Mayor Bass: Bureaucracy leaves many Angelenos on the streets

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Michell Eloy

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass looks on during a visit to the Hilda L. Solis Care First Village to see the interim housing built from shipping containers in Los Angeles, California, U.S., February 7, 2023. Photo by REUTERS/Mike Blake.

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass was sworn into office in December. KCRW talks to her about the first three months on the job, including her work to address homeless and housing, as well as safety and policing on public transit. 

Offering temporary housing with a promise of permanent housing

In December, Bass launched the “Inside Safe” program, which targets specific encampments and offers residents temporary housing at a hotel or motel — with the promise of permanent housing down the line. During Bass’ mayoral campaign, she said she wanted to house 17,000 people in her first year on the job. Data from her office shows she’s put 420 people into temporary housing and 20 into permanent housing. 

She says her priority now is getting unhoused Angelenos into temporary housing (for two to three months), not congregate shelters. That includes those who sought shelter from the winter storms that hit LA a few weeks ago. 

Bass: “We have found that there's a number of barriers to getting people into housing when we have vacancies. … For example, there is the system called the Coordinated Entry System, which is supposed to be how you prioritize who gets housing. It turns out that that system is so bureaucratic that … [we] can't put people in the housing. So at the same time as we're getting people off the streets into motels temporarily, we are also trying to eliminate the self-imposed barriers that keep people from moving from the motels into permanent housing. 

At the same time, we are acquiring properties, and we are also expediting the building of property. So we are going at this with all cylinders blazing. 

You also should know that one of the major barriers we had in the city was a dysfunctional relationship between the city and the county. And right now, the city and the county are working together lockstep. The federal government has weighed in, as well as the state government. So one of my objectives was to align every level of government, and I'm happy to say that that process happened much faster than I anticipated and is going very well.”

LA’s current system keeps units vacant, according to Bass. 

“It says that the people who are supposed to be housed first are the people who are in the worst conditions. And there is a list of people. Well, the LA Times did a front page story about how this system discriminates against African Americans and Latinos. Considering that 74% of the people on the street are either Black or Brown — that's one issue. But while we have a list of people who are in the worst condition, we keep the unit vacant until we locate that person. Need I say — that the people who are in the worst condition are also the most difficult to locate and the most difficult to house. So we will literally leave units empty, while we're looking for certain people. 

… In South LA, where most of the permanent housing has been built, you have people from South LA who are sleeping on the street, while people from other parts of the county take up the housing in South LA. And you can imagine if you overlay the racial component on that, you literally have Black and Brown people in tents, while other people are in housing in their neighborhood.”

Is there enough permanent housing for everyone living on LA’s streets? Bass says no — but units are starting to open that have been under construction for years. She adds that she’s focusing on workarounds to the high price of construction, such as adaptive reuse, or transforming a commercial building into a residential one. Single room occupancy (SRO) units are also an option. 

Bass:  “Unfortunately, what LA did years ago was demolish a lot of the SROs. But they do still exist. And we do believe that they should be used as well. It's not the most optimal housing. It certainly is not permanent housing, but it is a viable choice. And I'm a big believer in all of the above. I'm not a big proponent of congregate shelters, but sometimes that might be an acceptable model for people because what folks should understand is that … many times, the encampments are small communities. People have bonded in those tents, sometimes they want to move together, which is why we do move them together in terms of leasing out a motel, but sometimes it might be acceptable to people. You know that we don't push shelters because people feel that shelters are dangerous, and they don't want to be in them for that reason. And it's a sad situation to say that people feel safer on the street than they do in a shelter.”

Bass is also focused on educating Angelenos about their rights as renters to prevent homelessness in the first place. She points to the recent tenant protections passed by LA City Council to support residents once the eviction moratorium ends. 

Safety and policing on LA Metro

As mayor, Bass sits on the LA Metro Board of Directors. And amid an increase in crime on buses, trains, and at stations, Bass says the body is focusing on examining the intersection between homelessness and crime. That includes providing supportive services, increasing the amount of transit ambassadors on the system, and making sure those ambassadors know how to use Narcan to treat opioid overdose emergencies.  

She adds that safety does include law enforcement officers in the system, but doesn’t know if more are needed. 

“One of the issues about Metro that maybe the general public is not aware — is that there's three different law enforcement agencies that govern Metro. You have the Long Beach Police, you have the Sheriff's [Department], and you have LAPD. And they go about their tasks in different ways. And I think that's an issue as well,” she notes. 

The “existential threat” to the system, Bass adds, is that ridership is down among women. “If we don't get a handle on it, absolutely, it can compromise the ability of Metro to succeed.”