L.A. mayoral candidate Jessica Lall wants a city department of homelessness

·4 min read
Downtown business leader Jessica Lall announcing that she will run for mayor of Los Angeles.
Downtown business leader Jessica Lall, shown in September, called for creating a city department of homelessness if she is elected mayor. (Los Angeles Times)

Mayoral candidate Jessica Lall says that when she looks at the system that dispenses aid and care to homeless people in Los Angeles, she sees a "maddening refrain of 'it's not my responsibility.'"

To improve the situation, Lall said Wednesday that if elected she would create a city department of homelessness to coordinate the response to the crisis.

She said that a department singularly focused on homelessness — one in which officials from other agencies can convene to resolve bureaucratic challenges — would help improve the delivery of services to people living on the streets.

"Departments like sanitation unfairly [have] become the de facto lead agency dealing with street encampments," Lall said. "The department established to deal with waste and trash is asked to be the front face for our city to our unhoused population. It is both dysfunctional and unacceptable and must change."

The proposal was part of a broader homelessness plan released by Lall, who serves as president and chief executive of the downtown business group Central City Assn., and is mounting a long-shot bid for the city's top job, lacking the name recognition and stature of many of the other candidates who hold other elected office.

Unlike other candidates, Lall was unwilling to specify how many people she'd like to see housed early in her term. Last week Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) called for 15,000 people to be housed in her first year — though she didn’t spell out how many would go into permanent housing, as opposed to interim housing such as bunk-style shelters, tiny homes or rented hotel rooms.

Last year, Councilman Joe Buscaino said he'd like to see 7,000 new interim housing units in his first 18 months. Lall said her rivals' homelessness plans "have these lofty goals but as we know goals are not a plan."

"We're not going to throw numbers against a dartboard," Lall said. "Part of the biggest problem is we don't have the data necessary to even know where we are, much less where we need to go."

If elected, Lall said she would appoint herself to the commission overseeing the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, and eventually appoint other elected city officials to join her to increase accountability. Currently, the commission includes former elected officials, people from philanthropy and business leaders. Adding elected officials is inspired by how the region's Metropolitan Transportation Authority is organized.

If after serving on the board she felt that the organization was ineffective, Lall said she would consider pulling the city out.

Lall also said she would immediately try to audit how money devoted to homelessness has been spent and begin monthly updates with the public about the crisis. Her hope was that her first budget would reflect a better understanding of how money is already being spent and would allow her to set realistic goals to communicate to the public.

Mike Arnold, who previously ran LAHSA and now runs the Midnight Mission on skid row, said Lall's proposals were encouraging even if many of her ideas aren't new ones. He pointed to her desire to be on the LAHSA board as example of how she wants to dive into the structural challenges currently associated with helping homeless people.

"She clearly understands how to structurally break down bureaucracy to bring about meaningful results," Arnold said.

She said the city needs to spend more on mental health services for homeless people — normally the purview of the county — thought she did not explain how it would be paid for. She has previously proposed creating a citywide public health department.

She was unwilling to lend her support to a recently announced ballot initiative that would increase taxes on real estate transactions in the city to fund permanent housing for homeless people and those at risk of ending up on the street. She said new taxes right now weren't acceptable.

She said a key metric for judging success would be the reduction of street encampments — a view shared by all the candidates. The Central City Assn. has been criticized by skid row activists who say it has advocated policies that would hurt the people living on the streets of downtown.

Lall said the portion of a law passed last summer that allows council members to seek to ban camping at specific locations is one of "the best examples of the dysfunction currently taking place."

"I support the cleaning of encampments and moving people into housing and services," Lall said. "I do not support doing this council district by council district where you have to get a group of people within a community to go to a council member to introduce a motion."

Laws about where people can and cannot camp should be enforced consistently and citywide, she said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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