How LA’s unhoused crisis has become a lightning rod for local politics

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Political fallout is mounting as LA grapples with how to house its many residents living on the streets. Councilmembers Joe Buscaino and Mike Bonin are butting heads with LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva on how to address the crisis in Venice and Echo Park. Meanwhile, Angelenos are making their voices heard. On Tuesday, residents in Bonin’s district served the councilman a recall notice. The move follows news that Councilmember Nithya Raman is also under a recall. 

KCRW talks to Justine Gonzalez, who moved out of Echo Park in February, as well as Carla Hall, a member of the LA Times editorial board who writes about homelessness, and Raphel Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State LA. 

Gonzalez lived in Echo Park for eight years, regularly taking neighborhood walks with her daughter in a stroller. 

“It just became very difficult to walk around every day and see what was really a lot of human suffering, a lot of things that I had to hide my daughter's eyes from, and it didn't feel safe.”

As a non-binary trans woman, Gonzalez says she got called names while walking around the area. She recalls taking her daughter to the playground and then noticing a man exposing himself less than 20 feet away. 

“I hadn't brought her back since then. …  Daily walks became, ‘What am I going to see this time? Am I going to see people fighting? Are we going to see another body carried out of a tent, which I saw on a morning jog one day,” she says. 

After each incident, Gonzalez says she reached out to Councilmember Mitch O'Farrell’s office to explain the situation at the park. She was told that he couldn’t do anything until they had the resources to help folks in the park. 

She points out that despite frustrations she might have over the unhoused crisis, she hopes for the best solutions that will actually uplift the community.

“We have actual solutions that will help people live healthier and safer lives. That's always been my perspective of it. ... I think there's understandably disagreement on how we get there. But I think I'm [closer] to say … ‘Hey, we need to be trying every tool in the toolkit and opening every opportunity possible to get people into housing or supportive services overall.’”

Hall says the frustration over LA’s homeless encampments is rooted in how visible the issue has become. “People are tired of seeing homeless people on the street. They're tired of seeing encampments when they're dirty. They're tired of seeing people go to the bathroom on the streets. I hear everyone's saying that they're tired of homeless people on the street.”

She adds, “How do you get homeless people housed? You can't simply sweep them off the street like you can sweep dirt off the street.”

Sonenshein points out that there’s still a long way to go when it comes to supporting unhoused Angelenos, and some are losing confidence in politicians to solve the crisis. 

“I'm hearing from a lot of people that the political structure is not delivering a direction or solutions that are consistent with people's philosophies on what they'd like to see happen,” he says. “We're reaching a critical point where people are losing faith in the ability of the political system to have a direction and a mission that everybody can believe in.”

Hall says there’s a misconception in how quickly politicians can address the issue. She uses the example of Councilmember Nithya Raman and the criticism she’s receiving. 

“They've looked at those politicians, those city councilmembers and decided they've done nothing to help us. … They accuse [Councilmember Nithya Raman] of having her own personal homelessness ideology that she puts above constituents’ safety. I don't know what they're talking about, except that she's probably trying to treat homeless people like actual people.”

She adds, “This is one of the most difficult problems I've ever seen a city face. How do you house people, whether you house them temporarily or permanently? And when they do have mental illness problems or addiction problems, you can't simply put them in institutions. We don't do that anymore. And frankly, there aren't enough mental health facility beds anyway to put everyone who needs help in them. That's not how you attack this problem. You attack this problem by coming up with more housing, whether it's temporary or permanent. And that's what we need to have happen faster.”