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A Tragic Triad of Animal Neglect, Food Safety Lapses, and Homelessness Failures in Los Angeles


iAUDIT! - Recently, three seemingly unrelated stories have made the news: neglect and abuse of animals in City-run shelters, the lack of consistent restaurant health inspections by the County, and serious questions about LAHSA’s management.  If you’re having a hard time connecting these stories, think about them in terms of overall mismanagement and a general lack of accountability.  After a career in performance auditing, I’ve learned management problems in one part of an organization usually indicate problems elsewhere.  Very few organizations do a terrible job at one thing and a great job in another; poor performance spreads like a virus throughout an agency. In the case of animal care, restaurant inspections, and homelessness programs, mismanagement poses profound dangers to their client populations and the general public. 

On Friday, March 15, hundreds of residents gathered at City Hall to protest the mistreatment of animals in the City’s shelter system.  Many animals are kept in cages for weeks at a time, forced to live in their own filth until employees or volunteers have time to clean their enclosures.  Dogs are rarely exercised as required to maintain their health.  Much of the criticism was aimed at Staycee Dains, who became General Manager for Animal Services in July 2023. Rather than improving the system, animal rights activists say Ms. Danis has made it worse through neglect and mismanagement. Ms. Danis said the city’s no kill policy and a flood of animals after the COVID pandemic has caused serious overcrowding.  Speaking anonymously, volunteers and employees allege management ignored the warning signs as the animal population surged and has failed to speed recruitment of new care staff. They also allege heathy animals are being euthanized to create space, despite management’s denial. 

In a Westside Current article,  Valleri Ianniello of Women United for Animal Welfare detailed the deplorable conditions at the City’s largest shelter in South LA, citing an overwhelming stench from the kennels because they’re not regularly cleaned, and cases of dogs left in cages for two weeks without being walked.  

On March 15, the LA Times published an account of the County’s failure to regularly inspect “high risk” restaurants—those with full-service kitchens preparing raw meat.  Of the estimated 18,000 high risk facilities, fewer than two percent have received the required three inspections per year.  A third weren’t inspected at all in the past year.  The inspection failures could have been related to a late August outbreak of a food-borne disease at a Bonaventure Hotel business conference.  More than 30 people who ate lunch during the conference were infected by Shigella, a bacterium that can spread through infected food; four were hospitalized.  Another inspection of a La Verne restaurant found 50 locations with rat droppings which, according to an inspector, are indicative of long-term infestation, which could have been prevented with regular inspections. Inspectors also say they are forced to do faster inspections, cutting them down to as little as 25 minutes from an hour and a half. Rushed inspections can miss potentially dangerous conditions. 

County Health Department managers cite the usual issues for the low inspection numbers: difficulty recruiting employees with the required skills, low pay, and high turnover.  Inspection staff claim management has not done enough to increase recruitment, citing a 28 percent vacancy rate.  They also say the Director of Public Health, Dr. Barbara Ferrer, may pay lip service to making inspections a priority, but has taken little substantive action.  In fact, the subject of the article was the suicide of an inspector who co-workers said could not tolerate the constant pressure to complete more inspections in less time.  

LAHSA’s multiplicity of failures on homelessness don’t need to be repeated here, but they share the same characteristics; disengaged and unaccountable management, poor performance, and avoidance of responsibility.  There’s always someone or something else to blame: recruitment problems, funding, economics, etc.  The one thing these programs have in common is a complete lack of introspection—management simply refuses to believe their own actions may be causing their dysfunction.  

The three programs also share a vocal defense of the status quo and disdain—or outright hostility—to voices for reform. Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez — chair of the Neighborhoods and Community Enrichment Committee, which oversees Animal Services — and always willing to defend the status quo when it fits her political agenda--said it was unfair to blame General Manager Dains for the crisis in Los Angeles shelters: “This department has been so chronically understaffed and underfunded for years,” Hernandez said in an interview. “This general manager did not cause these issues. It didn’t happen overnight.” She said this even though the department itself admitted it has had operational problems for 20 years. Like homelessness, Hernandez seems to think throwing more money at the program without demanding reform is all that is needed for success. Mayor Bass’ office, never one to let reality interfere with its messaging, “emphasized recent progress, claiming the number of shelter volunteers has doubled while overcrowding has been halved”. (Of course, half of overcrowding is still overcrowding). Animal Services echoed this message, saying in a statement that “there is obviously much more work to be done but progress has been made and lives of animals have been saved.” I’m always suspicious when agencies use the passive voice. “Progress has been made”…by whom, and to what benefit? How does one measure this progress?  Let’s remember the Mayor’s Office also claims 21,000 people have been sheltered under Inside Safe, even though at least a third have left the system.  As usual, the City is claiming “improvements are being made” without evidence or concrete panning, or as Valleri Ianniello said, “We have a GM that’s been in the job for over nine months, and she wasn’t even hired with a strategic plan."  

As the Westside Current article details, Susan Collins, a community activist, animal rights advocate, and neighborhood council member who was at a March 15 Council meeting where Animal Services was supposed to be discussed, noted the Council removed the item from the regular agenda, forcing attendees to wait until public comments at the end of the meeting. Speakers were limited to one minute, and attendance was limited when the Fire Marshall claimed the Council Chambers were overcrowded, even though videos show many empty seats. 

Likewise, the County is trying to minimize the risk its mismanagement of health inspections poses. In the Times article, a department representative said, “These vacancies have impacted [the Department of] Public Health’s goal to meet industry best practices, including inspecting high-risk facilities three times a year,” … “Nevertheless, diners should feel confident that complaints that are received are immediately investigated.”  Notice the trick language, at once acknowledging the department has been unable to meet its inspection obligations, then changing the subject to responding to complaints, which has nothing to do with regular safety inspections. 

Again, the maze of misinformation and denials surrounding LAHSA’s homelessness programs does not need to be repeated in detail.  The meaningless numbers being pumped out by the Authority, City and County, claiming tens of thousands of unhoused people sheltered or housed, despite worsening unsheltered and chronic homelessness, has been well documented here and elsewhere.  Those calling for reform and a shift away from the obsessive devotion to Housing First are dismissed as homeless-hating NIMBY’s.

Homelessness is not a uniquely mismanaged and ineffective City and County program;   Animal Services and Health Inspections can join that disgraceful club.  The final and most tragic characteristic Animal Services, the County Department of Health, and LAHSA share is the toll they take on the populations they serve.  Obviously, Animal Services is responsible for the mistreatment and death of thousands of animals, but it has also affected the morale of hundreds of volunteers and staff; all but the most hardened of us are unaffected by the sight of needlessly suffering animals.  The Health Department’s failure to properly inspect high risk food establishments poses a more obvious and grave risk to public health.  Of course, LAHSA’s failure to do its one and only job—address homelessness—is at least partly responsible for the nearly 2,200 annual deaths among the unhoused. 

At a more philosophical yet every bit as devastating level, the failure of these and other programs represents a fundamental breakdown in the social contract between residents and their government.  As a union representative for Health Department Inspectors said, “This is the importance of having a functioning government: If you don’t do the jobs, people die.” The highest mission of government is to protect and promote the health and wellbeing of its citizens, housed or unhoused.  Local government has shown a grave inability to meet that mission, and to make matters worse, leadership has shown no interest in forcing leadership to meet their obligations.

(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process. Tim is a featured writer for CityWatchLA.)

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