The Big Potential of Karen Bass’s Homelessness Agenda

On her first day in office, Karen Bass, the newly elected mayor of Los Angeles, declared a state of emergency over the city’s homelessness crisis. The move was accompanied by a touch of political theatre—Bass, who was sworn in by Vice-President Kamala Harris, chose to begin her term at the city’s Emergency Operations Center rather

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On her first day in office, Karen Bass, the newly elected mayor of Los Angeles, declared a state of emergency over the city’s homelessness crisis. The move was accompanied by a touch of political theatre—Bass, who was sworn in by Vice-President Kamala Harris, chose to begin her term at the city’s Emergency Operations Center rather than at City Hall. “My mandate is to move Los Angeles in a new direction with an urgent and strategic approach to solving one of our city’s toughest challenges and creating a brighter future for every Angeleno,” Bass said.

The focus on homelessness should not have come as a surprise. Bass’s closely contested runoff election against the billionaire real-estate developer Rick Caruso was always a referendum on how to deal with the thousands of people who now live in tent encampments, R.V.s, and the city’s overburdened shelter system. Caruso, who promised to “end street homelessness” and wanted to expand the number of police officers on patrol, ran as a maverick and political outsider who would end the do-nothing way of doing things in Los Angeles. His actual policies were hard to pin down—at some point, he suggested that giant tent cities for the homeless could be modelled after migrant holding areas in Texas—but his appeal, outside of the massive amount of money he put in a never-ending advertising blitz, was borne out of the frustration that many of his fellow-Angelenos felt with homelessness and crime. Something had to change, and Caruso’s argument was that Bass, a veteran of Los Angeles politics, would just mean business as usual.

Bass ultimately defeated Caruso by a nearly ten-point margin, and the city’s political priorities have not changed. Like nearly every politician in California, Bass will be judged entirely on how she addresses homelessness and the speed with which she gets results. A state of emergency certainly signals Bass’s intentions, but what do results actually look like? During the mayoral race, both candidates engaged in an unhinged arms race of promises about tens of thousands of new shelter beds, lofty permanent-housing goals, and the like. Now Bass faces the nearly impossible task of housing people in a city with nowhere for them to go.

Bass’s agenda, which is still largely undefined, but includes an expansion of permanent supportive housing and temporary-shelter sites, doesn’t vary all that much from progressive or even centrist policies throughout the state. Bass, for example, has not argued for an extension of the city’s eviction moratorium, which has been tied up in court proceedings but is set to expire at the end of January, 2src23—a move that would likely stop many people from falling into homelessness, which, as most experts or even basic logic will tell you, is the first step in keeping people off the street.

The revolution that Bass hopes to spark in Los Angeles, then, isn’t quite ideological or even policy-based but, rather, bureaucratic. If you read the text of her state-of-emergency declaration, you’ll find resolution after resolution that state the problem and very little in terms of actual proposals except a section in which she redirects power and oversight over the homelessness issue to the Emergency Operations Organization (E.O.O.), and then declares that as “director of the EOO,” she will “coordinate Citywide planning and response with respect to unsheltered individuals in conjunction with the City Administrative Officer, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, Los Angeles City Housing Department, Los Angeles City Planning Department and any and all necessary departments and agencies.” Los Angeles, in other words, now has a homelessness czar who can override civic organizations and clear red tape as she sees fit.

“She is making herself the face of this issue,” Hugo Soto-Martinez, a newly elected member of the city council, told me. “Nobody took charge up to this point, everyone was blaming and pointing the finger. She’s putting her entire reputation on this, and that’s a monumental shift.”

Under the old regime, homelessness responses within different parts of the city could vary wildly. In some districts, including that of Nury Martinez, the disgraced former head of the city council who resigned last month, sanitation teams would perform sweeps of homeless encampments. In others, activists and residents of the encampments have successfully blocked such cleanups. The council member Mike Bonin, who had called for higher standards that would make the sweeps less intrusive and harmful, and later opposed the actions altogether, faced a recall campaign by angry voters for what they saw as permissive or even encouraging policies around homelessness in Venice Beach. (Bonin, whose Black son was called a “little monkey” in the leaked audio tapes that led to Martinez’s resignation, did not seek reëlection in November.)

This fractured state of affairs was made possible by the unusual strength of the city council in years past, but the recent scandal and the ongoing drama around the council member Kevin de Léon—one of the four people recorded on the leaked audio tapes—and his refusal to resign, have thrown everything into chaos. Protesters demanding de Léon’s resignation now disrupt every council meeting. Last week, a widely distributed video showed de Léon in a physical altercation with a protester. This past Tuesday, when the council convened to vote unanimously to approve Bass’s state of emergency, the meeting was interrupted several times, and de Léon ultimately had to cast his vote from a back room.

What a Bass-led homeless response might actually look like, Soto-Martinez believes, is that the factional way of doing business in Los Angeles will now be replaced, at least in some part, by a more comprehensive approach to building and acquiring housing, increasing the capacity of services for the homeless, and “giving a vision of a city-wide approach.” This, of course, is what a mayor should do when faced with a crisis, especially one like homelessness, which requires the coördination of politicians, civic workers, and the fleet of third-party nonprofits that California’s cities have employed to do much of the on-ground work. It does no good for one district to clear an encampment if another one pops up a few miles down the road.

In what will almost certainly become the most controversial part of her new emergency powers, Bass now has the ability to bypass a lot of obstacles and approvals that accompany any building project in the city. She could theoretically build a shelter, for example, without going through an endless procession of community meetings, competitive bids, backdoor deals with local representatives, and fights with homeowners-association leaders. She can now spend money to convert a rundown hotel into temporary housing without city-council approval. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, she even revealed that she will be able to convert city-owned properties into housing. (She also technically has the right to commandeer private property for the same purpose, but has said that she will not.)

The hypocrisy at the heart of California’s homelessness problem is that everyone says they want to help, but, for many people, this just means getting rid of the homeless: almost nobody wants to live near a place that will actually provide places for unhoused people to live. The outrage that Caruso tapped into is fuelled by a type of magical thinking that posits that Los Angeles’s forty-two thousand homeless residents will somehow disappear with the right mixture of tough love, big-picture thinking, and gumption.

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