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Vaccination and the Virus of Fear

American children die of measles and whooping cough not because of shortages of vaccine sera, or trained nurses, but because their parents have bought into antivaccine narratives that argue, without providing scientific proof, the sera are linked to children developing autism.

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Sasha Abramsky




Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.

Editor’s Note: The following chapter is excerpted from Capital & Main contributor Sasha Abramsky’s new book, Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream (Nation Books). Publishers Weekly says of Jumping at Shadows: “In eloquent and devastating terms, Abramsky shows, over and over, how fear hijacks rational decision making, empathy, and rational analysis, and instead plays on implicit bias and gut response.”

We don’t have to be right-wing zealots to fear that the walls that hold up our reality will one day come tumbling down, even without really agreeing on what will cause that cataclysm.

Take, for example, parents who read rumors on the Internet that vaccines might be linked to autism and thus refuse to have their children inoculated for diseases such as measles, diphtheria, and pertussis (more commonly known as whooping cough). Since the inception of mass-vaccination campaigns in the nineteenth century, every so often a public panic has set in against one or another vaccine program. Early advocates of the smallpox vaccine were ridiculed and attacked by skeptics.

Some believed that diseases were sent by God as punishment for human sins, and that any attempt to inoculate against them was an affront against divine authority. Others feared the vaccines would hurt young children. Still others resisted compulsory vaccination programs for political reasons, fearing the intrusion of the state into intimate family decision making. In England, in the nineteenth century, thousands of families were fined for resisting the smallpox vaccine. In the United States, from 1879 onward, antivaccine campaigners coalesced into the Anti-Vaccination Society of America and also, a few years later, the Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League.

We all have our particular set of irrational fears, be they of exotic diseases or of everyday vaccines. Usually we can find ample examples online, on TV, radio, or in newspapers to add fuel to the fire of our specific terrors.”

In our era, the panic was triggered by Andrew Wakefield, a British gastroenterologist who in 1998 published a research paper in the prestigious Lancet journal claiming to have found a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the sudden emergence of autism and bowel disease in previously healthy children. On both sides of the Atlantic, Wakefield’s work set off a storm of hostility to vaccinations. The only problem? It turned out that the good doctor had fabricated much of his data. Wakefield was ultimately barred from practicing medicine, and the Lancet retracted the article, with the editor in chief denouncing Wakefield’s work as “utterly false.” Between 2003 and 2015, the Centers for Disease Control funded nine large-scale studies investigating the purported vaccine-autism link. No such link was found.

Yet the suspicions Wakefield unleashed have proven harder to contain. When I contacted a group called Vaccination Liberation, hoping to line up an interview on antivaccination theories, I received back a list of questionnaires and reports that represented a smorgasbord of conspiracy thinking. “Are you dangerously stuck in the matrix?” was the title of one of the group’s questionnaires, which came complete with a set of “true” answers. Ostensibly designed to contextualize the antivaccine ideology, it argued that the fluoride put into drinking water was “toxic waste”; that the U.S. Constitution ceased to be the law of the land in 1933, when “Federal Reserve bankers bankrupted the ‘federal government’”; that “the media in America was captured by the Robber Barons back in 1917 via the Council of Foreign Relations”; and that the visible trails of heated air created behind jet planes are, in fact, “part of a covert geoengineering/weather control program.”  All of this might be funny—clichéd conspiracism—were it not for the fact that the VacLib woman who emailed me this from her headquarters in rural Idaho also emailed me a set of questions that she wanted me to answer before talking to me, all of them clearly intended to steer participants toward a conspiracy-based understanding of vaccines.

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“Do you believe that injections of pus from cowpox pustules led to the eradication of smallpox?” “Do you believe that polio has been eradicated due to vaccines?” And so on. In case correspondents weren’t sure which way to answer these questions, under her email signature was the slogan “Free Your Mind . . . From the Vaccine Paradigm.”

Less than 1 percent of children are unvaccinated for the common, and preventable, childhood diseases in the United States, but those children tend to live in clusters, their families either responding to religious sentiments against vaccines in the communities in which they reside or to political and cultural discomfort with vaccinations. Like-minded people often group with each other. And so, rather than a random distribution of nonvaccinated children nationally, they are found in particularly large numbers in certain regions of California, Oregon, Washington, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and a few other states, making those communities particularly vulnerable to disease outbreaks. In some states, at the height of the antivaccine craze as many as 5 percent of children weren’t being inoculated.

“It’s risk perception combined with the fear factor. A real gut fear, your body being invaded by a needle. It’s personal,” argued Catherine Martin of the California Immunization Coalition, as she sipped an iced tea at an outdoor café across from the California Capitol building in Sacramento. A year earlier, the Coalition, along with the California Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and other scientific groups, had gone to bat on behalf of SB277, a state bill to require all families to vaccinate their children unless those children had a medical condition that made it unsafe for them to receive vaccines. If parents refused to vaccinate, the kids would no longer be allowed into public or private schools in the state. The bill, which eventually passed and was signed into law by Governor Brown, had been very controversial, and Martin, suntanned, wearing a short polka-dot dress in the California sun, her long, wavy brown hair falling over her shoulders, still recalled the huge numbers of opponents who came into town to argue their point in the halls and offices and hearing rooms of the Capitol. The antivaccine movement had, after a while, begun to grate on Martin. “It’s a lot of conspiracy. ‘Make it up and say it.’” She distrusted the anecdote-driven pseudo-science behind the movement and also the “parental choice” arguments. After all, she said, laughing, we don’t give drivers a choice as to whether or not to obey the speed limit, because we know that if people can drive at a hundred miles an hour down a residential street, there will at some point be casualties. The same held, she believed, for choosing to leave one’s children exposed to potentially lethal diseases.

When I contacted Vaccination Liberation, I received back a list of questionnaires and reports that represented a smorgasbord of conspiracy thinking.”

Unvaccinated children, argued Amy Pisani, the long-time executive director of the pro-vaccine organization Every Child By Two (ECBT), are thirty times more likely to come down with measles during an outbreak than are vaccinated kids. If they are not protected against pertussis, the risk factor for whooping cough increases eightfold. These are potentially deadly diseases, spread quickly both within families and into the broader community. When outbreaks occur—as one did with measles in 2015, after an infected child visited Disneyland in California and spread the germs to other visitors; soon afterwards dozens of measles cases were reported in several states around the country—unvaccinated children are peculiarly vulnerable. Just as importantly, when a critical number of children in a given area aren’t vaccinated, what doctors term “herd immunity”—the general resilience within a community to a disease, based on the overwhelming numbers of immunized individuals acting as a firewall against its spread—begins to break down, and the risk of epidemic increases. With a highly contagious disease such as measles, you need upwards of 96 percent of the population vaccinated to ensure this herd immunity. Once you head much south of that number, you risk large outbreaks of the potentially deadly virus.

The World Health Organization estimates that each year, around the world, up to 3 million children avoid death from diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, and measles simply because they have been vaccinated. Yet another 1.5 million children, unvaccinated, still die from these diseases. Most of these kids are in poor countries with dilapidated public health systems. Their parents, one can only assume, would give pretty much anything to have had access to medical services that would have helped protect their children from the diseases that ended up killing them. Yet some are from wealthy countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, with massive vaccination efforts in place. They die not because of shortages of vaccine sera, or trained nurses who can deliver the vaccination, but because their parents have bought into Wakefield’s antivaccine narratives that argue, without providing scientific proof, the sera are linked to children developing autism.

Misunderstanding risk comes with societal consequences. If I read a debunked report about the extreme dangers of immunizing my children, and I don’t realize that the science is faulty, I might jump to the erroneous conclusion that inoculating my children is as dangerous as playing chicken with them on the highway. And so I refuse to have them immunized. As long as all the other kids in my neighborhood are still vaccinated, it’s fairly likely my kids will be okay; they will be free riders in an overwhelmingly immunized society. But if I don’t vaccinate my children, and if my neighbors, on my advice, also don’t vaccinate theirs, and if clusters of unvaccinated kids start to show up all around town, at some point, as happened with the unvaccinated children who visited Disneyland, there will be a measles, or polio, or whooping cough, or diphtheria outbreak, and there’s a pretty good chance that a lot of kids will end up very sick, and some of those kids will die.

The World Health Organization estimates that each year up to three million children avoid death from diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, and measles simply because they have been vaccinated.”

The same holds for the recently perfected vaccine against Human Papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is an extremely common sexually transmitted disease, and it is known to trigger cervical cancer, which kills upwards of a quarter million women globally each year, as well as penis cancer and several other cancers. It’s not that every woman who is infected with HPV will subsequently develop cervical cancer; in fact, most won’t. Rather, it’s that without having been infected with HPV a person will not develop cervical cancer. It’s a necessary precursor to the more serious disease, and thus preventing its transmission is, from a public health standpoint, a very good idea.

Since most everyone has sex at some point in their lives, it ought to be a no-brainer that as children approach adolescence they are given this potentially life-saving vaccine. But, as with most things sex-related, an awful lot of parents get awfully squeamish and kick up all kinds of fuss about having their kids vaccinated. Some argue, despite the lack of research evidence backing up the claim, that simply having children vaccinated against HPV will make them more likely to engage in promiscuous sexual activity. Others cherry-pick information from the Internet, much of it bizarre in the extreme, to bolster their reluctance to vaccinate. “We have a cancer vaccine, and they’re delaying it for their children,” Pisani said, her voice conveying bemusement more than anger. “Why? Because of these crazy notions they get on the Internet. One report said a woman got the HPV vaccine and could only walk backwards afterwards. She was a famous cheerleader, so it went all over. Another story said a woman could only talk French afterwards. It’s so irrational.”

We all have our particular set of irrational fears, be they of exotic diseases or of everyday vaccines—and usually we can find ample examples online, on TV, on the radio, or in the newspapers to add fuel to the fire of our specific terrors. So, too, many of us experience, at one time or another, a pervasive, nonspecific sense of dread, a sensation of everything going off of the rails. Through a selective reading of the world around us—a substitution of anecdote for big-picture data—and an evermore pervasive and sensationalist mass media that feeds off of our fears and our anxieties, we can create echo chambers within which our nightmares reverberate.

It turns out that pretty bizarre understandings of risk and fear are the norm rather than the exception. It takes a continuous effort to even remotely calibrate scales of risk correctly. And this has huge effects on how we live, how we allocate resources, and how we interact with others. For if we can’t work out ways to contain our internal Doomsday Prepping impulses, if we let our fears run amok, be they of particular diseases or particular groups of people, the end results can be utterly destructive of civic society. As with the unvaccinated children and the spread of measles, if critical numbers of people fall prey to certain fears we can end up with the cultural equivalent of an epidemic. Panics around school safety, say; or about the risk posed to civic peace by immigrants; or about the dangers bubbling up out of the inner city. When we compete with each other as to which of our fears is more worthy of attention and of resources, we spiral into a black hole, into a place of crushing anxieties. It’s hard to think about creating a better future if you’re being pushed down onto your knees by the burdens of a present that you perceive to be filled with miscellaneous terrors.

Excerpted from Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream by Sasha Abramsky. Copyright © 2017. Available from Nation Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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Living Homeless in California

Living Homeless in California: Finding Shelter — Veterans Are Broke But Not Broken

Homeless veterans live solitary and nomadic existences. At night, some sleep in cars parked near VA facilities, under freeway overpasses or in public parks.

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Kelly Candaele




Illustration: Define Urban. Video by Kelly Candaele.

“I don’t think any veteran wakes up and says, ‘I want to be on the street,'” says one ex-Marine.

Jack Rumpf sits on a circular bench at the corner of Wilshire and San Vicente boulevards in West Los Angeles, and talks about ghosts. Wearing a long white beard, dirty sweatpants, white socks and slippers, he turns and sweeps an arm towards the empty spaces next to him. “There used to be 15 or 20 people sitting with me here,” he says, lowering his voice to a melancholic whisper. “They are all dead now.”

Rumpf says he is a Navy veteran, a brother of five sisters, an observer of our current political scene and a lover of dogs. He is also homeless and has been so almost three decades.

Every morning he drives his beat-up Mustang from where he parked it at night to sleep, and finds a space near the Veterans Affairs hospital. Rumpf “flies a sign” – a placard asking for money – at a Wilshire Blvd. intersection. He says that Dan Aykroyd, Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams have given him money, and that he has the process down to a science. “There are 30 cars at every light, which lasts 2.5 minutes,” he points out. “If half the cars give me a quarter that’s over $40 an hour.”

His beloved dog, Layla, perched in the driver’s seat, watches over the car a few yards away.

The 59-year-old Rumpf says he’s “done every damn drug that’s been known” and regards homelessness as “pretty much my fault.” He became homeless 28 years ago when he lost a job. He takes antibiotics, has high blood pressure and uses an inhaler for asthma. He caught pneumonia three times in one year. “I’m not young anymore so I have a hard time enduring the elements.”

“Mental health is not like breaking your leg, where everyone can see it.
Unaddressed, it gets worse.”

Rumpf is one of nearly 5,000 homeless veterans in Los Angeles County. Those on the Westside sleep under overpasses beneath the San Diego Freeway, on the sidewalk near the VA or tucked in vacant doorways along Wilshire or Santa Monica boulevards. When hearing their stories, there is often the suspicion that they might be tampering with the evidence of their own lives, as if they were struggling to sort out the “facts” of their personal stories.

Harry Shaw beds down each night near an ally at Park and Speedway in Venice, just yards from the beach. He embraces a strict moral code about what he will and will not do to feed himself and his dog Lulu, who he calls “part of my soul.”

“I’ll starve before I’ll eat anything gross,” he says as he eats the last of a bag of jellybeans he was given. “I won’t eat out of the garbage and I won’t sell my body, and Lulu eats before I do. I may be broke but I’m not broken.”

Shaw alleges that he was medically discharged from the Army with less than full benefits after 23 years of service because he couldn’t reach what he says was a 160-pound weight requirement for a person of his height, although published Army height-to-weight ratios contradict his claim. He is 5 feet 8 inches tall. “I could eat like a horse or eat 20 meals a day but I would only reach 155 pounds,” he says.

A veteran of the Iraq War, he is suing Veterans Affairs for full benefits but meanwhile collects nothing, refusing to take the 35 percent he says the VA offered. “The VA destroys the vets,” he says.

Shaw drove a car from Tennessee to San Francisco, sold it and took a bus to Los Angeles. Now he flies the sign every morning near the Santa Monica Pier. According to his moral logic, panhandling is when you ask someone, “Can you spare some change?” while flying the sign is work.

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He recently made $2 during a six-hour period, a daily ritual that he calls his “mission.” He wanted a slice of pizza but the cost at the local pizza joint was two dollars plus tax, so he bought a can of food for his dog instead. “The hardest part is finding a place to clean yourself,” he notes.

If offered housing assistance by the VA Shaw might consider it, but he prefers to sleep on the streets and fight for his full benefits. “I’d rather have a recreational vehicle where I can go wherever the heart and mind desires,” he says.

Shaw’s antipathy towards the VA is not atypical for homeless veterans. For whatever reason – bureaucratic hurdles, negative staff or physician interactions, or the vet’s own contributions to an already difficult situation – complaints abound.

The VA is now planning 1,200 units of permanent housing for homeless veterans.

The original purpose of the West Los Angeles land that was donated to the federal government in 1887 was to house homeless veterans. Over the years, however, VA budgeting priorities directed towards the hospital and questionable land leases left the campus dilapidated and underutilized.

As a result of a 2011 lawsuit filed on behalf of homeless vets initiated by local attorneys and the American Civil Liberties Union, the VA is now committed to repurposing the 388-acre campus, located near the 405 Freeway, to house veterans.

Jesse Creed, executive director of Vets Advocacy LA (a party to the lawsuit), believes the land could house every homeless veteran in Los Angeles County. “It’s as much land as UCLA, which has 45,000 students,” he says.

The VA is now planning 1,200 units of permanent housing for homeless veterans. A private sector developer is being chosen to finance construction and operate the housing facility.

Monte Williams is one of 54 veterans who currently live in permanent housing on the VA campus. An ex-Marine, he describes becoming homeless as a “process.”

“I don’t think any veteran wakes up and says, ‘I want to be on the street,’” he says. Williams lost his job when mental health issues got the best of him: “Mental health is not like breaking your leg, where everyone can see it. Unaddressed, it gets worse.”

One L.A. vet pushes a shopping cart filled with his tent and other belongings half a mile up a small hill to make his hospital appointments.

Williams, who became homeless in 2010, had an epiphany while looking to buy alcohol near the VA hospital. “Another older homeless veteran I was with pointed to the hospital and told me to go to the emergency room and my sanity just came back,” he says with tears in his eyes.

He is appreciative of the programs and housing that the VA has provided and now helps his new family — other homeless vets. “My daily life is sharing my story with other veterans…helping them gain their life back.”

Donald Leslie Peterson sleeps under the 405 Freeway. The story that he tells about himself is difficult to follow. He says he was shot during a rescue mission in Panama in 1989, that he has two Purple Heart medals for wounds suffered in Afghanistan and Syria, and that he was on protection duty 30 feet behind John F. Kennedy’s car in Dallas.

Peterson takes the medication Abilify (prescribed for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) and says he stays close to the hospital so he can see his social worker and apply for housing. “Unless I sit down and think about things, my thinking gets a little bit crowded,” he says. He pushes a shopping cart filled with his tent and other belongings half a mile up a small hill to make his hospital appointments.

“Parents tell us we scare their children but I think the parents are scared more than the children.”

He becomes animated when he talks about his family — two girls who, he says, attend UCLA and visit him every other night. “The biggest challenge is keeping the bond of my family together,” he says. “It’s hard not being able to sit down with my family and have a meal. I mean, we sit on buckets and crates and joke and play, but when you come right down to it, it’s not funny.”

Heidi Marston, Director of Community Engagement and Reintegration Services at the Greater Los Angeles VA, believes that the VA has a program and approach that can reach homeless veterans where they are. “We use a housing-first approach, which means that housing is the first step for you. There are no barriers to getting into housing … so you don’t have to be sober and you don’t have to be in treatment,” she explains.

Asking a homeless veteran what they think the future holds for them is a way of asking about the kind of life they want — or fear.

Marc Cote, a five-year Army veteran who lives in a tent in Westwood Park, a few blocks from the VA hospital, wants to be left alone. Cote pushes himself around backwards in a wheelchair, using public bathroom sinks to clean up — what the homeless refer to as “birdbaths.” Parents walk by holding their children’s hands heading to soccer games and tennis matches. “The parents tell us we scare their children but I think the parents are scared more than the children,” he says.

Park rangers patrol the ground and sometimes demand that Cote take his tent down before 6 a.m. “I would be happy to stay here if they would leave me be,” he says one recent Saturday afternoon. “I don’t make a mess or argue or fight or throw things.”

It will take years until the 1,200 planned residential units are complete. Meanwhile thousands of veterans will remain on the street, finding food, shelter and companionship where they can.

Jack Rumpf remembers an incident from when he was flying his sign at a stoplight in Brentwood. “The guy pulled a gun on me and didn’t shoot. I said, ‘You schmuck, why didn’t you shoot me? If I was dead this would be all over.’” Rumpf believes that his near future is “leaving this world.” For now he settles for a safe parking space at night for himself and his dog.

Monte Williams, who has housing, feels an urgency towards his fellow veterans. “I refuse to believe that any veteran, or any human, wants to be on the streets,” he says. “Something has to happen, so I just want society to know – to try to understand.”

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Living Homeless in California

Living Homeless in California: The Uneasy Sanctuary of Shelters

“What was scary about that place was the men were right there,” says one formerly homeless woman. “They were on one side and we were on the other, where we were sleeping. People hallucinated and some sleep-walked.”

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Bobbi Murray




Photo: Ted Soqui

For the 31 percent of the homeless population who are women,
staying in a shelter can be terrifying .


Why don’t the homeless just go to a shelter?

It’s an easy question to ask when you see people sleeping on sidewalks. The short answer — if you are one of the 55,000 homeless in Los Angeles County and 5,000 in Orange County — is that sometimes you can’t.

Sometimes the mesh of private and public efforts that make up the current shelter system is too daunting. Sometimes a shelter can’t admit you because they have too few beds. Or maybe they won’t admit you because of requirements that you can’t or won’t meet — you may not be allowed to bring your pet, or you may have to sleep separately from your partner, or you may have to join a 12-step program.

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For the 31 percent of the homeless population who are women, it can be too scary to stay in a shelter. “Women who have slept in shelters at some point, or who are currently sleeping in shelters, report dangerous and unsafe living conditions, including violence, a lack of clean restrooms and showers,” said Ana Velouise, Director of Communications and Policy at the Downtown Women’s Center, which transitions homeless women into permanent housing.

Pamela Walls, who moved into permanent housing in 2007 with support from DWC, had stayed in at least five shelters after her Section 8 apartment converted to standard rent rates in 2001 and she lost her home.

“I slept everywhere. On picnic tables. Bus stops. I was scared,” she said.

“They wanted to put me in AA. They wanted me to put away 70 percent of my money.
I wasn’t going to do that.”

“I got a job as a cashier at Macy’s. I was walking at night and standing in the daytime. My knees would buckle underneath me.”

Shelters were unwelcoming. “They wanted to put me in AA and all that. They wanted me to put away 70 percent of my money — I wasn’t going to do that. I was the kind of person who was a lost girl. I’d go back and forth from Santa Monica to Pasadena sleeping on the bus.”

The first shelter she went to, in Pasadena, “was a dormitory-type place. They were very kind to me.” But, as she put it, “They wanted my money, and I wasn’t going to give it to them.” She then went to the National Guard Armory in Glendale — an L.A. County cold-weather shelter.

“What was scary about that place was the men were right there. They were on one side and we were on the other, where we were sleeping. People hallucinated and some sleep-walked, and some man pulled a woman off her cot and she hit her head. It was terrible to hear it.”

For a while she stayed at New Image — located in unincorporated L.A. County at the time, and now at 38th St. and Broadway in Los Angeles. “It was in a Safeway warehouse and it was terrible. There was an area where the men showered, separated by a board, like cardboard, flat wood. When they showered the water came over to the women’s side and the women had to walk through it to get to the restroom.”

After 1,000 people from Santa Ana River homeless camps were removed, a scant 250 shelter beds were available to receive them.


For veterans on the front lines of shelter provision, shelters are about beds.

The federal government requires counties to do an annual inventory — “How many beds and what different types do you have?” explained Scott Larson of HomeAid Orange County.

The issue of homelessness in Orange County recently gained national attention after the removal of some 1,000 residents from camps along the Santa Ana River, in the shadows of Angel Stadium and Disneyland. A scant 250 shelter beds were available to receive them.

According to Larson, “The issues along the Santa Ana riverbed, the visual nature of the homelessness we were already dealing with, came to life. The population became visible.”

“The chronic homeless population is one component of the people that experience homelessness — but it’s not the only one,” he said. “You have people with rising rent, job loss, medical expenses things that land people into homelessness. So how do we prevent that? And then minimize the length of staying homeless?”

Two voter-passed housing initiatives in Los Angeles signal a big shift from the classic two-hots-and-a-cot shelter strategy.

Many Orange County residents have been outraged by plans to locate temporary shelters in suburban communities.

In the city of Los Angeles, however, voters passed bond Measure HHH in 2016 to support the creation of 10,000 permanent supportive-housing units. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recently voted on a boost of $143 million to support homelessness prevention and shelters — money made available from a sales tax enacted by Measure H, approved last year.

Both steps signal a big shift from the classic two-hots-and-a-cot shelter strategy.

“Shelter is a sort of classic term that sometimes is used broadly to describe short-term housing solutions,” said Tommy Newman, public affairs director at United Way, which advocates a homing-first model rather than short-term shelter. “Other times it’s used to describe bridge housing; other times crisis housing — which is where you’re going to sleep that night.”

“Bridge housing is the current best practice-supported version of interim housing” for people to rebuild stability, Newman added.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently announced his “A New Home” strategy that allots $20 million to create a shelter in each city council district.

“Their only barrier to entry is capacity. They will be open 24/7. They will not require sobriety. They will allow pets,” the mayor’s office said in an email to Capital & Main. Each facility includes intensive case-management services, ranging from mental health to drug and alcohol treatment.

As in Orange County, the plan has run into some heavy sledding. Koreatown residents have rallied to oppose a shelter there. Some community leaders cite a lack of proper outreach on the city’s part that might have mitigated local concerns.

Los Angeles’ advocacy community has been moving toward workable policy step-by-step, Newman said. “When you have 75 percent of the population of people experiencing homelessness unsheltered, that’s out of whack,” he said. “We need that number to be smaller, and we need to have the solutions to get folks indoors and to have safe places to sleep.”

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Labor & Economy

Battling Income Inequality With Second Avenue Partners’ Nick Hanauer

The Seattle maverick, who has pushed for a slate of progressive policies while warning his “fellow zillionaires” that the pitchforks are coming, explains on “The Bottom Line” podcast that his dad helped to shape his values.

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When venture capitalist, entrepreneur, and political provocateur Nick Hanauer was coming of age in Seattle, he wanted a sports car. His father, however, wouldn’t let him get one.

It wasn’t because the family, which owned and ran bedding producer Pacific Coast Feather Co., didn’t have the money for a luxury like that. Nor was it because Hanauer’s dad deemed it too dangerous or frivolous.

He forbade the purchase because he was worried about the optics. “He felt strongly that it sent the entirely wrong signal to our employees who worked, in his opinion, harder than I did and couldn’t afford such a thing,” Hanauer told me on the latest edition of my podcast, The Bottom Line.

“That was just kind of the perspective that my dad had,” Hanauer adds, “and I suppose I got some of it.”

Actually, Hanauer got substantially more than some.

An early investor in Amazon and a co-founder of Second Avenue Partners, Hanauer for years has been citing the dangers of income inequality in America, famously warning his “fellow zillionaires” that “if we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us.”He also hasn’t been shy about offering a host of policy prescriptions to lift up the working class. Among them: raising the minimum wage to as much as $25 an hour at the nation’s biggest corporations; making vastly more people eligible for overtime pay; creating a system of portable, pro-rated, and universal benefits for independent workers; and curtailing stock buybacks.

If he had his way, he’d also significantly boost corporate taxes—a total reversal of Trumpian economics.

Hanauer says that he learned the merits of this idea from watching his father manage Pacific Coast Feather. At the time, in the 1970s, the top corporate rate was 48%. (The Trump tax law just lowered it to 21% from 35%.)

“When I grew up in the family business and tax rates were very, very high, my dad employed this fantastic tax-avoidance scheme,” Hanauer says. “We called it investing in the business.

“What my dad did to avoid paying corporate tax, which he hated, was to spend every dollar of cash flow on more employees, more factories, and more equipment,” he recalls. “We kept our profits insanely low because we did not want to pay more corporate tax. Today. . . the penalty of high profits is very, very low.”

While Hanauer has harsh words for what he calls the “trickle-downers,” his condemnation is not limited to one side of the political aisle. “The evisceration of the middle class,” he says, “took place during Democrat and Republican administrations.”

He also sees the public sector as just one part of the problem; the private sector, in Hanauer’s eyes, has largely abdicated its responsibility, as well. “In the old days, big companies used to set the tone at the top,” he says. “Today, they drag everyone down to the bottom. And that shouldn’t be tolerated.”

One of the corporations that Hanauer criticizes is Amazon, which he helped to get off the ground (and where, it was recently disclosed, the median employee made $28,446 last year while CEO Jeff Bezos’s net worth has climbed to more than $130 billion).

“They’re super exploitive—just unacceptable,” Hanauer says. “What I can guarantee you is that Jeff Bezos is not going to change those things in the absence of somebody putting essentially a gun to his head and forcing him to do it.”

If Hanauer’s father helped to forge a firebrand, there’s at least one aspect of the son’s life that he would have trouble fathoming. “I . . . have this giant pile of money that would have been inconceivable to my dad,” Hanauer says. “And I live a ridiculously lavish life as a consequence of that.”

You can listen to my entire interview with Hanauer here, along with Larry Buhl reporting on the steady erosion of overtime pay in America, and Karan Chopra explaining how great social benefits can result when “agents of innovation” combine with “agents of scale.”


The Bottom Line is a production of Capital & Main

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Labor & Economy

Manuel Pastor on California’s Golden Resistance

A new book argues that the dismantling of policy initiatives that made up the Golden State’s successful postwar social compact were, in part, driven by racial fears as state demographics shifted. 

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Bobbi Murray




When reading Manuel Pastor’s State of Resistance, it’s hard not to wonder if the present White House dumpster fire is being fed by the same ideological tinder that fueled California’s political right wing from the 1970s throughout the 1990s. Pastor, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, offers an unsentimental view of that period: “By the 1990s racism had really gotten the better of us. Race made us take our eye off the ball of development.” His book, subtitled, What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future, recalls that two-decade span as a disaster for California’s development as a forward-looking state, but also, perhaps, as a necessary prelude to its current status as the progressive movement’s shield against the Trump administration.

A community activist, contemplating the destruction visited upon Los Angeles after its 1992 civil unrest, is quoted as wearily declaring, “There’s an immediate need to think long-term.” In Pastor’s view it is long-term thinking that has carried California forward as the model of a state of resistance—as a leader in wage justice, in climate change policy, in support of immigrant and other civil rights.

Pastor’s book also examines what has led to the Golden State’s periodic explosions. He takes readers at a brisk pace through 20th-century California history: years when migrants from across America came to it in hopes of bettering their lives; through various political backlashes and then onward to the social movements that learned to build and wield power and helped turn the state in a progressive direction.

In his book and during a recent interview, he is clear about the ways in which the playing field in the state was never quite level for people of color but, until the 1990s, had at least been seen by a broad spectrum of people as a place of opportunity.

That minimal social compact, he says, was undone “by a series of well-organized and often grassroots right-wing movements usually taking advantage of the racialized anxieties of voters frightened of a changing state.” Pastor argues that the dismantling of policy initiatives that made up the Golden State’s successful social compact—support for public education, transportation, housing desegregation and economic development–were in part driven by racial fears as state demographics shifted.

One pivotal moment came in 1978, with the passage of Proposition 13, a ballot initiative ostensibly proposed to put a brake on California’s spiraling home property taxes, but which the author claims defined a racial and generational divide. The new law had the practical effect of protecting older, whiter homeowners from rising property taxes and locked in commercial taxes at artificially low levels for decades — while ultimately stripping funding from state services that support the young, especially education and public infrastructure.

But, as California turned younger and browner, conservatives were only getting started, as they pushed through a wave of ballot initiatives to recalibrate the social compact and target people of color:

  • Proposition 187 in 1994 sought to block undocumented immigrants from access to education and non-emergency health care and elections; it succeeded at the ballot box but those two features were overturned in court;
  • Proposition 184, a 1994 three-strikes law, imposed a life sentence for any crime if the offender had two prior convictions categorized as serious or violent, and disproportionately affected black youth;
  • Proposition 209, an anti-affirmative action measure passed in 1996, inhibited access to higher education for people of color.

Pastor outlines vibrant grassroots efforts that emerged in Los Angeles in response to the civil unrest and the public policy that fueled it —the South Los Angeles organization SCOPE, committed to power-building in poor and black and Latino communities; the Community Coalition, founded by now-Congresswoman Karen Bass; the economic justice-inspired Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and others that connected with similar organizations throughout the state.

“Relationships got built so that when people were pursuing slightly different strategies they didn’t end up with a permanent hostility,” Pastor says. “They just recognized that they were pursuing different strategies at different times.”

By the 2016 elections the organized right wing had seized powerful pieces of the national narrative, according to Pastor. “The Tea Party was astroturfed in by the Koch brothers–but actually did have a grassroots component and spoke to a high level of pain and anger that was out there.”

Social change means being attentive to narrative—how people talk with one another, Pastor says. “How do you change the debate so that it’s not, ‘We need to raise the minimum wage,’ it’s the Fight for Fifteen? That it’s not about ‘comprehensive immigration reform,’ it’s about Dreamers? That it’s not about ‘civil rights for gays,’ it’s about marriage equality?”

Crucial to making California a state of resistance was a turn from the conventional get-out-the-vote approach that pops up every election season and does little to connect with the electorate.

“What happened in California was this emergence of integrated voter engagement—what we call community organizing-based politics,” Pastor says. By this he means cultivating new and occasional voters, rather than those who never miss an election and tend to vote conservatively. The book details the work of California Calls, a statewide network of community organizations located in towns from the Central Valley to San Diego County, whose members work door-to-door between elections to stay in touch with the political pulse of voters and mobilize them at election time, boosting the turnout from low-income areas.

Throughout the country there are similar efforts that Pastor calls “movements that capture the imagination,” including the New Florida Majority, focused on mobilizing and including marginalized communities, and Black PAC, which provided a vote margin to turn an Alabama election for a U.S. Senate seat against hardline conservative Roy Moore.

“Political change is not just about elections,” Pastor cautions. “We have to invest in progressive infrastructure.”

In each election season, he says, “there’s a lot of money being spent on pollsters [and] strategists who don’t produce messaging that resonates, get-out-the-vote that’s not integrated voter engagement.”

The most effective way to not get a Trump elected, Pastor argues, is to invest in the grassroots.

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The Hard Work of Diversifying Higher Education in California

In California, where 76 percent of its K-12 enrollment is students of color, diversifying public colleges and universities is a top priority.

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Bill Raden




UC regents meeting earlier this year. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

USC Professor: “The only way that we’re going to change educational outcomes is if we have faculty that are racially literate.”

On April 30 Thomas Kanewakeron Gray, 19, and Lloyd Skanahwati Gray, 17, two Native American Mohawk brothers, joined a campus tour of Colorado State University, a sprawling, public research university located just an hour north of Denver. They had scrimped and saved, their mother would later say, to make the seven-hour drive from the family’s home in Santa Cruz, New Mexico to “their dream school.”

The two teens joined the tour somewhat late, provoking one nervous mother, who was white, to call 911 and describe them as “Hispanic” kids “from Mexico” who “joined our tour” yet “weren’t a part of our tour.” The bewildered boys, who had been invited there by the university’s admissions office, quickly found themselves being frisked and questioned by campus police, before they were released. (Colorado State University is nearly 80 percent Caucasian; the senior leading the tour later admitted she hadn’t even noticed the police remove the Grays.)

The brothers’ ordeal illustrates the degree to which higher education’s path to economic security and enlightened citizenship is increasingly crossing a battleground for a broader American promise of equal opportunity called diversification. The Colorado incident is part of a recent minefield of what psychologists label microaggressions — the everyday indignities of racially themed slights, snubs, insults and general indifference whose hurt tends to be invisible to its perpetrators but is experienced by marginalized groups as a very real, if low-level and wearying state of dread. When they occur on a college campus, their impact on degree completion can be profound.

Success for first-in-their-family college students of color can be dramatically improved by hiring more faculty
that look like those students.

“The only way that we’re going to change educational outcomes is if we have faculty that are racially literate,” University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education educational equity professor Estela Mara Bensimon told Capital & Main by phone. “In other words, they have an awareness of how the classroom can be a racialized space, where microaggression or other kinds of circumstances are detrimental to students of color.”

In racially diverse California, those circumstances included last month’s furor over the latest fraternity hijinks at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, a California State University campus that holds the distinction of being the least diverse public university in the state. It’s a lack of diversity that tends to play out at Cal Poly fraternities in near-annual rites of disparaging ethnic and racial minorities. The targets of April’s incident, which triggered campus protests when photos turned up on social media of fraternity members in minstrel blackface and dressed as Mexican-American gang members, were African-Americans and Latinos. In 2013, the insult was to women and Native Americans. Last year, it was the idea of diversity itself.

For California, which boasts both the fifth-largest economy in the world, and where 76 percent of its K-12 enrollment is students of color (and still surging), diversifying public colleges and universities is a top priority. Producing the educated workforce needed to continue growing the economy means not only recruiting students of color but also seeing them complete a degree.

Or at least that’s the argument made in a new study by the college-equity advocacy group Campaign for College Opportunity (CCO). Called Left Out: How Exclusion in California’s Colleges and Universities Hurts Our Values, Our Students, and Our Economy, the report found that although systemwide student diversity at California’s public colleges and universities is a robust 69 percent (second only to Hawaii), its faculty and senior leadership tend to often be white and male.

Using data for the 2016-17 academic year for all three segments of the state’s higher education system — University of California (UC); California State University (CSU) and California Community College (CCC) — it found that tenured faculty was at least 32 percent racially diverse, while senior leadership came in at roughly 40 percent diverse and academic senates scored a disappointing 26 percent. Women were significantly underrepresented in college governance, with men making up about two-thirds of the system’s regents, trustees and Community College Board of Governors. The least diversified faculties and leadership were the 10 UC campuses; California’s 114 Community Colleges were the most diverse systemwide — with the exception of its academic senates.

The other wrinkle, says CCO senior vice president Audrey Dowd, were nagging gaps between college access and degree success for minority students. “When we look at completion, that’s where we see a huge disparity in rates of success. So we know that Latinx students, black students and then some subgroups within the Asian American population, are not fairing as well, they are just not completing at the same rate as their white counterparts.”

The findings add to an already well-supported argument that college success for often first-in-their-family college students of color can be dramatically improved merely by hiring more faculty that look like those students.

“Our work looking at faculty of color has found that they’re more likely to employ teaching practices that we know are good for underserved students,” said J. Luke Wood, director of the Doctoral Program in Community College Leadership at San Diego State University. “You have to be exposed to people who look like you at some point, or else it’s hard to envision yourself doing the kinds of things that they’re recommending you do to be successful.”

That’s what Devon Graves, a black third-year Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles and a first-generation college student from Riverside County, said happened to him when he met the popular political science professor Renford Reese while Graves was an undergraduate at Cal Poly Pomona, the 81 percent diversified sister campus to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Reese became his undergraduate adviser.

“He was one of a few African-American tenured professors, but he did play an important role in where I’m at today,” Graves recalled. “I just remember still having a tough time transitioning onto campus, having that impostor syndrome, thinking that I didn’t belong. … If it wasn’t for him, I would have never thought of myself as someone who can pursue a Ph.D. and do the research that I do and see myself as a professor. So seeing someone who looked like me in that position, and who helped mentor me to get to that next level made a world of difference.”

One of the more outstanding exceptions in the CCO report was 60,000-student East L.A. College, whose president, Marvin Martinez, hosted the organization in March when it came to Los Angeles to present the study’s community college findings. With its 67 percent Latinx enrollment, 72 percent diversified faculty and a college leadership that was 80 percent Latinx (and 60 percent Latina), Martinez said that diversity has actually been the school’s most potent recruitment tool.

“It’s one major reason students come to East L.A. college,” he said at the conference. “It’s also a [faculty] recruitment tool, by the way. … I ask them, ‘Why East L.A. College? Why are you interested in this campus?’ And many give me the same response: ‘I feel at home here.’ ‘I like it here.’ ‘I feel that the people know me.’”

But it’s one thing to make the case that a more diversified faculty and administration will lead to greater college completion for minorities that will attract more faculty of color, which will be ultimately good for all Californians — and another to actually get that ball rolling.

Bensimon, who as the director of USC’s Center for Urban Education also teaches diversifying colleges how to “re-script” their hiring processes, pointed out that California has what she calls “a locked system of hiring” that has evolved precisely to preserve power by yielding primarily white candidates.

That’s partly because policies like hiring preferences trickle down from the top in California’s system of public higher education, where the “top” is whoever is sitting behind the governor’s desk. California’s governors appoint the UC regents, the CSU trustees and the CCC board of governors, which is why their complexions tend to mirror the overwhelmingly white, male makeup of the state’s political elite. It’s also why CCO has injected the issue into the governor’s race by hosting three gubernatorial forums on higher education. It is not a done deal.

“It’s really about whiteness as an institutional culture and an institutional practice that most whites are not able to see,” Bensimon reflected. “Unless we begin to make that more transparent and be able to talk about it, I just think it’s really hard to change, to help institutions of higher education be more equity-producing.”

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LISTEN: How Two African-American Entrepreneurs Are Determined To Change Diets In The Black Community

On the latest episode of “The Bottom Line” podcast, Naturade’s Claude Tellis and Kareem Cook share how their own families’ experience with diabetes has spurred them to promote healthy eating options.

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Many entrepreneurs pride themselves on solving some sort of “pain point” for their customers. But as Claude Tellis and Kareem Cook, the co-owners of health-products provider Naturade make clear, some pain points are a lot more serious than others.

“I had an uncle that went into the doctor, wasn’t morbidly obese or anything, lived in Louisiana and . . . the family was faced with, ‘Do we amputate both of his legs or not?’” Tellis told me on the latest episode of my podcast, The Bottom Line. “He never made it out of the hospital. He died, and he was about 55 years old.”

Another uncle, says Tellis, who serves as Naturade’s CEO, “was faced with losing a couple toes.” Eventually, “they had to take his leg from the knee down.”

In the African-American community, dealing with this grim loss of life and limb—often brought on by diabetes and peripheral arterial disease—has become disturbingly routine. “You just kind of grew up with insulin in the refrigerator,” says Cook, Naturade’s chief marketing officer.

And so Tellis and Cook have set out to combat this crisis by helping underserved populations—especially those in black neighborhoods—eat better. Their vehicle for sparking change is Naturade, which they acquired in 2012 for $8 million.

Although the Orange, Calif., company is nearly a century old, Tellis and Cook have revamped it completely, including introducing a new product that is now their No. 1 seller: VeganSmart, a plant-based meal replacement that is high in protein, low in sugar, and full of vitamins and minerals. Its suggested retail price is $35 for 15 servings.

“What we really wanted,” says Tellis, “was something that had Whole Foods quality that could be sold to a Walmart consumer.”

To achieve that vision, they’ve built the brand methodically. Step one, Tellis says, was making sure that vegans bought in, so that “people when they look online will see that there’s an authenticity and there’s a rigor” to what’s being offered.

From there, they handed out VeganSmart at Wanderlust yoga festivals, aiming to attract a hip, upscale crowd. This helped advance a “premium viewpoint of the product,” Tellis says.

Finally, there came the last step: bridging into urban America. To catch on there, they’ve adopted an influencer strategy, tapping rappers like Styles P and Da Brat and professional basketball players to promote VeganSmart. (Grant Hill, soon to be inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame, is an investor in Naturade.)

The result is a profitable company that is now selling into, among other retailers, both Whole Foods and Walmart—just as Tellis and Cook had planned it.

Not that any of this has come easy. The duo, who met as Duke University students in the early 1990s, have played in the health-food space for more than 15 years now.

Their first venture, launched in 2002, was a vending machine company called Healthy Body Products, which supplied nutritious snacks and drinks instead of junk food and soda. The business won contracts with the Los Angeles Unified School District, but it was difficult to scale. So Cook and Tellis ultimately sold the venture—but not before gaining some insight into what it takes to persuade those in the mainstream to eat right.

At one point, they brought in actor Michael Ealy (then fresh off one of the Barbershop films) to talk to the students about the importance of maintaining a good diet. “One of the biggest things we learned in our first business was how to make it cool,” Tellis explains.

And, of course, if that doesn’t work as a motivator, there’s always a second message to fall back on. “Everyone wants to be cool,” says Cook. “And no one wants to die.”

You can listen to my entire interview with Tellis and Cook here, along with Bridget Huber reporting on Impact America Fund’s efforts to help improve low- to moderate-income areas, and Karan Chopra laying out what small rice farmers in West Africa can teach American business leaders.

The Bottom Line is a production of Capital & Main

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Reports Say Mental Health Services Act Working, But a Few Changes Needed

Californians passed the Mental Health Services Act to transform and expand the reach of the state’s mental health services. A problem, some mental health advocates say, is that the state doesn’t give much guidance on how a county should spend its dollars.

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Photo: Getty Images

There’s good news and bad news to be found in a trio of recent reports on the effectiveness of California’s Mental Health Services Act (MHSA). Experts in the field say the findings can be distilled down to this: Money is no longer the issue and the state needs some innovative outreach solutions and a more effective statewide leadership structure to scale up innovative outreach solutions from one county to the whole state.

Voters passed the MHSA, or Proposition 63, in 2004. Spearheaded by then-state Senator Darrell Steinberg, it imposed a one percent tax on Californians earning more than $1 million to transform and expand the reach of the state’s mental health services, including psychiatric care, substance-abuse counseling and permanent supportive housing. MHSA mandates that counties spend 80 percent of the funds on community services for people in immediate mental health crisis and 20 percent on prevention and early intervention. But beyond the 80/20 split the state doesn’t give much guidance on how a county should spend its dollars. And that’s part of the problem, some mental health advocates say.

An audit found that counties had left $2.5 billion in MHSA funds on the table — of which $231 million should have been sent back to Sacramento in the 2015-2016 fiscal year.

The good news: A report released by RAND Health in March shows that at least one county is a success story for expanding access to care. Commissioned by Los Angeles County and covering a period from 2012 to 2016, it’s the first independent analysis of the MHSA’s effects at a county level. RAND found that nearly 130,000 young people – from birth to age 25 – had received MHSA-funded early intervention and prevention treatment by L.A. County. The study also showed that 88 percent of those people, who were determined to be “at risk” but showing no significant sign of mental illness before treatment, remained basically symptom-free in the year following treatment.

RAND also found that during the same period roughly 25,000 children and adults living with serious mental illness had benefited from treatment through full-service partnerships. The study showed that full-service partnerships significantly decreased the overall rates of homelessness.

Debbie Innes-Gomberg, deputy director for Los Angles County’s Department of Mental Health, told Capital & Main, “For me, [the study] was heartening. Children were interacting more with their peers, they had better family relationships, they were doing better in schools. All of the markers that you’d want to obtain happened.”

“There’s also NIMBYism and stigma. I’ve been to hearings in different counties where constituents are yelling with passion about not allowing a crisis care unit in their neighborhood.”

“One of the best features of the MHSA,” she added, “is the money that goes to our Full Service Partnership programs, where there is a low-staff-to-client ratio and intensive outpatient services. People can be seen every day or in emergencies, and that includes people coming in and out of jail, [or who are] homeless, children, youth in juvenile justice and foster care.”

The not-so-good news: A February audit found that California counties had left $2.5 billion in MHSA funds on the table. And of those unused funds, $231 million should have been sent back to Sacramento in the 2015-2016 fiscal year. The audit partly blamed the California Department of Health Care Services, which it said had “not developed a process” to recover the unspent MHSA funds.

The bad news: A March report published by the California Health Care Foundation (CHCF) found some serious gaps in the treatment of mental illness in the state. It concluded that a significant number of adolescents and adults at the lower end of the economic spectrum still don’t receive the mental health treatment they need. and have poorer health outcomes.

“Bureaucracies by their nature are supposed to be stable. But in mental health care, some risks need to be taken.”

Caroline Teare, associate director of High-Value Care at CHCF, said that her organization’s report’s findings did not indicate a failure of the MHSA, but rather a massive, long-term deficit in care for mental illness. “It’s going to take a while to catch up,” Teare said.

She pointed to another recent report compiled by CHCF that showed a behavioral health workforce poorly matched to the California populations in need. “We don’t have enough psychiatrists, and not enough in the pipeline. And in big cities, psychiatrists are more likely to see patients on a cash basis. So you can have insurance and find it hard for anyone to take it.”

Maggie Merritt, executive director at the Steinberg Institute, said the MHSA has been “a game changer” for mental health but that leadership and standardization were needed at the state level.

“L.A. is different than Mono County and they have different needs, so flexibility is good, but not 100 percent flexibility, especially in the area prevention.”

Merritt, who worked with Darrell Steinberg on crafting Prop. 63, noted that “There’s also NIMBYism and stigma. I’ve been to hearings in different counties where constituents are yelling with passion about not allowing a crisis care unit in their neighborhood.”

Adrienne Shilton, the Steinberg Institute’s government affairs director, agreed, and pointed to several possible legislative fixes in Sacramento, including Senate Bill 1004, which would mandate that counties spend a portion of prevention or early intervention funds on early psychosis and mood-detection programs, college mental health outreach, or childhood trauma prevention and early intervention.

Merritt said SB 1004 would provide some statewide strategy and guidance for spending the previously unused dollars. “The bulk of that [unspent money] fell into that prevention and early intervention innovation area,” she said. “We know the need is there. But counties have struggled, and there isn’t that statewide communication channel saying, ‘Here is what the best practices are,’ ‘Here are the outcomes and here is what we can be doing.’”

Another bill in Sacramento, SB 1125, introduced by Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), would allow health clinics to bill Medi-Cal for physical and mental health treatments during one visit.

Shilton said SB 1125 was one way to address a bigger picture to make sure the “brain is treated with the same urgency as physical health.”

Innes-Gomberg said the disparity of care outlined in the CHCF report could partly be solved through more innovative outreach efforts. “The opportunity exists to present mental health services as a mental wellness, or some way for people to not fear these services, and not fear the government, because these are government services.”

To that end, Innes-Gomberg said L.A. County would be using the surplus dollars from MHSA to pay for outreach using technology and “culturally relevant solutions.” That could mean paying for a community concierge in public schools, using volunteers or paid professionals as “cultural brokers” to get the word out about services in Latino communities.

Toby Ewing, executive director of the California Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission, also supports SB 1004 and says it and other possible legislative fixes should help the government perform a tricky balancing act between care standardization and the incentive to innovate.

“Bureaucracies by their nature are supposed to be stable,” he said. “But in mental health care, some risks need to be taken.”

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Culture & Media

Concert for Martin Luther King Jr.

The Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles’ Wednesday concert reflects on M.L. King Jr.’s times, struggle and sacrifice, with the orchestra’s musical setting of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

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Bobbi Murray




Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles.

Today, April 4, marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death by an assassin’s attack in Memphis. The social justice leader had traveled there to support a strike by sanitation workers, who toiled long hours in sweltering heat for abysmal pay — a workforce that was virtually 100 percent black and whose work status would later be described as “the lowest of the low” by a former Memphis city council member.

“Fifty years ago, Dr. King was organizing with sanitation workers demanding a decent living wage, safe working conditions and recognition of their humanity and dignity,” William D. Smart, a former organizer of Los Angeles port truck drivers and the current CEO and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Southern California, told Capital & Main.

“Today, we are organizing with L.A. Port warehouse workers and truck drivers with the same demands.”

Smart is part of an April 4 celebration at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion hosted by the SCLC and the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, the largest African-American-majority orchestra in the nation. The Wednesday concert event reflects on King’s times, struggle and sacrifice, with the orchestra’s musical setting of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

It connects solidly with present-day events in the multi-choral work by Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson, The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.

The piece is performed in seven movements to mark the final words of seven unarmed African-American men killed by police or vigilantism.

“As we commemorate Dr. King’s sacrifice,” Smart said, “it’s not beyond us [to know] that while some progress has been made, [it’s] not nearly enough, so the struggle for economic and racial justice continues.”

Event tickets are free but may be scarce now that supporting organizations have been distributing them for the past several days. Doors open 5 p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles, with a silent tribute at 6:01 p.m. The program starts at 7 p.m. Contact ICYOLA for tickets at 213-788-4260 or

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Why Has Los Angeles’ DA Been Slow to Expunge Old Pot Convictions?

As San Francisco and San Diego counties moved forward with automatic resentencing for old cannabis-related crimes, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office balked — saying, in effect, that people with convictions were on their own.

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Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey with interim L.A. County Sheriff John Scott, in 2014. (Photo: AP/Nick Ut)

Up to a million Californians have been convicted of crimes that may no longer exist. Those convictions remain on their records, however, and removing them — especially in Los Angeles County — may take years. Proposition 64, the voter-approved 2016 ballot measure, legalized the recreational use of marijuana and reclassified most state-level felony cannabis offenses as misdemeanors. Some misdemeanors were reduced to mere infractions.

This change in the law means that many of those who have a cannabis conviction on their records are eligible for resentencing. Some are even eligible to have old convictions expunged. The chance to remove or reduce existing criminal convictions represents an opportunity to erase an obstacle to finding steady employment or stable housing.

Resentencing past pot offenders can be long and complicated, taking time and money that many people dealing with life after their convictions don’t have.

But now comes the hard part. Prop. 64 allows those convicted of a cannabis offense to petition a judge to have their old convictions reexamined. However, like most procedures in the criminal justice system, resentencing can be long and complicated, and takes time and resources that many people dealing with life after their convictions simply don’t have.

“Even under the new rules, there are still a lot of barriers for folks who have been affected by the criminal justice system,” said Eunisses Hernandez, a policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance in Los Angeles, a group that advocates for the rethinking drugs as a health and non-criminal issue. “Where do you get a copy of your criminal docket? Will you be charged for getting copies of that document? What other documents do you need? Attorneys can charge people $2,000 to do an expungement, but lots of folks don’t have those resources.”

Consequently, while there may be as many as a million cannabis-related convictions eligible for resentencing in California, state statistics show fewer than 5,000 people initiated the process statewide during the first year of the new cannabis rules.

District attorneys’ offices in San Francisco, Alameda and San Diego counties have indicated their willingness to proactively comb through old cannabis conviction records. This review of records means that people with previous cannabis-related convictions in those jurisdictions will see their convictions reduced or expunged automatically.

But as San Francisco and San Diego counties moved forward with automatic resentencing, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office balked. On February 2, District Attorney Jackie Lacey issued a statement saying, in effect, that people with convictions were on their own. Her statement also said that those most affected by these convictions should petition the court “rather than wait for my office to go through tens of thousands of case files.”

Lacey’s problem is one of scale. There are wildly varying estimates of marijuana convictions that should be expunged: San Francisco authorities have identified nearly 5,000 felonies alone, dating back to 1975, and Lacey’s office estimates that 40,000 felonies have been recorded in Los Angeles since 1993; L.A.’s public defender’s office claims there are about 200,000 felony and misdemeanor convictions in the county eligible for expunging. Going through those old case files and evaluating whether they qualify for resentencing or expungement takes time and resources that might not be immediately available.

Less than two weeks after Lacey issued her statement, however, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a motion announcing that it intends to take steps towards the meaningful criminal-justice reform provided under Prop. 64. That motion, pushed by supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Hilda Solis, instructs several county agencies, including the district attorney’s office, to collaborate and draft a plan for addressing the thousands of cannabis-related convictions in the county, as well as ensuring greater equity in the ever-evolving landscape of legal cannabis.

“The war on drugs led to decades-long racial disparities in cannabis-related arrests and convictions,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said when the motion passed. “We have a responsibility now to seek widespread reclassification and resentencing for those with minor cannabis convictions on their records, including the destruction of court records for youth.”

At the February board meeting, Supervisor Solis said she understands that “the district attorney’s office has concerns and some hesitation. The DA prosecuted more marijuana-related cases than any other jurisdiction in the state of California, and going through those case files would take a lot of time … I would urge our own DA to expand its role in helping people get their records expunged, and help them get their second chance in life. I believe that this board will support those efforts.”

Following the supervisors’ action, Lacey’s office revised its public posture, telling Capital & Main in an email:

“In response to the board’s motion, the District Attorney’s Office is committed to working with the Public Defender’s Office and other county departments to create an equitable solution that will make it easier for people seeking to reduce or dismiss prior convictions involving marijuana to get the legal relief to which they are entitled under Proposition 64.”

The goal, looking forward, is for the district attorney’s office, working with several other county agencies, to have a plan ready for the supervisors to consider by June. But exactly how the county is going to do that remains an open question.

“It would be best if the DA would take responsibility and reduce or reclassify the 40,000 marijuana felonies that currently exist in the system,” said the Drug Policy Alliance’s Hernandez.

For Jonatan Cvetko, founder of the cannabis advocacy organization Angeles Emeralds, “the best thing would be if people just get a nice letter in the mail saying, ‘Your record has been expunged. Have a nice day.’ Considering that San Francisco and San Diego are taking that route, there’s no reason in the world why Los Angeles County cannot be following suit.”

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Two Years of Official Silence Since a Controversial Inglewood Police Shooting

Los Angeles’ district attorney has had the violent deaths of Kisha Michael and Marquintan Sandlin under review for 477 days and counting.

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Remembering Kisha Michael. (Photo: Jason McGahan)

Kisha Michael was shot 13 times and Marquintan Sandlin eight times
as they sat in their car.

Two years ago Inglewood, California police officers shot and killed 31-year-old Kisha Michael and her friend Marquintan Sandlin, 32, after initially finding them unconscious and sitting in a stopped car on Manchester Boulevard.

Trisha Michael, Kisha’s identical twin, marked the February 21 anniversary with a sidewalk memorial at Manchester and Inglewood Avenue, where the deaths occurred. She and a dozen supporters adorned the pavement with prayer candles, a bouquet of red roses and protest signs with photos of Kisha Michael and Sandlin.

The circumstances that led police to fire on Michael and Sandlin remain shrouded in secrecy.

“It’s two years, and no justice has been served,” Trisha Michael said. “There’s no talk about it. It’s all on the hush-hush. A lot of stuff isn’t being said.”

As Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s review of the shooting enters its 16th month, Michael says the once high-profile case has faded somewhat from public memory.

Attorney Milton Grimes: “If you shoot someone who’s not threatening you, that’s a homicide.”

Police discovered Michael and Sandlin unconscious in a stopped car early on the morning of Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016 shortly after 3 a.m. The couple, both single parents, had been on a night out together. Trisha Michael says they were dating at the time and that it’s possible that after a night of partying both passed out.

Michael, in the passenger seat, had a gun in her lap, authorities say.

Police cleared the area of bystanders and blocked the sedan in front and back with police vehicles. Mayor James T. Butts told NBC4-TV that officers then “spent about 45 minutes attempting to rouse the occupants and to de-escalate the situation.” In 2017 the Los Angeles Times reported that Butts “would not corroborate that account to a Times reporter.”

Authorities have not said whether Michael or Sandlin reached for or touched the gun, or if the car they were in ever drove toward an officer. A statement from a coroner’s report notes only that “an unknown exchange occurred.”

Milton Grimes, an attorney representing Michael’s family in a lawsuit against the city, has received hundreds of pages of reports from the city and says there is no evidence to suggest Michael or Sandlin ever posed a threat to officers. “And if you shoot someone who’s not threatening you, that’s a homicide,” Grimes said.

Michael was shot 13 times and pronounced dead at the scene, while Sandlin, the driver, was shot eight times and pronounced dead a short time later at a nearby hospital. An autopsy recovered projectiles from at least two and as many as three different types of firearms–a shotgun, handgun and possibly a rifle–from Michael’s body. Grimes says witnesses reported that police fired as many as 100 shots at the pair in the car.

Toxicology tests later showed the blood-alcohol levels of both were above the legal limit, and that Michael had traces of methamphetamine in her system, which the coroner’s report said can be used to treat attention deficit disorder and obesity. Sandlin’s autopsy showed no drugs other than alcohol in his system.

In May 2017, Inglewood announced it had fired the five officers involved in the shooting, a move that brought renewed attention to the case and led legal experts to interpret it as an admission of guilt.

“That’s the thing about this case that gets my attention,” said Ambrosio Rodriguez, who worked on officer-involved shootings during a 13-year career as a deputy district attorney in Riverside County and is now a defense attorney in private practice. “Although the DA’s office hasn’t made a final decision as to criminal liability, the city on its own decided to let go of these officers through their own investigation that they haven’t released to the public. This is the old way of doing things, and Inglewood hasn’t caught up to the times.”

Through a spokesperson, Mayor Butts, a former Santa Monica police chief, declined to comment for this story. Kema Decatur, the deputy city manager, referred questions to City Attorney Kenneth Campos, who did not return phone calls.

Melanie McDade-Dickens, executive assistant to Mayor Butts, referred any questions about the city’s 15-month internal investigation of the shooting to the district attorney’s office. “This case is no longer with the city of Inglewood,” McDade-Dickens said.

The district attorney’s office has had the case under review since Nov. 8, 2016. Greg Risling, the district attorney’s office spokesman, said in an email, “Our office has been engaged in supplemental investigation since that time.”

A protocol the DA’s office uses in investigations of officer-involved shootings calls for the investigating agency to hand over all relevant reports within 90 days, “absent unusual circumstances.” It took the Inglewood Police Department 261 days to submit this case for review.

Under the same protocol, the DA’s office ordinarily issues a report of its findings within 60 days, with an exception for “where additional investigation is required.” The DA has had the police shooting of Michael and Sandlin under review for 477 days and counting.

Investigations longer than two years are not unheard of, said Peter Bibring, director of police practices at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Though the length of the DA’s investigations of officer-involved shootings may vary, the outcomes have been uniform under Lacey and her predecessor, Steve Cooley. Public records show Lacey reviewed 441 officer-involved shootings during her first five years in office — between December 3, 2012, and November 28, 2017. She filed criminal charges in just one, against an off-duty Los Angeles Police Department officer who shot and killed a man in a 2015 bar fight.

Cooley reviewed 343 officer-involved shootings during the final four years of his tenure, public radio station KPCC-FM reported in 2015. None of the officers was charged with a crime. If the Inglewood officers are charged, they would be the first charged for a shooting that occurred while on duty since 2000.

Trisha Michael, who pressed Inglewood officials for a year to release information about her sister’s death, has taken part in weekly protests since last fall outside Lacey’s office.

At the sidewalk memorial for her sister, Michael admits the long wait for a decision is difficult, and she isn’t overly confident Lacey’s review will result in charges.

“But I’m going to keep pushing for Kisha,” she said. “I’ll never stop until these officers find their day in court.”

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