Karen Bass May Need “The Force” to Take on L.A.’s Homelessness Crisis

Cityside Column: The new mayor begins rolling out her strategy to address the city’s most daunting issue
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Karen Bass has not been mayor of Los Angeles for even two weeks, but on Wednesday morning she formally unveiled what is perhaps the single-most anticipated city move of 2022. At a press event in the Arlington Heights headquarters of homeless services provider The People Concern, Bass signaled her intent to slash into the city’s tent encampment crisis by signing an executive order for an initiative called Inside Safe.

This yields more questions than answers, starting with: Why does it sound like Bass put Yoda in charge of naming her signature effort on the homelessness crisis? An initiative dubbed Safe Inside would roll off the tongue, and its meaning and implications for the more than 42,000 people living without permanent shelter in the city would be instant and clear. Inside Safe makes one question if someone errantly flipped the words and was too embarrassed to switch them back, and then wonder, what’s next? Come April, will we get a press release where Bass and her little green advisor pledge, “Pass the budget, we will”?

This is meant not to be fully facetious because if Bass is to make headway against the most daunting physical and moral crisis confronting Los Angeles, then she’ll need the equivalent of the full powers of The Force. And the only way she will make progress with this ambitious plan is by pulling together a veritable army.

The good thing is that Bass gets it and she is doing precisely what needs to be done at this moment and exactly what she promised. As mayor, she has made clear that homelessness is the first, second and third most important issue on her and the city’s agenda. Number four is probably homelessness, too.

This type of focus is what everyone wants, both those advocating for the unhoused, who argue that the city has not done enough, and nearby house and apartment dwellers who are furious or fearful of the tent encampments that have mushroomed in almost every neighborhood. Bass grasped the mood of the city during her campaign against Rick Caruso—she can enjoy the perks of being mayor later; right now, Los Angeles needs to know that it has a leader who is outspoken and dedicated to reversing the situation on the streets.

Bass has been all about the homelessness crisis since taking office. While it sounds like a tremendously bad pun, she’s adopting an appropriate “big tent” strategy. The morning after her inauguration, before even heading to her City Hall office, she showed up at the Emergency Operations Center on Temple Street in Downtown to sign an Emergency Declaration on Homelessness, something so serious that it merits those capital letters. She then signed an executive directive to accelerate and lower the cost of affordable housing. On Tuesday, she traipsed over to the meeting of the County Board of Supervisors as part of a show of unity, which is tremendously important, because the city and county governments have long tangled over who should play what role when it comes to helping people get off the streets. Thursday morning brought an event with a high-ranking figure from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office. The army is being assembled.

The Inside Safe initiative is officially Executive Directive No. 2, and Bass pulled out her special signing pen to authorize it on Wednesday. It’s a good thing the room was full of photographers because, despite the hype and the hope, Angelenos likely won’t see much change on the streets in the coming months—big declarations will have to do for the moment.

Inside Safe begins with an analysis and assessment of encampments, determining which are the most entrenched and how many people live there, and locating nearby housing options. Bass stressed that her approach will not be “punitive.” And while everyone wonders what will happen when someone says no to an offer of a hotel or motel room, she doubled down on declaring that the strategy is housing-based and not police-driven.

So what’s actually the plan? There is talk about the master leasing of hotels or motels, which was a key element of Project Roomkey, a homelessness strategy utilized during the pandemic, as well as something that figures including former City Attorney Mike Feuer proffered long before the world ever heard of COVID-19. The Wednesday declaration included discussing the strategy of having outreach workers build trust with those living in encampments—this has been the anchor of addressing homelessness for years. The Bass plan also involves first moving encampment dwellers into temporary housing, and then transitioning them into a permanent residence when a unit becomes available—this was a cornerstone of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Bridge Home initiative. It has also been utilized by other figures, including Councilman Kevin de León, and though the mere mention of his name will cause some to seethe, at least three large street encampments in his District 14 disappeared as he brought Tiny Homes Villages projects online.

In a way, Bass’ primary task is not to reinvent the wheel—people know what the effective strategies are—and there are more good ones, including the comprehensive Right to Housing that Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas was pushing before he was indicted by federal authorities. Instead, the new mayor’s chief objective may be making that wheel roll faster; or getting everyone in the car to drive in the same direction; or filling the potholes and removing the tree trunks and other obstacles that spring up whenever the city tries to do something like facilitate permitting.

Former Mayor Eric Garcetti knew all of this, and it’s not like he ignored the homelessness crisis. But after nine years he and the city were both ready to move on.

Bass arrives with new energy and a readiness to use the bully pulpit the mayor’s office affords, as well as her history of collation building. And like Garcetti, she has tight ties to leaders and money pots in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

Way back in January, I attended then-candidate Bass’ first homelessness strategy press conference, and while it featured a big vision to get 15,000 people into beds in a year, it was ultimately short on detail.

The details take time to be worked out, which is because it takes time to get someone off the streets and provide them the support so that they don’t become homeless once again. That is not about to change.

At the same time, nothing gets solved without leadership and a clear message, and Bass has a moment to make an impact. Ultimately though, her success may be determined by the immortal words of Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

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