Karen Bass’ mission: Get 17,000 people off the streets of Los Angeles in a year
LOS ANGELES — Karen Bass has pledged to tackle the homelessness problem here by getting 17,000 people off the streets during her first year in office. But her success as mayor will depend on what happens after that.
Bass’ strategy — to move thousands of people into motels as a stopgap measure while the city works out a long-term fix — is being closely watched by elected officials from Sacramento to Washington, D.C. Both Gov. Gavin Newsom and President Joe Biden have made tackling homelessness centerpieces of their policy agendas this year, and progress in Southern California would play an outsize role in improving overall numbers. Susan Rice, Biden’s top domestic policy adviser, spent a weekend with Bass last month discussing the crisis and meeting with residents.
“The homelessness crisis is front and center,” Bass said in an interview Thursday. “It’s what’s impacting everybody, the fact that people are dying on the streets every day.”
Local leaders have for years struggled to control skyrocketing rents and a shrinking affordable housing market that’s priced countless Angelenos out of their homes, leaving the county short 500,000 affordable units. They readily admit they don’t have enough city staff, social workers or funding to create a safety net for residents struggling with severe mental health conditions or drug addiction.
Jennifer Shurley, who has been in and out of homelessness for years and is now staying at a Venice motel, said she has watched people fall out of the shelter system.
“You can throw as many temporary solutions at it as you want, if there’s no long-term solution to what’s actually causing the homelessness, it’s just a Band-Aid,” she said.
Shurley moved into her motel room last month, an early beneficiary of Bass’ effort. Before then, she lived in her truck among the fashionable restaurants and multi-million-dollar homes in Venice, one of Los Angeles’ most famous neighborhoods.
The city’s homelessness count has steadily grown in recent decades and now stands at nearly 42,000 people, a population larger than many California cities. About two-thirds of the city’s homeless residents live on the streets. Swelling housing costs, a proliferation of drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine and temperate weather have pushed the figure ever higher.
Of the 230,000 unsheltered homeless people across the U.S., one in five is in Los Angeles County — and most live in the city of Los Angeles.
Bass won election in November after an expensive race against real estate developer Rick Caruso on a promise to shrink the encampments that have proliferated across the city.
Residents have made it clear in polling over the last year that homelessness is their top concern, putting pressure on the mayor to quickly show results.
“What they want to see is the problem solved,” Bass said in an interview.
The former congresswoman wasted little time. Soon after taking office in December, Bass got the City Council on board with a state of emergency that gives her office more power to expedite affordable housing development, execute lease agreements with building owners and sign contracts with service providers. County supervisors declared a similar emergency a month later, linking arms with Bass for a photo moments after the decision was finalized.
Veteran local officials have taken note of Bass’ ability to coordinate fractious governmental bodies, a skill she honed as a community organizer and leader of the state Assembly, where she befriended Republicans like House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
“That has not been done before,” said County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who has worked in Los Angeles County government since 1988. “Finally, we are on the same page.”
Bass also launched a new outreach program that has moved 138 people in Venice and Hollywood into temporary housing while promising permanent options and services.
That strategy has so far targeted two large encampments that have been sources of frustration for years, including the Venice location where Shurley lived. The program recently expanded to South Los Angeles and an area near Culver City, and Bass said she hopes to scale it up over the next month.
Jason Neroni, a chef and owner of a Venice restaurant near that multi-block encampment, said he was surprised at the speed with which Bass’ team organized the operation to remove the tents centered on Hampton Drive. He said calls to the city for help often went unanswered in the past, even as car break-ins and confrontations between restaurant workers and homeless people became a problem.
“It happened in such a whirlwind,” he said. “It feels like somebody's trying to do something and help.”
Locals are still wary, having seen encampments disappear, only to return. Carly Achenbach, a server at Neroni’s restaurant who works multiple jobs to afford her rent in Santa Monica, said she worries people who are moved from one location will end up on the street somewhere else.
“I guess if that [encampment] clears and it stays clear, maybe something really happened,” she said. “But do we ever know?
So far Bass has avoided deploying police to forcibly remove people and their belongings, perhaps considering the protests sparked by such actions — even as other liberal cities resort to more punitive measures in response to public pressure.
Shurley, who said she first experienced homelessness as a Colorado teenager fleeing an abusive relationship, is the lead plaintiff in a civil lawsuit against the city of Boulder, where she was ticketed multiple times for violating a ban on camping in public places.
In Venice last month, she was so relieved to have a place to go that she “cried like a baby” when she and her four dogs were offered a ground-floor room at a motel less than two miles from where she’d been living. She said staff at the motel assured her that she can stay on her city voucher as long as necessary.
But Shurley said she’s worried about finding a job that will allow her to afford rent in Los Angeles. She wants tobe a social worker, conducting the same sort of outreach efforts that helped her.
“I need a decent job that pays me a decent amount of money to where I don't need any kind of assistance programs,” she said.
Bass, who herself has a degree in social work, has won early approval from homelessness researchers for her commitment to scaling up programs methodically and measuring the city’s progress. The city’s past efforts have not been closely linked to data, making it hard to see whether they are actually working, said Gary Dean Painter, director of USC’s Homelessness Policy Research Institute.
“That provides me confidence, that, in fact, she will have a plan from her team that will hold everyone accountable,” Painter said.
The goodwill will ultimately be short-lived, however, unlessBass and other local leaders can solve the massive housing shortage and rising cost of living that have made the city difficult to live in. The average cost to rent a one-bedroom apartment in the city is around $2,300, while the sale price of a single-family home is $900,000.
County officials estimate that they’ve moved tens of thousands of people into permanent and temporary housing since 2017, an effort aided by a quarter-cent sales tax. But those successes are offset by a grim reality: On average, 227 people lose their homes each day.
“If the inflow stopped, if people stopped becoming homeless,” said Cheri Todoroff, executive director of the Los Angeles County Homeless Initiative, “we would solve homelessness in this county in about three years.”
In the city alone, roughly 352,000 residents live in poverty and are at risk of becoming homeless. That risk will intensify after Los Angeles County’s long-standing eviction moratorium is lifted in April, giving renters just six months to pay off debt. Bass has said that she supports renter assistance programs, but is not pushing for the moratorium to be extended.
Tenant advocates like Tony Carfello, a member of the Los Angeles Tenants Union, said they fear renters will be hit by a deluge of eviction notices from landlords of rent-controlled units who have long wanted to hike rents held below market rate for decades.
Bass, like other city and state leaders, is pushing to build more units of affordable and market-rate housing, and to scrap parts of a bureaucracy that slows the process down. Even if these initiatives are implemented smoothly, Los Angeles would still be years away from closing its affordable housing gap.
She’s already trying to temper expectations.
“Literally, we’re just getting started,” she said, “and I hope that there will be some consideration given to that.”