Long-Time LA Union Rescue Mission Leader Calls for 'FEMA-Style' Response to Homelessness

Image by Hunter Desportes via Flickr Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/hdport/

For more than 20 years, Rev. Andy Bales has been on the front lines of fighting homelessness in Los Angeles. As the CEO of Union Rescue he’s watched as the city’s homeless population has surged out of control, creating a massive public health crisis.


In the last 18 months multiple cases of typhus have been diagnosed in the downtown area, and two LAPD officers working in the San Fernando Valley were diagnosed with MRSA after interacting with homeless people. Bales himself has suffered physically due to his work – he lost part of his leg after contracting “three different flesh-eating bacterial infections,” including Charcot Foot, which generally affects diabetics, lepers, and people who live on the streets. The infection occurred during the summer of 2014, and Bales “suspects it entered through a wound on his foot after walking through Skid Row one day, handing out water.”

Los Angeles’ inability to deal with its homeless problem and disease control is now nationally known, but Bales has been calling attention to it for years. In a 2015 interview he sounded the alarm about disease in the densely-populated Skid Row environment.

“We need to decentralize Skid Row and get the people away from this environment, and we need to clean up this environment.”

Four years later, Bales is still fighting. More than 1,000 homeless people died on Los Angeles’ streets last year, leading Bales and Dr. Drew Pinsky to ask “how many must die” before officials take action?


Like Pinsky, Bales believes the city’s at serious risk of a bubonic plague outbreak. Bales, however, believes it’s definitely going to happen unless massive federal action takes place immediately. In Pinsky’s interview with Scott Adams last week, he referenced a recent conversation with Bales:

“[Bales] looked at me two weeks ago and said, “It’s over. We can’t handle this. We need a FEMA-style emergency with the RedCross and the National Guard. We need to put up 100…tents that are triage centers. We have to deal with this like the emergency that it is.”

If a national emergency were declared and FEMA and the National Guard were dispatched to Los Angeles, they would have the power to remove homeless camps and send people to drug treatment, mental health hospitals, and more. There are civil rights issues, to be sure, that need to be addressed, but when the (in)actions of elected officials in dealing with people who can’t take care of themselves lead to an imminent threat of a deadly plague in one of the most populous cities in the world, affecting millions of innocent people, the rights of those innocent people need to be taken into account as well.

If an outbreak of bubonic plague occurs, it won’t just affect Los Angeles. Many people who comment on articles here or elsewhere about California seem to think that this is a California problem, and “Screw them, let them deal with it.” If this happens in downtown Los Angeles, people in cities 20, 40, 100 miles away would quickly be infected. Tens of thousands of commuters a day take the train into Los Angeles to work, walking those infected streets and taking bacteria with them. Products from downtown’s Fashion District, Flower Market, and produce markets are shipped to nearby states (or even the East Coast) every day. Business travelers will go through LAX and to their final destinations before they know they’ve been exposed. It wouldn’t take very long at all for the sickness to spread, depending upon how quickly the disease was recognized and how quickly quarantine procedures could be implemented.


Jennifer Van Laar is Deputy Managing Editor at RedState. Follow her on Twitter @jenvanlaar or Facebook. She also serves as the Executive Director of the Save California Political Action Committee.


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