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Wells Fargo Plays Scrooge to Atwater Village

Wells Fargo, which spent $281 million on corporate philanthropy in 2016, is choosing to curtail a holiday tree-lighting event — at the very moment it is seeking to generate goodwill in the communities it serves.

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Worker prepares Atwater Village’s holiday tree. (All photos: Jessica Goodheart)

Wells Fargo & Company has decided to evict a popular tree-lighting festival from the parking lot of one of its branches, a move coming at a time when the bank is working to rebuild its image in the aftermath of a scandal involving the opening of accounts for millions of customers without their permission.

The company’s decision riled neighbors so much that they collected almost a thousand signatures on petitions, as well as letters from children, before assembling outside the bank with handmade signs and kids in strollers.

Bank officials told the all-volunteer festival group it needed to buy a $5 million liability insurance policy, one organizer said.

Video footage of the November 9 demonstration at the Atwater Village branch shows bank security forcefully shutting the door on protesters. “It just makes no sense,” said community resident Bahar Tolou. A bank of Wells Fargo’s size and influence, she explained, “could figure out some way” to work with the local community and “have this sweet little event that happens for two hours once a year.” The Tree Lighting Festival, which attracted about 1,300 people last year, typically features Santa Claus, fire trucks, children’s activities and local dancers and musicians.

Wells Fargo released a statement Monday underscoring its work to help the group find another site and its commitment to Atwater Village, where the bank has “been a long-standing community partner” and has “actively supported the tree lighting event.”

But the bank stood by its decision to discontinue hosting a gathering that it says was becoming a safety hazard. It “violates our parking lot’s legal capacity limit, closes our business to our customers, and places our customers’ and the community’s safety at risk,” its statement said.

Shelli-Anne Couch, a festival organizer, said the group had offered to hold the event on a weekend so it would not interfere with bank business.

“Had we known back in August, if they’d been forthright and just honest about not using this space, we would have had ample time to shift the event,” Couch said. “But they kept dragging us along. We were left scrambling.”

As Couch spoke, a worker in a cherry picker strung lights around the festival’s focal point, a dusty and towering evergreen that sprouts from a median strip on Glendale Boulevard. The bank parking lot is ideally situated to allow residents a space to gaze at the lit tree from across the street, she said.

Residents’ frustrations also stem from the fact that bank officials offered shifting explanations for why its parking lot could not accommodate the tree-lighting ceremony after organizers met with the company in August, Couch said.

When event organizers proposed moving the tree lighting to the weekend so it would not interfere with customer traffic through the ATM lane, bank officials said the all-volunteer group needed to buy a $5 million liability insurance policy, organizer Courtney Morris said.

“We told them that we would try to secure a sponsor to pay for it, but could not in fact buy the insurance before we even knew if the branch would host,” Morris said. “They seemed to want us to put the cart before the horse.”

Luanna Lindsey, the banking district manager, who has reportedly led ongoing talks with community members, declined to comment for this story. Councilman Mitch O’Farrell’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

As of Monday, the plan was to hold the tree lighting festival on December 10, from 5 to 7 p.m., on the lot of All’Aqua, an Italian restaurant located next door to the Wells Fargo branch. Its parking lot is a fraction of the size of the original spot, and so organizers had hoped to secure permission to close Glendale Boulevard, a potentially costly move that will be hard to accomplish on short notice.

Wells Fargo, which spent $281 million on corporate philanthropy in 2016, is choosing to curtail this event when it is seeking to generate goodwill in the communities it serves. Wells Fargo revealed in August that it may have created as many as 3.5 million deposit and credit card accounts without customers’ permission over the last eight years. In July, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco approved a $142 million settlement in a class action lawsuit brought over the unauthorized accounts.

Some Wells Fargo critics have speculated that the bank is punishing City Councilman O’Farrell, who represents Atwater Village. O’Farrell filed a motion in March requesting that the city explore options to divest its $40 million holdings from the bank. Wells Fargo’s contract for providing banking services to the City of Los Angeles is coming up for renewal in June 2018. The motion cites the city’s 2015 lawsuit over the sham accounts, which was settled for $50 million in civil penalties, and the bank’s financial support of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline running through a sacred Native American burial ground and the tribe’s water source.

“Any allegation that our decision is related to any specific activity by any member of the L.A. City Council is false,” the bank said in Monday’s statement.

Wells Fargo’s liability concerns related to community events at its Atwater Village branch parking lot predate O’Farrell’s motion.

Last spring, the L.A. Griffith Park Lions Club, which sponsors an annual pancake breakfast, was asked to increase its liability insurance from $1 million $5 million, at an increased cost to the club of $2,700, according Louis Buono, the club’s vice president.

“I just think the property management people don’t want the liability, not that anybody has ever gotten hurt,” Buono said.

James Haydu, executive director of SEE-LA, said he began having conversations with the bank more than a year ago about the need to find another space for an event that has grown over the past dozen years. The Farmers Market, he said, has known “we would outgrow that space.”

Wells Fargo Co. is continuing to host a weekly farmers’ market in its Toluca Lake branch’s parking lot. In June, the bank reportedly allowed tethered hot air balloon rides in its parking lot in Allentown, Pennsylvania at a “Blues, Brews & Barbecue” festival.

The events Wells Fargo hosted at its Atwater Village branch fostered a small-town feeling that can help neighborhoods cohere in a vast metropolis that can often feel isolating, supporters said. “It is a splendid event,” resident Tricia Russo wrote on Facebook.

This year, Couch jumped up from a parking lot wall where she had been sitting and pointed to the tree. “Look,” she said, “they are doing color this year.”

It was just after 4 p.m. and the tree’s newly-installed lights were beginning to glow. “I want to get a shot of that,” she said before snapping a picture of the tree.

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Living Homeless in California

Living Homeless in California: Public Bathrooms and Other Mirages

A 2017 audit found that in Los Angeles, from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., there were only nine public toilets available for Skid Row’s estimated 1,777 unsheltered homeless people.

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Illustration: Define Urban


“There’s feces in the streets every day. When you’re not paying attention you step in it, or roll through it with your wheelchair.”


At nighttime on the eastern end of Los Angeles’ Skid Row, a trek to the nearest public toilet is nearly unthinkable.

East of Crocker Street, the human scale of the homeless missions and single-room occupancy hotels recedes and the landscape becomes bleaker and more industrial.

Aaron Milsaps, known as Ace, says he knows better than to make the trip at night. In the outlying area near Fifth St. and Central Ave., where Milsaps has sheltered for nearly three years beneath a plastic tarpaulin, there are no guarantees of personal safety.

Toilets and showers are a 10-minute walk away, down streets lined with iron-fenced lots and shuttered wholesale businesses. The sidewalks are overcrowded in every direction with tents and tarps that, taken together, comprise the largest concentration of homeless people in the country.

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The trouble Milsaps hears on the street at night keeps him inside his rudimentary dwelling until the rumbling of the first diesel trucks at dawn.

Milsaps, who worked as a systems administrator for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena two decades ago, keeps a bucket lined with a plastic trash bag in his tent. Like hundreds of others who sleep on the streets of Skid Row where toilets are scarce, he ties off the bag when he is finished and, when no one is looking, deposits it in a city trash can.

A 2017 audit of public toilets on Skid Row found that from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., there were only nine available for Skid Row’s estimated 1,777 unsheltered homeless people. County health officials recommended in 2013 that “Toilet facilities should be installed on all streets within the Skid Row Target Area with a maximum distance of 300 feet between units.”

Los Angeles city officials are unveiling new programs intended to mitigate a public health crisis, but homeless advocates and Skid Row residents say the city needs to do more. (See “Stopping a Hygiene Crisis on Skid Row.”)

Homeless Activist to L.A. Mayor:
“The toilets that you bringing, it’s 10 years late and it’s 300 too short!”

Milsaps, 56, is in decent health, but he sympathized with neighbors who rely on wheelchairs to get around or have physical ailments that can make them incontinent. For them, the 10-minute walk to the nearest bathroom is “time enough to crap in your pants.”

“There’s feces in the streets every day,” he added. “It reaches everywhere. When you’re not paying attention you step in it, or roll through it with your wheelchair, and you’re back in your tent wondering where the smell’s coming from.”

Six blocks westward, on a commercial block at Sixth and Los Angeles streets, an Armenian woman arrives at 7:15 a.m. to raise a metal security door and open her small convenience store for business. She has owned the V.M.C. Cigarette & Snack Shop for 30 years.

Early mornings are the worst, she said. “They use this side of the street as a restroom,” she said, referring to homeless people in the area.

The presence of urine and feces on public streets has jumped significantly, increasing the risk of people contracting infectious diseases, including meningitis and respiratory infections.

The businesswoman, who declined to give her name, was not initially in favor of the city’s installing more public toilets nearby, but the severity of the problem has brought her around on the issue. “It’s totally crazy. And it’s getting more and more crazy,” she said.

Astrid Escalante is the owner of Maple Restaurant, located across the block from V.M.C. Escalante has run Maple at this location for the last eight years and says public restrooms in the past have been havens for crack and heroin use. “Many are going in there to shoot up or smoke drugs,” she said.

She noted that with the crisis of overcrowded homeless people on Skid Row, adding more toilets is just common sense: “It’s a good idea. It’s depressing to see so many going to the bathroom in the street.”

Safety fears appear to have a heavy influence on many homeless people’s preference for public streets over bathrooms. County auditors reported in 2013 that 40 percent of the urine and feces on public streets in Skid Row were found within 600 feet of a public restroom.

“You’ve got to have a spotter watching your back [if you use a public restroom],” said Michael Buggs, a 63-year-old man who was sitting in front of a tent where he lives at Sixth and San Pedro streets. “Take a friend with you to stand outside.”

The Union Rescue Mission’s CEO, Rev. Andy Bales, has contracted three types of bacteria — E. coli, strep and staph — while doing homeless outreach on Skid Row. He lost a leg in 2016.

At a Dec. 4 press conference inaugurating a new hygiene center on Crocker Street, a member of the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), an anti-poverty activist group based in Skid Row, tore up a commendation from the mayor. A video of the moment shows the man, named General Dogon, charging, “The toilets that you bringing, it’s 10 years late and it’s 300 too short!”

“I was pissed off and tore up the certificate and told the mayor I’m not impressed,” Dogon told Capital & Main. “People up there glamorized and clapping — I think it’s a disgrace. People don’t have the resources to keep themselves clean. No place to wash their hands. This is how disease is spread.”

On one recent afternoon, a homeless woman named Venus was weaving on rollerblades through a chaotic scene on a sidewalk near Gladys Park. The stench of urine, present in varying degrees on every block of Skid Row, was as sour as vinegar.

She stopped at a large hole in the asphalt where a trickle of cloudy green liquid formed a malodorous pool.

“It’s a cesspool,” Venus, 48, said matter-of-factly, looking out from glasses frames that held no lenses. A trailer that offers free access to showers and bathrooms had opened a hydrant nearby, and the water drip diluted the green-dimmed flow somewhat.

Long before last year’s Hepatitis A scare in Los Angeles, county health officials had warned that the continued presence of urine and feces in public streets was an incubator for infectious disease.

Union Rescue Mission will install 16 toilets for women and the Midnight Mission has already made toilets available to the public 24 hours a day — and showers until 9:30 p.m.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health studied environmental conditions in Skid Row in 2012, finding “small piles of feces and/or urine on the sidewalks and grass areas” on eight of the 10 blocks surveyed. A follow-up survey in 2013 found that the presence of urine and feces on public streets had jumped by 82 percent, increasing the risk of people contracting infectious diseases, including meningitis, respiratory infections, enteric pathogens like Hepatitis A and Salmonella, and Staphylococcus aureus, or Staph skin infections.

Afterward, the city launched Operation Healthy Streets, a power-wash and disinfecting of Skid Row’s major sidewalks, alleys, parks and other public access areas. Sanitation workers used backhoes to scoop trash from gutters, and other equipment to vacuum storm drains.

Nonetheless, public health concerns continue.

“Skid Row has never been in worse condition,” says the Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of Union Rescue Mission for more than 20 years.

Bales has contracted three types of bacteria — E. coli, strep and staph — while doing homeless outreach on Skid Row in 2014, and lost a leg in 2016.

County Coroner data show that 805 people died while homeless in 2017, a 12 percent increase over the prior year. Bales attributed the rise in deaths in part to infections that arise from urine and feces on the street. “There’s been lots of talk but not nearly enough action around toilets,” he said.

Union Rescue Mission will install 16 toilets for women in a prefabricated or sprung structure in the mission’s back parking lot, Bales said. He added that the stalls will be accessible 24 hours a day with round-the-clock security, and that he expects them to be open to the public by July.

The Midnight Mission has already made toilets available to the public 24 hours a day (and showers until 9:30 p.m.) and recently assigned private security to ensure safety and prevent drug use.

Bales said the days when portable toilets and showers might have triggered insurmountable opposition from certain quarters are past. The potential for a future public health crisis has helped engineer a consensus that action is needed.

“I think we’re all beyond that. I think we’ve reached a compromise. But a shortage of restrooms on Skid Row still remains a potentially deadly issue.”

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Living Homeless in California

Living Homeless in California: Stopping a Hygiene Crisis on Skid Row

Skid Row porta-potties have a reputation as magnets for drug-dealing and prostitution. Homeless residents say they are afraid of being robbed in them, or worse.

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Photo by David Shankbone.


“Denying access to services
doesn’t make poop go away.”


Business and property owners have traditionally opposed calls to install more public toilets on Skid Row, says Greg Spiegel, former homelessness policy director for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and who is now the Inner City Law Center’s director of strategic initiatives.

“[The opposition] is often people who have interests that conflict with people living on the street,” Spiegel said. “But denying access to services doesn’t make poop go away.”

Spiegel helped lead the 2017 audit of public toilets on Skid Row and write “No Place to Go,” an influential report that explored a host of factors contributing to the dire state of sanitation in the area — from the appearance, maintenance, safety and privacy of public restrooms, to wait times, wheelchair accessibility, availability of menstrual products and public signage advertising the locations and hours of toilets. The automated toilets and porta-potties on Skid Row have long had a reputation as magnets for such crimes as drug-dealing and prostitution. They are frequently vandalized, defaced and neglected. The doors on many toilet stalls don’t lock. Homeless residents say they are afraid of being robbed in them, or worse.

Report:  Skid Row toilet accessibility only met between 10 and 23 percent of the need.

Spiegel says the lack of public health infrastructure like toilets for L.A.’s homeless is a problem that goes back some 40 years — compounded by the city’s homelessness surge in recent years.

His report applied a sanitation standard devised by the United Nations to evaluate the conditions in long-term refugee camps. It found that toilet accessibility in Skid Row met between 10 percent and 23 percent of the need — the area was 80 toilets short of the UN standard by day and by as many as 164 toilets short by night.

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“Los Angeles never really had a plan or any intentions of providing full-scale access to restrooms for houseless people in Skid Row,” said Pete White, founder and executive director of Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), an anti-poverty activist group based in Skid Row.

The city of Los Angeles has taken recent steps to ameliorate the lack of bathroom access, maintaining five public toilets in Skid Row, and eight porta-potties in Gladys and San Julian parks. All of these toilets are shuttered around dusk every day.

In December, the mayor’s Office of Economic Development inaugurated a new hygiene center on a lot on Crocker Street. The Skid Row Community ReFresh Spot brought eight public toilets and six showers to the area, the first public restrooms the city had added to Skid Row in a decade.

The ReFresh Spot closed temporarily after four months for what Anna Bahr, a spokesperson for Mayor Garcetti, said was a need to expand offerings at the site and add a free laundromat with eight washers and eight dryers. Though the hygiene center was initially scheduled to reopen in the spring, the mayor’s office says the reopening has been postponed until summer.

The Pit Stop program will install portable toilets near homeless encampments in Venice, Exposition Park, Historic Filipinotown, the Downtown Fashion District and Wilmington.

Bahr said that a San Francisco-based nonprofit called Lava Mae is stepping into the breach to provide showers and bathrooms to Skid Row, South L.A., Venice and Manchester Square. (A spokesperson for the group said Lava Mae has been providing mobile hygiene services in Los Angeles since November 2016.) The Los Angeles Times reported the group rejected public funding, but that the city is providing municipal water hookups.

Zita Davis, executive officer for the mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity, said that when the ReFresh Spot reopens it will operate four days a week from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., with the goal of extending the schedule to seven days a week. Bathroom attendants employed to clean the restrooms after each use include former homeless people of Skid Row.

The city has also launched a six-month pilot with a porta-potty program from San Francisco called the Pit Stop. The program will install portable toilets at locations near homeless encampments in Venice, Exposition Park, Historic Filipinotown, the Downtown Fashion District and Wilmington. The portable toilets are delivered and removed daily for cleaning and maintenance, and open to the public 12 hours daily.

Full-time attendants wearing fluorescent green vests wipe them down, keep a watchful eye out for potential safety issues, and give each user a seven-minute courtesy knock. They use a clipboard to keep track of the number of users, which averages nearly 150 a day.

One of the attendants seated beside a cart loaded with cleaning supplies told me: “People love us out here. They compliment us because it’s clean and say if we weren’t out here they wouldn’t be able to use the bathroom.”

In April, the L.A. City Council approved $600,000 to build permanent restrooms at San Julian and Gladys parks.

Rick Coca, a spokesperson for Councilman Jose Huizar, whose district includes Skid Row, said the number of bathroom stalls will be determined by the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks. “Bathroom access is about basic human dignity,” Coca said.

County health officials, Skid Row residents and long-time homelessness activists, including those who have worked with the city and mayor’s office to open the ReFresh Spot, say the city’s latest efforts only scratch the problem’s surface.

“We understand that this is not even a drop in the bucket,” said Eddie H., a veteran homeless activist with United Coalition East Prevention Project, a community-based alcohol and drug prevention program that advocated for the ReFresh Spot. “We also understand that to get to the point where we want to go we had to start somewhere.”

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Living Homeless in California

Living Homeless in California: For the Hungry, “Food Happens.” Until It Doesn’t.

The story of how California’s homeless find their daily bread is one of luck, charity and resourcefulness—but also of how eradicating long-established communities can lead to worse food insecurity.

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Illustration: Define Urban

For years Orange County nonprofits and churches served food at two homeless encampments. But when the sites were cleared of the homeless, their benefactors didn’t know where to find them.


Back when Brian Champanich had steady work as an audio-visual production specialist at hotels and convention centers around Southern California, his favorite meal to cook at home was steak.

“Top sirloin, medium-rare,” he recalled one recent afternoon, sitting under the shade of a picnic shelter at Anaheim’s Twila Reid Park. “It’s a freakin’ good piece of meat. Sometimes, I’d throw in some French fries or a baked potato in the oven, but I was never really into veggies. I’d have friends try it, and they’d tell me, ‘Damn, you can really cook!’”

But the 42-year-old Thai-American hasn’t enjoyed a top sirloin ever since he became homeless three years ago.

Brian Champanich photo by Gustavo Arellano.

Champanich is wiry and wry, with a short haircut and a beard that’s graying at the chin. He’s one of whom housing advocates in Orange County call the Lost Boys — men who lived along the Santa Ana riverbed for the past couple of years but now don’t have a place to stay after the County of Orange cleared out its encampments in February. United States District Court Judge David O. Carter insisted that government officials offer temporary, 30-day motel vouchers to an estimated 600 long-term riverbed dwellers until the county figured out a permanent solution. But that push happened to coincide with a two-week stint at the Orange County Jail for Champanich, who says that made him ineligible for the program.

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Many Lost Boys have relocated to Twila Reid because it’s within walking distance of long-rundown motels on Beach Boulevard in Anaheim and Stanton that are now alive with former riverbed residents. The 27-acre park is in a neighborhood of newer townhomes and hosts a playground, tennis courts, horseshoe pits and a Frisbee golf course. As Champanich speaks, retirees power-walk through its trails nearby; a group of women laugh as they roll up their yoga mats, while elsewhere some young people lay on the grass and vape. But homeless people linger at the edges and RVs are parked in a lot toward the back, away from the traffic of Orange Avenue and the gaze of patrol cars.

Andre Harris arrives on a purple bicycle. The former nursing student grabs a bag of Brandless Sour Cream & Onion Potato Crisps from Champanich, ignoring a berry-flavored Propel water in front of his friend. Harris begins to snack on the chips; they’re not half bad.

“You know freeganism?” Champanich says. “I’ve taken on some of those traits.”

The Lost Boys are men who lived along the Santa Ana riverbed for the past couple of years but now have no place to stay after they were scattered from their encampments in February.

For the next hour, he and Harris explain how the homeless eat: how they cook, where they find food, the virtue of sharing with others. What emerges is a story of luck, charity and resourcefulness—but also of how eradicating long-established communities can lead to worse food insecurity for the homeless.

“[Homeless] people now, they’re getting desperate for food,” Harris says.

“Out here now,” says Champanich, “it’s cutthroat.”

Champanich worked in audio-visual (“I don’t like the term ‘A/V guy’”) for 20 years. The working-class salary afforded him an apartment in Anaheim but little else. He adopted a frugal lifestyle out of personal philosophy and necessity.“I never liked to waste food,” he said. “Mostly cooked at home. ‘Going out’ was something if you were dating someone — or going to the movies.”

Top Ramen is “not really nutritious—empty calories and a bunch of sodium. But you can buy four for a dollar.”

Three years ago, Champanich lost his apartment and took to sleeping in parks or abandoned homes in West Anaheim with other people. In those initial months of homelessness, he depended on friends who invited him to their house for dinner, or took him a meal wherever he was staying. But Champanich stopped doing that, because “you don’t want to impose on people.”

He got EBT for a while, which let him buy food with relative ease, before losing his eligibility. That further limited his food choices, mostly to instant oatmeal and Top Ramen.

“It’s not really nutritious—empty calories and a bunch of sodium,” Champanich admitted about the latter. “But you can buy four for a dollar, and you take what you got and ya put it in it. Even meat.”

He pulls a weathered stovetop grate from his backpack. “You put that on a butane stove. Maybe you found a pot somewhere. Find some water, and boil it. There’s your meal.”Even during the hardest times, said Champanich, he never lacked for food. “I don’t beg for food. I don’t feel the need to,” he said. “Food happens. I don’t even think about it.”

“Pizza places throw away a lot of pizza. If it’s dry and clean and not soaking
under a bag of toilet paper, I’ll eat it.”

“You’re one of the lucky ones!” Harris says with a laugh. Champanich doesn’t carry much food on a day-to-day basis because it “just weighs you down. You need to have just the absolute necessities.” But camping with others allowed for some food security. People could stock up and take turns guarding their makeshift pantry. He sometimes dumpster-dived at restaurants, grocery stores and homes, and found each setting had its own quirks.

“Pizza places throw away a lot of pizza,” Champanich volunteered. “If it’s dry and clean and not soaking under a bag of toilet paper, I’ll eat it.”

The pickings were always slim at supermarkets, because they only threw out rotten food. Trash bins near homes and apartment complexes, on the other hand, rewarded Champanich with virtual feasts. Perfectly good meat and vegetables, loaves upon loaves of bread and buns. One time, he found “a bunch” of frozen tilapia and turkey burgers that he gave out to others.

“People throw away a lot,” he says. “It perplexes you.”

The menu options became better when Champanich moved to the Santa Ana riverbed about a year ago. Almost daily, nonprofits, church groups and random individuals brought food to the largest encampments—one was near the Orange Crush freeway interchange, another next to Angel Stadium. During the baseball season, Halos fans who tailgated in the parking lot before games frequently left their extra barbecue and tacos to the homeless, handing it to them over a fence that separated the two groups.

“You eat food as it’s available.
When you get it, you eat it.”

Sometimes, Champanich and Harris ate fully catered meals; other times, just hot dogs and hamburgers. One group brought boxes of Little Caesar’s pizzas every Sunday for months until a “snatchy grabby” homeless person spooked them. Another time, a man unloaded cases of what Champanich described as “weird, canned drinking water. It tasted like carbonated tap water.”

“It was fine,” he added. “None of [what people gave him] was deplorable. It wasn’t unbearable to eat.”

People would even leave gift certificates to restaurants, but Champanich dismissed such presents as “not economical. Like, you’d have to find a ride to a restaurant. And then people would just look at you weird while you’re just trying to get food.”

Riverbed residents supplemented the donated food with their own canned and dried goods. Some people kept coolers and ice and stuffed them with perishables that usually went bad fast. Rice and beans, and pastas were popular meals, because they kept well.

People tried to pool together what they had so that everyone could cook and eat together. No one was ever left hungry. “You didn’t have the people sitting and watching” others eat, Harris said. “Everyone ate. It didn’t matter whether you put in or not.”

County officials promised to provide meal vouchers to the displaced, but one homeless advocate claims few have received them.

The biggest food problem people faced at the riverbed? Ants. “Southern California is a giant anthill,” Champanich joked. “Brown, fire, army.”

“They would quickly go after everything,” Harris said.

Eating has become harder for the homeless since the county cleared out the riverbed, along with another big encampment, the Plaza of the Flags at the Santa Ana Civic Center. The nonprofits and churches that served food at the two spots for years don’t know where to find their former clients. County officials promised to provide meal vouchers to the displaced, but homeless advocate Mohammed Aly claims few have received them.

Champanich remains nonchalant about his abilities to source his next supper.

“You eat food as it’s available, when it’s available,” he says. “When you get it, you eat it.”

Recently, a group of Muslim women held a lunchtime rally at Twila Reid and approached Champanich and a group of other homeless afterwards with their leftovers. “Chicken, rice, quinoa, flatbread with cheese, vegetables and sauces,” he says. “It was a different taste to my palate. I can’t even describe the flavors, but it was good.”

He visits nearby motels during the day, where some nonprofits leave food.

“One day a guy showed up with frozen breakfast sandwiches and waters at the Covered Wagon,” an Anaheim motel to where many riverbed homeless relocated. “And then he just left.”

Harris isn’t as optimistic. He’s already hearing stories about homeless assaulting each other for food.

“Sharks smell blood in the water,” Champanich observes.

“It’s not good. It’s not good for anyone,” Harris adds. “As the Bible said, ‘Break bread.’”

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Living Homeless in California

Living Homeless in California: On the Street, There’s More to Eating Than Food

Food safety, security and storage are three problems that influence the meal choices of people living without the other conveniences of shelter.

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Judith Lewis Mernit




Photo: Ed Yourdon

One problem with itinerant people’s eating habits isn’t the lack of nutrition education. It is a lack of access to healthy foods.

If you’ve ever lived on the street or in your car, or have suffered any other kind of itinerant existence, you will know there’s more to feeding yourself than not starving. There is, for instance, the question of whether the food you manage to scare up is fresh, clean and, in some cases, sufficiently cooked to not infect you with any number of foodborne illnesses, from salmonella to hepatitis A. Then you have to worry about whether, even if the food is safe, your hands are not. Hand-washing has been found to reduce gastrointestinal illness by as much as 31 percent.

Complicating matters even more, you might have a diet-related illness: type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure or the inability to digest certain foods. You might have lost many of your teeth — people who live on the street have scant access to dental care — which rules out that fresh, crunchy carrot. And you might have to limit your food choices to what’s on the shelves in a convenience store. When you’re carting everything you own with you everywhere you go, a trip inside a grocery store means finding a place to stash your gear and pray that no one swipes it.

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Food safety, security, storage — these are the problems that necessarily influence the meal choices of people living without the other conveniences of shelter. “People who live without a place to cook or prepare their food, or a place to wash their hands, have considerations that are different than those for people who are housed,” says Jessica Bartholow, policy advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “Buying in bulk is not an option for them. Buying food that’s fresher and can spoil easily is not an option for them.”

Nor is spending a lot of time obsessing about bacteria. “At the top of people’s minds when they’re living homeless is not, ‘How do I keep my food safe?’ They’re thinking about how to prevent arrest.”

Seven years ago, in an effort to steer homeless people and their advocates toward better food choices, the Sacramento Hunger Coalition issued a nutrition education toolkit for people living without permanent shelter. “There was a wave of interest to make things more nutritious for people,” says Sabrina Hamm, who, as an Emerson National Hunger Fellow, wrote and compiled the toolkit. But she soon realized, as did others on the project, that the problem with itinerant people’s eating habits wasn’t a lack of nutrition education. It was a lack of access to healthy foods.

California ranks 45th among states participating in the federal government’s SNAP nutrition program, even though a quarter of the nation’s homeless live in the state.

“I’ve been doing this work for 35 years, and I always get the same question,” says Bob Erlenbusch of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. “Why, if people are food insecure, are they overweight?” The reason, he says, is that the cheapest and most filling foods pack in the maximum salt, sugar and fat. “You might know what’s good for you. But when you go into 7-Eleven, what you can buy is a bag of potato chips and a coke.”

Erlenbusch and Bartholow are at the forefront of a movement to make healthy food accessible to homeless people. Most of their wins have involved expanding options for recipients of SNAP — the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, rebranded in California as CalFresh. Recipients have their benefits loaded onto an Electronic Benefits Card, which they can use to buy food at grocery stores. They can also, in some counties, use their cards at farmers markets.

But for someone without a permanent address, CalFresh can seem complicated. “SNAP doesn’t always fit into homeless people’s lives,” Bartholow says. California ranks 45th among states in SNAP participation, even though a quarter of the nation’s homeless live in California. “People don’t know about it,” Erlenbusch says. They might not even know that someone without a mailbox qualifies.

Worse, conservatives in Congress continue to wage war on SNAP. Since the passage of President Bill Clinton’s 1996 “welfare reform law,” able-bodied, unemployed adults without dependents get only three months of food assistance in any three-year period. Many states were allowed to suspend the time limit during the recession, but no longer. California’s waiver expires in September 2018. In the latest iteration of a farm bill proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives, SNAP benefits for unemployed adults without dependents would have covered only one month before work requirements kicked in. Erlenbusch called it “hideous,” adding that it would have increased “homelessness and food insecurity among millions of people.”

If you’re homeless the worst thing isn’t that you ate a hamburger today. It’s that you went hungry.

The bill fell 15 votes short when the House took it up on May 18, but only because some Republicans who defected to vote with Democrats wanted to tie it to a more punishing deal on immigration. “It’s not a fatal blow,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), head of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus, told reporters. “It’s just a reorganizing.”

Even with full CalFresh benefits, however, the unsheltered can find the program’s limitations stifling. Prepared hot meals might be the safest and most convenient option for people without kitchen access, for instance. But SNAP can’t be used for prepared hot meals. One exception is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Restaurant Meals Program, which allows CalFresh recipients who are homeless, elderly or disabled to use their benefits at participating restaurants in certain counties. Disappointingly, only five states currently participate in the program, and in California, only nine counties have opted in. Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) is currently carrying a bill that would extend the program to California State University students, even if they live in a county that hasn’t adopted the program.

The restaurant meals exemption is not without controversy. Marion Nestlé, the renowned nutritionist and author, has been sharply critical of people using benefits in fast-food restaurants, musing that Yum! Brands in particular, which owns Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut, participates only to earn a cut of SNAP payouts, which were $68.1 billion in 2017. (Yum! Brands has “actively encouraged their franchised restaurants,” to sign up, Bartholow says.)

Nestlé might be correct about Yum! Brands’ motives. But anti-hunger activists consider the moralizing akin to telling people that walking barefoot is better than wearing flimsy shoes. “If you’re hungry and living homeless, the worst outcome isn’t that you ate a hamburger today,” Bartholow says. “The worst outcome is that you went hungry.”

Restaurant eating also allows people to use a bathroom, wash their hands and break bread in the presence of other people — an ever-more vital part of mealtime, now that authorities have criminalized encampments such as Orange County’s Santa Ana riverbed. “Food isn’t just about getting something in your body,” Bartholow says. “Food is also a way that, culturally, we come together.” Sometimes that matters almost as much as the food itself.

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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.”

Copyright Capital & Main

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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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