Mayor Karen Bass Digs Into Her Long, Expensive Plan to Combat Homelessness

Cityside Column: A frank City Hall presentation lays out the challenges and strategies to helping 42,000 unhoused people

It has been 95 days since Karen Bass became mayor of Los Angeles, and in that period her first, second and third focus has been addressing the homelessness crisis. On day one she declared a State of Emergency. She has issued a trio of executive directives to alter how the city operates. She rolled out the Inside Safe program to move people from tent encampments into housing. There has been a passel of hires to positions that never before existed.

Is that a lot? Yeah. But at the same time, the moves are the proverbial drops in the bucket. Or the first few steps in the marathon. Or Sisyphus starting to roll his boulder up the mountain. Pick your favorite cliché of something long and difficult that might never get completed—they all apply.

This is not to cast a shadow over what has happened—the achievements to date are impressive, and “lock arms” seems to be more than a slogan, as different levels of government say they are operating in unison. Still, it is a reminder that it took decades to reach the point where we have 42,000 unhoused people in the city, and fixing it is gonna take a minute.

Bass understands that, and on Wednesday afternoon, she and some of her deputies gave an in-depth presentation on what has been achieved, what’s next, and where the barriers are. Here is the rundown:

The Big Number: The headline from the gathering is that by her 100th day in office next week, Team Bass anticipates that 4,000 people will have moved into temporary or long-term homes. This takes multiple forms—over 1,300 individuals receiving interim housing, 775 benefitting from emergency vouchers, 235 heading to hotels or motels leased by the city, and so on.

It’s Not All Her: The number 4,000, like an onion, has layers, and the first one reveals that it’s not all Team Bass. Much of this is the result of efforts begun by former mayor and now confirmed Ambassador to India, Eric Garcetti. Bass pointed out that she has attended ribbon cuttings of permanent supportive housing projects that Garcetti started; efforts that housed 614 people. The Bass crew credits itself with getting about 1,500 people off the streets.

Dream of 17,000: During her mayoral campaign, Bass pledged to get 17,000 people off the streets in year one. She says this remains the goal. But, hold on before assuming the unhoused population plummets to 25,000. A longstanding problem is that even as people are housed, more individuals lose housing. Mercedes Marquez, the mayor’s chief of Housing and Homelessness Solutions, said factors such as how long someone has been on the streets complicates the speed of getting them sheltered. It is difficult to predict what the overall number will be after a year.

Safe Zone: Fomenting housing construction and boosting supply is vital in the long run, but Bass understands that it’s the encampments that have everyone angry, whether unhoused individuals and their advocates who want the city to do more, or housed neighbors infuriated by impassable streets and parks that no longer feel safe. That is why she is pouring so much energy and money into Inside Safe.

So far, 13 Inside Safe operations have brought 516 people indoors—each starts with outreach workers, some of them formerly unhoused. The efforts have taken place in multiple council districts across the city, from Venice to South L.A. to Sixth and Fairfax to a spot by the L.A. River in the San Fernando Valley.

“We have a problem now that council members are like, ‘how come you haven’t come to my district?’” Bass stated.

Bass promised that by next week, a total 1,000 people will be housed through Inside Safe, with new sites coming, and hundreds of Skid Row residents moving into The Grand Hotel in Downtown. The building housed people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic, but the agreement was about to expire. “We re-upped it,” stated Bass. “We are moving in lots and lots of people.”

Missing Middle: One takeaway from Wednesday is that while projects funded by Proposition HHH will house thousands of people, the middle zone between those homes and the tents is in short supply. The situation irked the Bass crew.

“The city had no credible interim housing strategy,” said Marquez.

Bad Bureaucracy: There was similar frustration with the Coordinated Entry System, and if that sounds like gobbledygook, that’s also how the new administration seems to view it. The CES is intended to identify and classify unhoused individuals and funnel them into homes. Bass considers it as inflexible as a steel bar dipped in concrete.

“We created a system that is so rigid that people are not able to get housed,” lamented Bass. “We are in the process of changing this bureaucracy.”

Bad bureaucracy was an enduring theme—a section of the presentation was literally dubbed “Cutting Red Tape.”

Motels and Money: With Inside Safe, many people have been moved from the streets into hotels or motels. It’s a problematic solution. 

“It’s too expensive. It’s not sustainable,” said Bass.

That hints at a mountainous challenge: eradicating homelessness, including providing wraparound services such as drug treatment and healthcare, is mega-costly. Billions have already been spent, from Prop HHH housing funds to County Measure H money for support services, to $50 million that the City Council recently set aside for Bass to use.

There has been little talk of how much cash we’re ultimately talking about. Pay attention when Bass releases her budget next month.

Projects Ahead: The thing with drops in a bucket is that it leaves a lot of bucket to fill. Welcome to the next 100 days, and the years after that.

There was a lot of talk Wednesday about taking what has been learned so far, including with Inside Safe, and “scaling” up and getting more people from encampments into temporary housing. The rest of the to-do list is never-ending. There is the need to either acquire buildings, sign master leases with hotel and motel owners, or work to make sure current low-income residential projects stay that way. Promises to make the permitting process faster and easier for affordable housing projects must come to fruition. The CES must be un-knotted. Local officials are doing a study of what publicly owned parcels could feasibly hold housing projects, with a report due next month. The city is hitting up President Biden for more cash.

That is literally just the start.

Problems Ahead: For all the initial progress, Bass frankly acknowledged the challenges ahead. She pointed to people living in recreational vehicles, some of whom rent the rides or don’t consider themselves unhoused. “The biggest nut we haven’t cracked is RVs,” she stated.

A greater concern is preventing people from becoming unhoused in the first place. The city council recently approved a clutch of post-COVID renter protections. Still, Bass said she is “very worried” that a spike is coming.

An outreach effort to renters is underway, but like everything else, the communication is challenging and costly. The safeguard could stanch the flow of people losing their homes, but, said Marquez, “The biggest problem is the public doesn’t know about them.”

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