U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, considered by many to be the frontrunner in the race for Los Angeles mayor, unveiled her plan to tackle homelessness last week. Her response package was informed and encompassing. Clearly Bass has been working with local figures who understand the grit and grind of dealing with the matter.
“We have a public health emergency, a public health crisis,” Bass said at one point, and while the comment was appropriate, it still managed to be an understatement.
Can Bass, who has spent the last decade in Congress, make speedy and significant headway on an epic humanitarian disaster? Can she help move people out of the tents that have sprouted in virtually every neighborhood in the city, and assuage both homeowners and renters angry about the encampments, as well as advocates for the unhoused who charge that government is not doing nearly enough?
Even beginning to answer those questions requires grappling with some very inconvenient truths.
The first is that addressing homelessness is like battling a giant hydra, and requires not a single strategy, but rather a cascade of efforts that may only tangentially relate to each other. Any mayor needs to foment the creation of tens of thousands of housing units. At the same time, she or he must effectively collaborate with county government—which provides health and mental health services—and a web of nonprofits and business interests. That person also must persuade lawmakers in Washington, D.C. and Sacramento to direct billions to the region. And so on. Just because a mayor lassos one hydra head doesn’t mean progress has been achieved on the others.
Another inconvenient truth is that Los Angeles has accomplished more than you may think in confronting homelessness, but even with this, parts of the city still resemble a slum. It’s tempting to get all talk radio and say that the clowns in City Hall have no clue, but in recent years billions have been spent, and Mayor Eric Garcetti has an extensive team focused on those hydra heads.
Add to that, some council members, including a pair running for mayor against Bass, have produced more solutions than many realize. District 15 rep Joe Buscaino, whose territory is based in San Pedro, and District 14 Councilmember Kevin de León, whose turf is Northeast Los Angeles, have each sparked the creation of multiple tiny homes villages and other housing and support services for people experiencing homelessness. Both have naysayers, but they are actively addressing the problem.
The overarching inconvenient truth, as Bass acknowledged Friday, is that this is a numbers game: She mentioned that on average, about 200 homeless individuals each day move into housing in the region. The problem, she said, is due to factors such as the economy and mental illness, an estimated 215 people become homeless every day.
There’s another inconvenient truth: The city is missing its most experienced political leader in addressing homelessness. After Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas was indicted by federal authorities in October, his council colleagues turned on him like rabid zombies, and quickly voted to suspend him. The result is that the city lost a skilled individual with extensive relationships with county and state government, both of which are vital partners when it comes to combatting homelessness. Furthermore, Ridley-Thomas was pushing a “Right to Housing” framework, a comprehensive approach to the crisis. Without his leadership, important elements of this plan are being overlooked, including better street engagement.
So it’s not “homelessness” Bass needs to fight, but all the hydra heads.
Given that, on Friday she displayed a clear-eyed and un-idealistic understanding of the crisis. She smartly refrained from overpromising and pledging to “eradicate” homelessness, as some have done, while still managing to offer enough solutions and to spark the belief that change is possible. A key element was saying she would appoint a deputy to marshal the resources of various city departments, and to grant that figure actual power.
Bass, as she has done since announcing her candidacy in September, cast the moment in earthquake terms. She is fond of saying that leaders are not responding as they would if a magnitude 8-point-gazillion temblor hit Los Angeles.
“This is a disaster. This is the big one,” she stated Friday. “We need a FEMA-style response.”
She’s right, but it’s worth noting that isn’t original thinking. Another mayoral candidate, City Atty. Mike Feuer, hit the theme back in 2017. At a session with reporters that fall, he specifically called for a homelessness czar, in his words, “someone tantamount to a FEMA director who is terrific at logistics and execution, who is in charge—and everyone knows it.”
Bass doesn’t need to be dinged because someone else said it first. What matters is understanding the situation and having the acumen and leadership skills to effect change. That’s what she is working toward, and on Friday she touched on key points, such as clawing through bureaucracy—“City Hall red tape should never be the obstacle,” she said—and kick-starting all manner of residential construction—“I will be relentlessness about building permanent and temporary housing.” She touched on the science of keeping people from falling into homelessness in the first place. “We must prevent people from losing their housing,” she remarked.
Then there was the engagement arm, a recognition that some people experiencing homelessness, perhaps due to addiction or mental health issues, will reject the first, second, third and more offers of help. While this roils residents living near encampments, the solution is a long game that requires building trust, and putting together outreach teams that include social workers and people with firsthand experience of living on the streets.
“I will employ an army to do it,” declared Bass.
She detailed other components that play to her strengths. The briefing took place in the St. Vincent Medical Center, a defunct hospital in the Westlake neighborhood, and Bass described how she has begun lobbying Gov. Gavin Newsom for help in turning it into a service center with 344 beds for homeless individuals.
The headline grabber from Friday was Bass’ pledge to house 15,000 people by the end of her first year in office, a proposal at once audacious, but also sneakily achievable and asterisk-inducing. The next mayor will benefit from efforts already in play, including emergency homelessness funds flowing from Sacramento and Washington. Bass might be better primed than other candidates to squeeze out even more money, given her ties to the Newsom and Biden administrations.
But beware the 15,000 pledge: Housing that many people is a game-changer only if they stay housed, and if even more people don’t wind up on the streets. The number means little if, by the end of the year, the population of people experiencing homelessness has grown.
That’s also no secret, and Bass understands that even if headlines win the day, it is only comprehensive, difficult and long-running strategies that will alter the status quo.
“The people of Los Angeles are frustrated, and so am I,” she said at one point. Later she stated, “I do not accept our homelessness catastrophe, and I never will.”
The primary election is June 7.
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