‘A metastasizing crisis’: can Karen Bass end street encampments in LA?


Homelessness has become the central issue for every candidate vying to be the next mayor of Los Angeles. The humanitarian disaster in America’s second largest city has reached catastrophic levels in the two years since the start of the pandemic, but that has not stopped the frontrunner in the race, US Congresswoman Karen Bass, from promising to accomplish what has long seemed impossible: solve the crisis.

The extraordinary challenge facing LA was what prompted Bass not to seek re-election in Congress, she told the Guardian last week. “It is the number one reason why I decided to come back and run for mayor … It has gotten completely out of hand.”

Unveiling her homelessness platform in January, Bass made bold commitments: if elected, she would “end all street encampments”. She would provide housing to 15,000 unhoused people by the end of year one; rapidly get people off the street; convert empty properties into shelter; and build more permanent supportive housing.

Speaking last week, Bass said the city had historically approached homelessness like it was a “chronic disease”: “You know it’s not going to go away and that you’re going to have to take medicine for the rest of your life. The city and the county have treated the problem without even the consideration that it could or should be solved … it has now exploded or metastasized.”

Bass’s diagnosis builds on her early career as an emergency room physician assistant in an LA county hospital, where she treated unhoused people. In 1990, she founded the Community Coalition, a South LA non-profit organization focused on substance abuse and violence prevention. At that time, she argued 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 US congresswoman, to Joe Biden’s shortlist to become vice-president – the housing crisis in her home town dramatically worsened. Now, more than 41,000 people are unhoused in the city, and nearly four unhoused people die every day. LA county is home to 40% of all unhoused people in California, and 20% of all unhoused people living outside in the US, as of 2020.

Members of the clean-up crew dismantled tents on the Veterans Row in an effort to help homeless veterans move onto the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus. Photograph: Al Seib/Rex/Shutterstock

“The number one thing I would do differently is treat this like a natural disaster,” Bass said. “If you have an earthquake … you go into action, and you don’t let bureaucracy stand in your way, because you understand that people are dying.”

Bass is not the first official to push for urgency and promise to “cut through red tape”. The outgoing mayor, Eric Garcetti, has called for a “Fema-like response” to homelessness. Most candidates looking to replace him have promised dramatic and decisive change, though they have remained vague on how exactly they will reduce the rising 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 LA county government (which oversees social services).

She has also pledged to prevent homelessness by promoting rental assistance and direct cash assistance: “I believe very strongly in assistance for landlords, it’s not enough just to assist the 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 of shelters’

Bass’s proposals have been closely scrutinized, with skeptics questioning how she will succeed in finding housing for tens of thousands of people or clearing tent communities without violating unhoused people’s rights. Other critics have argued her plan didn’t offer substantially new solutions. Some experts have criticized her focus on expanding temporary shelter, and questioned whether that approach can get people indoors en masse – and keep them off the streets.

Carolina Reid, faculty research adviser at UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation, said there was research consensus in support of the “housing first” model, which prioritizes providing permanent housing for unhoused people over requiring them to go through temporary programs and services before offering a more permanent home: “We know what makes a difference – give people housing, and that over time can stabilize them.”

Entire blocks are packed with homeless encampments on skid row in downtown LA. Photograph: Luis Sinco/Rex/Shutterstock

In addition, data has shown how LA has repeatedly failed to transition people from temporary solutions into long-term housing; UCLA researchers recently found that one year after the shutdown of a major encampment at Echo Park Lake, only 17 out of 183 residents were confirmed to be in stable housing. One resident told the Guardian he spent a full year waiting in a temporary program only to return to an encampment. Several unhoused people said they were kicked out of temporary programs due to strict rules without getting an opportunity for housing.

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

“It’s pathetic when being on the street is better than being in a shelter. Obviously that is crying for a new design of shelters,” she said, noting that the pandemic showed the importance of giving people private spaces instead of group shelters with rows of cots.

She offered few specifics on how she would get 15,000 people housed in a year, but said it would require temporary placements, permanent housing and other programs. She added she would improve the process for housing vouchers that subsidize low-income rent, so that people who have received the vouchers can actually get rentals.

Mayors fall back on the public perception that homelessness is driven by mental illness and substance abuse … but the data doesn’t support that

Pete White, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, who advocates for the unhoused, said he was glad Bass was pushing for more efficient ways to build permanent housing and looking to use government land. But he added: “I’m not happy about seeing arbitrary numbers and promises to remove houseless folks from sight, without having an accompanying plan for that number of units to be developed.

“Unfortunately, Candidate Bass and pretty much all the other candidates are producing plans that we’ve seen and heard before in Los Angeles”, he said.

White and other experts lamented the lack of proposals from the mayoral candidates on preventing evictions as a means of keeping people off the streets. And he was concerned that the effort to get 15,000 off the street would mean a law enforcement crackdown, he said.

‘We can’t arrest our way out of this’

At a recent debate, Bass came out strongly against criminalizing the unhoused, a contrast to Rick Caruso, the billionaire real estate developer who has risen in the polls, which show him tied with Bass, after putting $10m of his money into the campaign. Caruso threatened that when the unhoused don’t accept an offer of a “dry bed and warm food”, they should be forced to leave the streets: “You have to move that encampment.”

Joe Buscaino, Kevin de Leon, Karen Bass, Rick Caruso and Mike Feuer participate in the mayoral debates in March 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. Photograph: Myung J Chun/Los Angeles Times/Rex/Shutterstock

Candidate Joe Buscaino, a councilman and former policeman, pledged to use police to sweep unhoused camps, saying, “We have been a city that has been enabling this behavior … that’s been a welcoming mat for the rest of the country to come to LA, pitch a tent, take drugs in public.”

Data counters his claims, showing the majority of unhoused people in the region became unhoused due to economic hardship, and two-thirds were living in LA when they fell into homelessness. LA county says 32% of unhoused people living outside report substance abuse and 26% report long-term mental health conditions.

Mari Castaldi, senior legislative advocate on homelessness for Housing California, an advocacy organization, noted that housing affordability was the primary cause of the crisis: “Mayors fall back on the public perception that homelessness is driven by mental illness and substance abuse, and a significant source of crime in our state, but the data doesn’t support that. Mayors often have limited tools to produce affordable housing at scale, and so they turn to policing, criminalization and sweeps.”

Unfortunately, Candidate Bass and pretty much all the other candidates are producing plans that we’ve seen and heard before in Los Angeles

Bass told the Guardian she wanted to push back against the narrative that the majority of encampment residents were “hardcore drug users” who “choose to be on the streets and don’t want to get clean”. And she said she did not want to mislead voters into believing a police crackdown would work: “Even though that might make you feel good, because that person leaves your block, either they’re going to be right back in three days, or somebody else will be there. You can’t arrest your way out of this.”

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

“The best way to end encampments is to have very consistent and aggressive outreach that is led by people who are trained and formerly unhoused,” Bass said, though adding, “I have no doubt that some people in those encampments that are violating the law can wind up arrested.”

And how long will this take? “I’d love to say I will end [encampments] within the first year, but if you want me to just pick a date, I’d be pulling it out of the air. I’d say within two years, but I like to make statements based on data and I’m reluctant to say that, because I would be purely speculating. One thing I would not say, though, is that they are going to be there for years. Because I don’t believe that they have to.”