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“A metastatic crisis”: Can Karen Bass end street encampments in LA? | California

Hhomelessness has become the central issue for every candidate vying to be the next mayor of Los Angeles. The humanitarian disaster in the second-largest city in the United States has reached catastrophic levels in the two years since the start of the pandemic, but that hasn’t stopped race favorite, US Congresswoman Karen Bass. , to promise to accomplish what has long seemed impossible: to resolve the crisis.

The extraordinary challenge facing LA is what spurred Bass to run out of re-election to Congress, she told the Guardian last week. “That’s the number one reason I decided to come back and run for mayor… It got completely out of hand.”

In unveiling her homelessness platform in January, Bass made a bold pledge: if elected, she would “end all street encampments.” It would provide housing for 15,000 homeless people by the end of the first year; get people off the street quickly; convert empty properties into shelters; and build more permanent supportive housing.

Speaking last week, Bass said the city has historically approached homelessness as if it’s a ‘chronic condition’: ‘You know it’s not going to go away and you’re going to have to take medication for the rest of your life. The city and county dealt with the problem without even considering that it could or should be fixed…it has now exploded or metastasized.

Bass’ diagnosis is based on her early career as an emergency room physician assistant at a Los Angeles County hospital, where she treated homeless people. In 1990, she founded the Community Coalition, a South Los Angeles nonprofit focused on substance abuse and violence prevention. At that time, she argued that addiction was a public health crisis while other Democrats pushed for criminalization.

As she rose in politics — from California State Representative to State Assembly Speaker, to U.S. Congressman, to Joe Biden’s shortlist to become Vice President — the housing crisis in his hometown has gotten much worse. Today, more than 41,000 people are homeless in the city and nearly four homeless people die every day. LA County is home to 40% of all homeless people in California and 20% of all homeless people living outside the United States, as of 2020.

Members of the cleanup team took down tents on Veterans Row in an effort to help homeless veterans settle into the West Los Angeles Veterans Campus. Photography: Al Seib/Rex/Shutterstock

“The first thing I would do differently would be to treat this as a natural disaster,” Bass said. “If you have an earthquake…you take action and don’t let bureaucracy get in your way, because you understand that people are dying.”

Bass is not the first official to press the emergency and promise to “reduce bureaucracy”. Incumbent Mayor Eric Garcetti has called for a “Fema response” to homelessness. Most of the candidates seeking to replace him have promised radical and decisive change, although they have remained vague on exactly how they will reduce the growing number of people living outside.

Bass’s “emergency” response includes appointing a homelessness chief to create a better partnership between the city (which is responsible for housing) and the Los Angeles County government (which oversees social services) .

She is also committed to preventing homelessness by promoting housing assistance and direct cash assistance: “I believe very strongly in helping landlords, it is not enough to help tenants”, she said.

To get people off the streets, Bass said she would create more temporary housing on city-owned sites and in vacant properties.

“We need a new design for shelters”

Bass’s proposals have come under scrutiny, with skeptics wondering how she will succeed in finding housing for tens of thousands of people or clearing tent communities without violating the rights of homeless people. Other critics argued that his plan offered no substantially new solutions. Some experts have criticized its focus on expanding temporary shelters and questioned whether this approach could bring people indoors in droves – and away from the streets.

Carolina Reid, faculty research advisor at UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation, said there’s a research consensus in favor of the “housing first” model, which prioritizes the providing permanent housing to those without housing rather than having to go through temporary programs and services before providing more permanent housing: “We know what makes the difference – giving people housing, and this, over time, can stabilize them. »

Whole blocks are filled with homeless encampments on a row of skids in downtown Los Angeles.
Whole blocks are filled with homeless encampments on a row of skids in downtown Los Angeles. Photography: Luis Sinco/Rex/Shutterstock

Additionally, the data showed how LA has repeatedly failed to transition people from temporary solutions to long-term housing; UCLA researchers recently found that a year after a major encampment closed at Echo Park Lake, only 17 of 183 residents were in stable housing. One resident told the Guardian he spent an entire year waiting in a temporary scheme to return to an encampment. Several homeless people said they were kicked out of temporary programs due to strict rules without being given the option of housing.

Bass said she supported the concept of “housing first”, but also argued that interim programs were needed: “With the end of street encampments comes adequate, safe and secure temporary housing” . She said she avoids the word “shelter” because often “that’s where plans end”.

It’s pathetic when being on the streets is better than being in a shelter. Obviously this calls for a redesign of shelters,” she said, noting that the pandemic has shown the importance of giving people private spaces instead of communal shelters with rows of beds.

She gave few details on how she would house 15,000 people in a year, but said it would require temporary placements, permanent housing and other programs. She added that she would improve the process of housing vouchers that subsidize low-income rents, so people who received the vouchers could actually get rentals.

Pete White, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, which advocates for homeless people, said he’s glad Bass is pushing for more efficient ways to build permanent housing and is seeking to use government land. But he added: ‘I’m not happy to see arbitrary numbers and promises to get the homeless out of sight, without having a backing plan for that number of units to be developed.

“Unfortunately, candidate Bass and just about every other candidate are producing plans that we’ve seen and heard before in Los Angeles,” he said.

White and other pundits have lamented the lack of proposals from mayoral candidates on preventing evictions as a way to keep people off the streets. And he feared efforts to get 15,000 people off the streets would mean a crackdown by law enforcement, he said.

“We can’t stop to get out of this”

In a recent debate, Bass spoke out strongly against criminalizing the homeless, unlike Rick Caruso, the billionaire property developer who rose in the polls., which show him tied with Bass, having invested $10 million of his money in the campaign. Caruso threatened that when homeless people don’t accept an offer of a “dry bed and hot food” they should be forced off the streets: “You have to move this encampment.”

Joe Buscaino, Kevin de Leon, Karen Bass, Rick Caruso and Mike Feuer attend the Mayor's Debates in March 2022 in Los Angeles, California.
Joe Buscaino, Kevin de Leon, Karen Bass, Rick Caruso and Mike Feuer attend the Mayor’s Debates in March 2022 in Los Angeles, California. Photography: Myung J Chun/Los Angeles Times/Rex/Shutterstock

Candidate Joe Buscaino, a city councilor and former police officer, pledged to use the police to sweep homeless camps, saying, “We’ve been a city that has allowed this behavior…it’s a welcome mat for the rest of the country coming to LA, pitching a tent, doing drugs in public.

The data contradicts his claims, showing that the majority of homeless people in the area became homeless due to economic hardship, and two-thirds were living in Los Angeles when they fell into homelessness. Los Angeles County reports that 32% of homeless people living outside report substance abuse and 26% report long-term mental health issues.

Mari Castaldi, senior legislative homelessness advocate for Housing California, an advocacy organization, noted that housing affordability was the primary cause of the crisis: a source of crime in our state, but the data doesn’t. not confirm. Mayors often have limited tools to produce affordable housing at scale, so they turn to the police, criminalization and sweeps.

Bass told the Guardian she wanted to push back against the narrative that the majority of the camp’s residents were ‘hard drug users’ who ‘choose to be on the streets and don’t want to wash up’. And she said she didn’t want to mislead voters into thinking a police crackdown would work: ‘Even though it may make you feel good, because that person leaves your block, either they’ll be back in three days or someone the rest will be there. You can’t stop to get out of it.

So how will she “end all encampments” without criminalization?

“The best way to end the encampments is to have very consistent and aggressive outreach led by trained and formerly homeless people,” Bass said, while adding, “I have no doubt that some people in these encampments who violating the law may find themselves arrested.

And how long will it take? “I would like to say that I will finish [encampments] in the freshman year, but if you want me to just pick a date, I’d pull it out of nowhere. I’d say within two years, but I like to make statements based on data and I’m hesitant to say that because I’d just be speculating. One thing I wouldn’t say, though, is that they’re going to be around for years. Because I don’t believe they should.