthcare, and education. If any of this wasn’t so borderline impossible to implement and maintain, this country would be a much different place to live in. But it isn’t. Because we are what we are.

The future of our amazing city I think is welded to how we handle its biggest problem and most perplexing challenge: our homeless population.  The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s latest figures show  there are more than 66,433 people on the streets —a 13 percent jump since last year—and that count was taken before the pandemic!  

All over the city, it’s hard to find a few blocks that don’t show evidence of homelessness. I’m willing to bet you’re not the type who finds any joy in seeing people living on the sidewalk or think that they’re all just a bunch of lazy do-nothings who don’t want to work. These are fellow human beings, often with very real mental conditions, in need of much more than a hot meal or some life advice like, “Get a job!”

How we handle our homeless population is how we handle our health security in total. We’re all in this together, for better or worse, whether you like it or not.  

Henry Rollins

How to help? What if, some incredible civic wand was waved and all the homeless were suddenly in housing, getting whatever treatment they required and those able, schooled and prepared to be put back into the workforce? It would take a lot of money. How much? About $657 million, according to a report from LAHSA in 2018. Sure, the homeless population has increased since then, but whatever it costs now, it’s nothing compared to what Los Angeles spends on other services. 

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Take the LAPD for example: the city proposed spending $1.8 billion on policing this year before activists pressured them to slash at least $150 million from the budget. When it comes to homelessness, I will not accept hands being thrown into the air and “Well, that’s just the way it is,” ending the conversation.  

Meanwhile, it seems that new condominiums are sprouting out of the ground like they’re on springs. The dwellers can look from their balconies and marvel at the roaring rush hour charge to the 101 and the tents on the sidewalks below. The city is going ever more vertical. I wonder where the water is going to come from for all these buildings and what impact the increasing need for electricity will have on the power grid.

Will the future of Los Angeles be the many looking down, literally, on the less than fortunate? I don’t believe that’s who we are. 

I’ve tried to come up with plans to remedy this genuine humanitarian crisis but I simply don’t have the logistical, operational, or strategic smarts to employ. This witnessed-by-everyone real time catastrophe goes not only to the core of who we are as residents, but who are as a species and conscientious guardians of this century.

Homelessness in Los Angeles and California pre-COVID-19 was as dire a matter as it was complex. Perhaps the worst possible thing that could happen to a population that lives close together, without access to sanitation, testing, masks, and other safety measures, has happened. If this assessment is grim and less than sunny, so be it. Right now, economy-first science-denying happy talk is getting people killed. 

I realize that a lot of the above is a pre COVID-19 point of view. The present is evolving hour-to-hour and the future is what we’re going to make it, so right now, the old model is all I’ve got.

I had no idea how many things I took for granted. None.

Henry Rollins is a columnist for theLAnd magazine. His last column was “Land of the Free, Home of the Unforced Error.”