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California Dying (And Awakening)

January 29, 2010

This week in The Nation:

"Homeless in Fresno: Guillermo Torrez ended up on the streets after he lost his construction job and his family's home was foreclosed." Photo credit Matt Black

The lethal and typically capitalist governance of California is manifesting, statewide, in a virtual strangulation of the poor.

VMH [in Los Angeles] has provided counseling and medication to impoverished children and adults since 1957. But in August, shortly after the new facility opened, the clinic lost most of its funding for adult services when the state and county yanked their dollars, triggering huge matching-fund losses from the federal government. Eighty percent of the counseling staff, including nearly all of the site’s adult counselors, were laid off. Kids still receive some counseling, but the walls of the rooms in which they are seen by staff are bare–the clinic ran out of funds before it could decorate them–and the doors have paper signs taped to them instead of brass plaques.Nowadays, VMH’s adult clients are treated exclusively with medication. And the indigent mentally ill–whose treatment had been paid for by LA County, which in turn received money from the state–are turned away at the door. Many of them end up sleeping on park benches near the clinic. “These are the chronically mentally ill,” says psychologist Janie Strasner glumly, “who will end up being the raving lunatics on the street.”

What makes this all the more troubling is that Glendale isn’t an outstandingly poor neighborhood, Los Angeles isn’t a poor city and California certainly isn’t a poor state. And yet something is seriously wrong with the organism that is California. The state’s savage budget cuts–$26 billion in 2009, an expected shortfall over the next year that could reach $20 billion–now serve as anti-stimulus to the federal stimulus package. Its basic educational, public safety and social service infrastructure is crumbling. As a self-sustaining political system, as a set of relationships between local and state governments, as a revenue-raising and revenue-spending mechanism, California is deeply damaged. And the impact of that damage is hitting an awful lot of people awfully hard.

And we’re seeing the same brutal impact in the Tenderloin of San Francisco.  From the Faithful Fools’s 2009 Annual Report:

As concern was high over the precarious economic reality and the ever-rampant budget cuts and elimination of vital services, we recognized the importance of being a small, grassroots, heart-driven organization. We had the ability to remain constant in people’s lives when their city or state funded supportive services disappeared. We helped bridge food needs, financial resources and the direct labor necessary to find out what was still available for people and then walked the maze to link them up. We saw the direct face of balancing the budget on the backs of the poor and disabled people as they were notified three different times in the year of a reduction in their monthly checks. The cuts were an average of $70 per person. One fellow who serves on the Tom Waddell Community Advisory Board with us said, “that’s a week’s worth of food for me!”

It’s a deadly time.  But sometimes the threat of death is just what is needed to spark an awakening.  Which, in California’s case, hopefully means a rapidly evolving consciousness of our shared situations, and renewed energy for collective, compassionate struggle.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. leorasf permalink
    January 31, 2010 10:03 pm

    Somehow the phrase “the organism that is California” gives me hope. Maybe the Gaia-nature of it? I appreciate the way that you seem to be continually working to make stories like this human, too.

  2. February 1, 2010 1:00 pm

    You’re right — that’s a beautiful and useful phrase. Thanks for pointing it out with your poet’s eye.

    And yeah, reading this co-director’s report that Carmen wrote almost made me cry. It’s really helping me to put our life and relationships at the Fools (all their joy and sorrow and ordinariness) in context with larger political issues.

    On a lighter, weirder note: sometimes I feel like these randomly-generated color pattern icon squares really fit the person. And I’m digging this dark blue on you. It’s, like, both sharp and calming at the same time. :)

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