In her first three months the mayor has followed through on many of her promises; Her administration must sustain maximum momentum if the crisis is to be solved
Homelessness isn’t a just housing crisis or even a mental health and addiction crisis; Homelessness is a bureaucratic crisis
Two decades into Los Angeles’s homeless humanitarian crisis Angelenos are a traumatized lot, whether they’re housed or unhoused. For twenty years, every time we think we think we’ve hit rock bottom we’ve sunk a little deeper. The 2007 financial crisis and Great Recession, the emergence in the mid-2010s of cheap, highly addictive, deadly synthetic narcotics, the 2020-2023 pandemic. We haven’t been able to catch a break, even a breather. The body count on L.A.’s streets is in the tens of thousands.
Like the path that leads an individual to homelessness there are myriad causes behind the crisis writ large, most beyond the control of government much less individual elected officials. Nevertheless, for too long L.A.’s response has failed to meet the demands of the moment. Billions have been spent, countless well-intentioned five- and ten-year plans to Solve Homelessness Once And For All have come and gone, and the only constants are ever-expanding illegal encampments and the human misery they engender and upon which they are sustained. The crisis has claimed political careers with equal rapacity.
A new era of leadership in L.A.
Former Mayor Eric Garcetti will forever be connected to the issue of homelessness. It was on his watch that the situation metastasized into a true humanitarian crisis. Even as it spiraled throughout his nine and a half years in City Hall both in scope and the scale of devastation it wrought, he never articulated a clear, consistent vision to address it. As president of the City Council from 2006-2012 he did little to advance his signature “Bring Los Angeles Home” initiative after introducing it, with much fanfare, in April 2006.
By November 2022 Garcetti was so toxic that he didn’t even endorse a successor. He left office with just 13% of L.A. voters strongly approving of his job performance, a stunning rebuke to a mayor reelected four years earlier with 81% of the vote. A succession of scandals, including a sexual harassment scandal involving one of his closest advisors, didn’t help his cause and distracted his administration from the urgent issues at hand.
During her April 2022 endorsement interview with the L.A. Times then Congresswoman Karen Bass said homelessness was the reason she decided to leave Congress and run for mayor, a rare move for a successful politician. Most political career paths lead from city office to state to national, not the other way around. It was bold, underscoring her devotion to her hometown. Ms. Bass convinced voters that as between herself and her rival Rick Caruso she was the one with the experience, ideas, and — most importantly — sense of urgency to get the job done. She was clear, she was precise, she was convincing. She was also refreshingly scandal-free.
Equally bracing was her commitment to taking on the city bureaucracy and red tape that have bogged down other large scale efforts to move people off the streets. During the Times interview she said, “When you have a disaster, you waive things, you move things quickly, you don’t sit around and send it through the normal process.”
She promised, “If I’m elected as mayor, I want to go in and deal with homelessness like it’s a hurricane. I want to say: In ordinary times we have all these requirements, but this is a hurricane — we need to get people off the streets immediately. A lot of the rules and regulations that are there in ordinary times need to be relaxed.” Angelenos could have cried, “Hallelujah.”
It was her most important campaign promise, addressing the most important issue in the campaign. After years of watching politicians at all levels of government respond to the crisis by pouring ever-rising oceans of money at it, finally someone was saying out loud what other leaders had been unwilling or unable to articulate: When it comes to the homeless crisis, the city of Los Angeles cannot get out of its own way.
Early steps and successes
To Bass’s credit, she has walked the walk. Her first actions as mayor were declaring a citywide state of emergency and launching the “Inside Safe” program to start rapidly housing homeless people. During her inaugural address she received a standing ovation when she confirmed her intention to declare the state of emergency the next morning. A new era, indeed.
Again, credit where it’s due: Inside Safe has quickly housed several hundred people who had been living on the streets of Venice, Mar Vista, Van Nuys, Miracle Mile and other neighborhoods. Bass’s office estimates the program has housed 427 people so far, 20 of them permanently. Elsewhere, the mayor signed an executive order directing the City Administrative Officer to identify all city-owned properties that potentially can be used for temporary or permanent housing, an example of the sorts of obvious options her predecessor left on the table.
Her use of the bully pulpit has also been effective. The normally reserved Bass has been visible, rolling up her sleeves and showing up at encampments and clean-ups. And in contrast to Eric Garcetti’s soft-touch “Mayor Yoga Pants” approach, she’s brought a no-nonsense attitude. For example, one of the frustrations Angelenos had with Garcetti was his refusal to acknowledge the problem of so-called housing or shelter “resistant” individuals. Bass has spoken to the issue thoughtfully.
In the KCRW interview she also acknowledged the problem that some shelters simply are not safe. She said, “it’s a sad situation to say that people feel safer on the street than they do in a shelter.” Hearing the city’s chief executive acknowledge and address these key issues is itself a form of progress.
Bureaucracy: The hidden enemy of progress on homelessness
While the new mayor’s early successes are cause for optimism, they are barely foothills compared to the Sagarmatha that lies ahead. As her state of emergency declaration acknowledges, homelessness isn’t just a housing crisis or a mental health and addiction crisis. Like the state’s disastrous high speed rail program, L.A.’s response to homelessness has fallen victim to a sprawling, unaccountable ecosystem of public agencies and commissions, private companies and nonprofits, and multitudes of managers, administrators, consultants, experts, lawyers, and advocates that collectively amount to the homeless population’s worst enemy and Bass’s most formidable challenge.
It’s a bureaucratic crisis. A seasoned, savvy politician like Karen Bass possesses the skills to slay the beast from the inside, or at least to tame it. There’s the added bonus of her close working relationship with the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”), Marcia Fudge, born of their time together in Congress and their leadership in the Congressional Black Caucus. Federal money is an essential component of any solution. Again, these are huge parts of the reason she won.
All of which is why it was disconcerting to hear comments she made last week on the subject of temporary and permanent housing. During an interview with ABC L.A’s Josh Haskil reflecting on her first 100 days in office, she said, “Just because the units are available, it doesn’t mean we can actually get people in the beds because of the bureaucratic process in getting people housed. We actually have hundreds of vacancies.”
She made similar comments in a more extended interview on Wednesday with KCRW radio (NPR), telling reporter Danielle Chiriguayo, “We have found that there’s a number of barriers to getting people into housing when we have vacancies …. For example, there is the system called the Coordinated Entry System, which is supposed to be how you prioritize who gets housing. It turns out that that system is so bureaucratic that … [we] can’t put people in the housing.”
The concern is not that Bass is wrong. Quite the opposite: Reviews of publicly available records confirm her statements. Bureaucracy is holding up shelter and housing in myriad ways, and available units are sitting idle, hundreds of them. Possibly thousands.
For example, between 2020 and 2023 a state urgency measure called Project Homekey infused $948 million in federal HUD and state housing department funds into the Housing Authority of Los Angeles (“HACLA”) to help purchase 62 properties for a total of 4,034 units of homeless housing. HACLA purchased a combination of hotels/motels and multifamily buildings (adding to the overall stock Los Angeles County received Homekey funds to help in the purchase of an additional 24 properties with a total of 1,567 units).
However, despite the fact that the sales closed months ago, in some cases more than a year ago, many remain vacant.
The homeless bureaucracy also burns through money like a Silicon Valley start-up run by 20-year-olds with funding from Silicon Valley Bank and FTX.
Consider the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). In 2015 the agency’s budget was $125 million. That year the homeless population in Los Angeles County was estimated to be 44,359. This year, LAHSA’s budget is $730 million to serve a homeless population of 69,144. Like its budget, the agency’s headcount has grown faster than the homeless population itself. In 2014 LAHSA had 118 employees, of whom nine (7.6%) made six-figure salaries. By 2021 the agency had 718 employees with 89 (12.4%) making six figures. In other words, over eight years the agency’s budget and roster increased by a factor of nearly six, and the number of highest earners by nearly an order of magnitude, while the population it serves increased by little more than half (of course, for all that money the homeless population should have declined precipitously).
The agency’s spending has prompted reviews by both the City Council and the county Board of Supervisors. Homeless nonprofits’ tax filings reveal that their budgets also go in one direction, up, largely thanks to funding from public agencies like LAHSA.
Nor are Angelenos, housed or unhoused, getting more bang for their buck. During the winter of 2015, through its nonprofit partners LAHSA offered 1,254 emergency shelter beds. This year, with its $730 million, despite record-breaking rain, cold, and even snow, the agency is providing just 207 emergency beds. Only 156 are in the City of L.A. and one shelter with 16 beds is men only.
These are the kinds of institutional barriers to progress that the state of emergency is supposed to address. The Mayor’s office’s press release said, “The order immediately gives Mayor Bass the power to lift rules and regulations that slow or prevent the building of permanent and temporary housing for the unhoused; to expedite contracts that prioritize bringing unhoused Angelenos inside; and that allow the city to acquire rooms, properties and land for housing for Angelenos in need.”
To emphasize the sense of urgency, Mayor Bass spent her first day in office not in City Hall, but down the street at the city’s Emergency Operations Center, where she declared, “we are doing things differently.”
Ongoing public vigilance and “compassionate penny-pinching”
How different remains to be seen. Currently, under Inside Safe the city is spending as much if not more per room than it was under Project Roomkey two years ago, with the L.A. Times reporting costs of $100 per night per room. That’s $3,000 a month for a one- or two-star motel room, more than the average rent in the city for a one bedroom apartment. It’s also more than LAHSA was paying for temporary motel rooms during the pandemic. One motel on the west side, the Paradise Inn & Suites, received $79 per night to shelter homeless individuals.
Mayor Bass and her staff must continue to wrangle those costs, using the leverage of city and state spending to exert downward pressure wherever possible.
They must also address the pace at which people are housed. Bass told KCRW, “people who are supposed to be housed first are the people who are in the worst conditions. And there is a list of people. . . . But while we have a list of people who are in the worst condition, we keep the unit vacant until we locate that person. Need I say — that the people who are in the worst condition are also the most difficult to locate and the most difficult to house. So we will literally leave units empty, while we’re looking for certain people.”
While in general she has brought a sober-minded and outcome driven approach to homelessness, this statement defies both experience and common sense. The “people in the worst condition” are the easiest to spot: They’re the ones languishing in horrific situations in public spaces, for all to see. The tens of thousands living in encampments don’t need to be “located.” The woman screaming at a streetlight in the middle of the night, the man bashing his head against a wall in broad daylight, they’re not hard to find. Indeed, the most hardcore cases are impossible not to see.
If the issue is an official list, the system must be modified so that people in the worst conditions can be offered housing opportunistically as soon as they are identified and as soon as units become available. Suffice it to say, in the midst of a historic humanitarian crisis not a single motel room should sit empty for a single night. It makes no sense to keep rooms vacant for weeks or months until the “right” occupants can be located, according to a city list. It’s actually inhumane. Chuck the list. This is homeless housing, not the VIP section at Avalon Hollywood.
(Aside: When we visited one of the vacant buildings two weeks ago, a new $50 million, 128-unit market rate property in South L.A. that is standing empty, we asked a passing neighbor what they knew about the project. The individual, who asked that their name not be used due to concerns about their residency status, confirmed the building had been empty for close to a year. They said they had heard that the city is looking for “the right kind of people to move in there.” They couldn’t elaborate and until hearing the mayor’s comments about the list it made little sense. Now it does, and it’s a prime example of the on-the-ground consequences of the grinding city bureaucracy.)
Mayor Bass, don’t go wobbly
Mayor Bass deserves time, and the benefit of the doubt. Despite concerns she has impressed early with her follow-through and consistency. She is doing what she said she’d do, itself an big improvement over her predecessor’s scattershot, ADD approach. The City of Los Angeles and all who call it home — housed and unhoused — will be incalculably better off if she continues on the current path. She has the support of newly elected City Councilmembers like Traci Park, who like the mayor were sent to office largely to fix the crisis. She will have support.
Yet Angelenos remain on high alert. Even before the pandemic cranked the stress and anxiety up to 11 the City of Angels was a city of eggshells. Entire neighborhoods from Venice Beach to Sylmar were overrun with encampments on sidewalks, in parks, even in our region’s state and national parks. There have been quite literally thousands of fires in encampments and, terrifyingly, in those open spaces, some of them fatal. The story of L.A.’s all too real decline has become international news.
Mayor Bass, don’t go wobbly. Don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. Learn from them. Don’t let Inside Safe become the next Bridge Home fiasco. Keep making the tough moves, even the politically unpalatable ones. Especially the politically unpalatable ones. Don’t let the activists screaming in City Council deter you for one moment. Keep calling them out as you did last week.
Most of all, don’t bow to the bureaucracy that stands between the city and solutions, between life and death. Slay it. Become your own hurricane.
Angelenos will have your back.
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