A Budget is a Statement of Values

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     At the May 8 City Council meeting, a woman stated in her public comment that she had been raped by Barack Obama at the Denny’s by the entrance to the 405 South, which was subsequently torn down and replaced by a Chick-Fil-A to cover up the crime. I don’t know Obama and will never go to Chick-Fil-A, but I am pretty confident her claim is false. Her suffering, however, is real.

     I was watching the meeting online, so I don’t know how people reacted in the Council Chambers, but after she finished it seemed the staff member calling the speakers took a deep breath and moved on. What else could she have done?

     Sometimes, when a speaker raises an issue in public comment, the Mayor will ask staff to give that person the contact information of a City worker who can help, or the Mayor will ask the speaker to contact them directly so they can assist. The current Mayor consistently makes these interventions on behalf of homeowners and business people. No one responded to this woman’s comment. No one had anything to offer her. There was no agency they could refer her to and no process they could expedite.

     Our institutions have failed her, as they fail people in psychological distress every day. City leaders will patiently explain that public mental health care is the County’s responsibility, and that those services are overwhelmed. This is a valid excuse, but it is not a solution. 

     What we often call “Los Angeles” is a cluster of municipalities, many of which choose to provide some of their own services to supplement or replace what the County offers. On the westside, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, and Culver City all spend heavily to have their own police forces rather than use the Sheriff, Culver City relies on the County library system while Santa Monica and Beverly Hills created their own libraries and West Hollywood and Marina Del Rey use both the Sheriff and the County library. Cities could choose to provide public mental health care and other social services, as they did their own police and libraries, but they seldom have.   

     Attempts to do so have gone on the back burner. A few years ago Daniel Lee led the Council in funding additional social workers through the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Community Services, but the money went unspent. The project was ignored and the positions were never created, much less filled. In his last weeks on the Council, Alex Fisch proposed and passed the establishment of a third public safety department, parallel to Police and Fire, to deal with social services including housing and mental health. Its launch has been slow and quiet. More outrage was directed at Yasmine-Imani McMorrin for questioning the City Manager about delays in launching the Mobile Crisis Response Team, which the Council created in 2021, than at the delays themselves.

     We had nothing for this woman because healthcare is a for-profit business and an employment benefit. Why should someone receive it who can’t pay and who hasn’t “earned” it?

     We had nothing for her because mental health is not seen as healthcare. If she had come to the Council with a broken arm, would they have looked away and waited for her to leave?

     We had nothing for her because she is not a “stakeholder.” Caring for her problems will not increase the tax base or property values, or earn votes the way making sure potholes are filled, trees trimmed, and permits expedited will.

    We do have police. If someone breaks their arm and is screaming in pain, they get the paramedics, but if they are screaming because of a mental health crisis, they get the police. A mental health emergency is often treated not as a medical situation but as a crime.

     If she is fortunate, she will suffer quietly and evade official attention for as long as possible while coping with whatever experiences her story about Obama is covering. If she is less fortunate, she will be drawn into the so-called justice system. The LA County Jail holds more people experiencing mental illness than any other facility in the world. During the last election, when the candidates for Sheriff visited this Club, I asked most of them how they planned to run the world’s largest psychiatric hospital, and it was clear that none of them had considered that aspect of the job before. We can offer her a stay in County, or several. That is unlikely to help.

    It is also possible that she will be killed. You shouldn’t need to think very hard to name people killed by police during mental health crises. LAPD killed Keenan Anderson at Lincoln and Venice January 3. CCPD killed Guillermo Medina at Venice and Cardiff December 18. There are many, many more, and each year is deadlier.

     We chose this. We built this system and keep expanding it. Between the time I am writing this in mid-May and when it is published on June 1, the City will pass a new budget giving record funds and authority to the police while grossly underfunding alternative responses and preventative care. How many times have we seen conservatives deny social programs the resources they need to meet their goals and then point to these unmet goals to justify further cuts?

    What did that woman need? I imagine it starting with someone coming up to her in the lobby and saying “Are you OK? Do you want to talk to someone?” but that intervention is not currently anyone’s job, and there isn’t anyone for her to talk to. The City could create those positions, but it has chosen not to. The status quo puts low taxes and high property values above human lives.

     There are no magic bullets for mental health, and there is a lot we don’t know, but treatment options continue to multiply and improve, from talk therapy to medications. The City offered her none of them, and looked away. Every day we delay the creation of free public social services is a day that we are allowing people to suffer.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you Jeff for such a meaningful and empathic statement. I find humanity to be less and less able to extend caring and resolve especially when it comes to the mental part of healthcare. Especially if the person experiencing the crisis is or appears to be non white.

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