Arrest is last option if unhoused Angeleno rejects shelter bed: Joe Buscaino

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Councilman Joe Buscaino appears at his home in San Pedro, March 23, 2022. Photo by Marcelle Hutchins/KCRW

KCRW is interviewing the top five candidates running for LA mayor, including City Councilmembers Joe Buscaino and Kevin de León, billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso, California Congresswoman Karen Bass, and city attorney Mike Feuer. 

First up is Buscaino, a former LAPD officer who represents City Council District 15, which includes San Pedro, Watts, and Wilmington. Buscaino talks about his plan to provide immediate shelters to unhoused Angelenos, and defends his use of donor cash to travel abroad with his family. 

The following interview has been edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Let’s start with homelessness, arguably the biggest issue confronting Los Angeles. You have taken a hard line and said you want to ban unhoused people from sleeping in public places. How would you do that?

Joe Buscaino: It's moving quickly on emergency shelters. What we're seeing in our streets today [is] allowing people to destroy themselves and die — 1300 souls die every single year. I've always said it's not a housing issue. We do need to build enough supportive, affordable, transitional housing. That will solve a lot of problems, and we have to do it. But we have to deal also with the mental health and drug abuse issues.

Today, I believe this has been a city that's been enabling drug addiction by not having people move quickly into immediate shelter. I've always said that, and what we've done in my district, is both. We move on solutions, but also make sure that we don't allow people to die on our streets. And we owe that to the unhoused, and the housed residents that have seen a lot of chaos in and around these dangerous encampments.

A lot of people would agree with you that this is a crisis. But the problem comes with the difficult details. It’s finding adequate shelter and providing them with services. That’s really hard. How would you do it? 

My plan is similar to what I've done in my district. I’m the only candidate for mayor that has a concrete, comprehensive, and constitutional plan. I encourage your listeners to go to And when elected, within the first 60 days, I'm going to give the [LA City] Council my plan to move on 9,000 shelter beds within 36 months. And that will get us to Functional Zero on chronic homelessness, to the point where we would be able to get people off the streets and into housing with services. And at the same time, be able to enforce a citywide no-camping law, which is consistent with the [Martin V.] Boise ruling. We can't have both. We owe it to those who are suffering on our streets and those who are living in their neighborhoods.

You’re referring to the Boise ruling, where the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals told Los Angeles that you can’t kick people off the streets without providing them shelter. 

Correct. … When there's a bed available, there's got to be a choice that needs to be made. And my plan is those who are living on the streets, give them two options, whether it's a BRIDGE Home or Project Roomkey. And if they refuse, there ought to be consequences because when a bed is available, the sidewalk should not be an option.

What do you mean by consequences? 

Well, consequences: If you don't go in, we're out to get you into drug addiction treatment or mental health treatment. And as a last resort, I've always felt that the citation arrest has to be on the table. I've argued this for the last five years in the City of Los Angeles. My colleagues have not agreed with me. And if you look at our streets today, they're a disaster. 

People are dying. We have open drug use … the dangerous meth that is easily now accessible and more dangerous that causes paranoia. 

And we have to have both. We got to be able to move quickly on shelter beds, but at the same time have consequences on our streets. Otherwise, we'll start seeing more deaths on our streets.

You would arrest them if they didn’t go into shelter?

I haven't arrested one person. If you come to my district, I’m really proud of the effort being made here. And it's not a crime to be homeless. There are criminal elements involving these encampments. You have drug dealers pushing drugs into the encampments, and gangs who are taking control over these encampments. We're proud that we haven't arrested one soul for being homeless.

But a lot of people who are unhoused find shelters unsafe. Or there might not be a bed available. So what do you say if they decline?

I can tell you that the shelter is much safer than being on the streets [and] on the sidewalks.

But what if they say no?

If they refuse to go into a BRIDGE Home, there’ll be a tiny home village available to them. That's part of my plan. There will be a Project Roomkey, a Project Homekey. There'll be permanent supportive housing units. Everything's on the table. But deciding to live on the street is not an option.

But is there enough space? Because there doesn’t seem to be enough emergency or permanent shelters available for the 42,000 unhoused people in the City of LA. 

My count of 9,000 will be in addition to the over 20,000 beds that we've already put in place in the City of Los Angeles. And to get to Functional Zero, as we know, folks come in and out of shelters. We place them into permanent supportive housing units. There's thousands of units being built as we speak. I've always felt that permanent supportive housing takes long. And while people are dying on the streets, we should not have them wait and use sidewalks as ER rooms while they're waiting for a permanent bed. And my goal as mayor is to be bold and move on shelter beds. Because I can tell you an interim transitional bed that takes quicker to build out, is a lot safer than waiting for an apartment unit that takes two to four years to build.

Where would you put these immediate shelter beds? There have been proposals to place them in various districts, and neighborhood groups have been opposed. 

Yeah. Good point. My neighborhoods were opposed to all my sites. But here's what I did in my district. We had an amazing Council District 15 homeless working group that comprised of neighborhood council leaders, advocates, faith-based leaders, business leaders. It was a collaborative effort. And I'll do the same thing as mayor. It'll be a collaborative effort in identifying locations throughout the city. And the mayor's got to lead. The mayor's got to have a backbone and be bold to cite these locations. 

But I understand why some of the neighborhoods don't want these sites because they've been sold a bag of goods. If you look at what's taking place in Venice, at the Venice BRIDGE Home, it's been a disaster when the council member and the mayor promised clean and safe streets and enforcement. And it's a disaster there. So there's a lack of trust. So my plan is not only to move quickly on interim shelter beds, but also making sure that we have a buffer of no camping in and around these sites.

So again, would that mean that you would arrest people if they refuse to go to shelters?

As a last option. There's got to be a citation arrest as a last option. And again, we're proud of doing what we've done here without arresting a soul. And when a safer location is being proposed, with the ongoing outreach, then everyone wins. Not only those who are suffering from homelessness on the ground [and] on the sidewalk, but also the neighborhoods.

How many people are living on the streets in your district?

We haven't done the latest count. We haven't done a count in the last couple years due to COVID. But we’re waiting on the current numbers. But I was out there in the last count, and we were just amazed to see the reduction of tents and encampments. I can tell you, based on the numbers and what was visible, knowing that we said yes to solutions and we haven't seen the amount of tents and those living on the street, that we haven't seen in the last couple years, I'm confident that we've seen a reduction in the homeless count in my district.

Your plan includes a provision to dock the salaries of city leaders, including your own, if they don’t meet certain goals when it comes to reducing homelessness. How would that work, given that these salaries are laid out in the LA City Charter

My plan for addressing homelessness as mayor is not only the accountability, leading with compassion, and addressing the treatment of those suffering from mental illness and drug addiction. So part of my effort in proposing a ballot measure … is the accountability piece. What I've learned in the state legislature, when the state leaders don't approve a budget on time, they dock their pay. So we can do the same here. 

And with the mayor, down to the City Council, if we don't meet a certain threshold on emergency beds, say for instance … we're short 30%, then we get 30% dock in pay. That is legal. Our attorneys have said it's legal. 

And we've taken a page out of the state legislature, where if the state leaders don't pass a budget, they get their pay docked. And this is similar here. We have a crisis on our hands that, again, is going to take bold executive leadership to solve the most pressing crisis in our lifetime here. And that is those who are living on our streets and are dying right before our eyes.

Crime has gone up in Los Angeles, although it is nowhere near what it was in the 1990s. What do you propose to do about it? 

Well, I've always felt that we shouldn't have defunded the LAPD $150 million. Because I made a statement and warned my colleagues that if we take resources away from the police department, that communities of color will suffer the most. In fact, I represent a very diverse district, from Watts down to San Pedro, and my Latino and African American communities actually want more policing to feel safe. 

Everything hinges on public safety. And I'm the only candidate that has experience as a compassionate police officer, a community police officer who actually patrolled the streets of Los Angeles. And patrolled my own hometown as a senior lead officer, dealing with quality of life issues, patrolling with the heart behind the badge, building on partnerships, and problem solving and preventing crime, but also holding people accountable for committing crimes in neighborhoods. Part of my plan is increasing the police force. We need more officers in neighborhoods, higher visibility, because policing 101 will tell you: The more cops you have on the streets, the less crime you'll have. 

But my approach to policing is the same way that I police the streets and that's relationship-based. And what we've done in my district, I'm really proud of the community safety partnership that we modeled in Watts. That's relationship-based policing with the Watts community. We've seen a reduction in violent crime by having that faith, trust, and confidence between officers and the community. And also tripling the size of the senior lead officer that focuses on quality of life issues by building better relationships with the community. 

It all comes down to trust. And the people of the 15th District trusted their own senior lead officer, and elected him to the City Council. And if people don't feel safe in the city, they're not going to want to live here, work here, do business here. And I've always said everything hinges on public safety.

You’re a former police officer, but the LA Police Union is backing your opponent, developer Rick Caruso. What do you make of that? 

Well, they got it wrong. Unfortunately, you have a campaign, you have a candidate that's filled with wealth. And I'm proud to have the support of not only the men and women who were actually responding to 911 calls — I was inundated with calls and text messages from my police officer friends — but an endorsement is an endorsement. This is a political arm of the police union. I’m happy to be the independent candidate that will seek more reforms, but also ensure that our people are safe at the same time.

Caruso is also promising a crackdown on homelessness. He also has a tough-on-crime message. He’s everywhere in his ads. Is he hijacking your message? 

He's not only in my lane. I'm finding that Karen Bass, Kevin de León, and Mike Feuer are coming towards my side, more of the centrist-balanced approach to solving homelessness and addressing crime issues. So I’m going to be fighting in this race. If I can't fight this race, then how can I claim to be able to fight for every day Angelenos? 

The LA Times investigated city records, including your office holder account with money from donors. The report says you spent $65,000 since taking office in 2013. You brought your family with you on trips to Hawaii and Italy. It’s not prohibited under city ethics rules, but these accounts are supposed to be used for office operations and constituent services.

No, it’s also being used for travel as well.

Okay, but it looks like by bringing your family, you wanted them to have a nice vacation in Hawaii and Italy. How do you characterize it?

It was an irresponsible article. No laws were broken. No taxpayer dollars were used, as you indicated. I follow the rules and follow the law. Disclosed all of my disclosures on time. The ethics approved all the expenditures. 

And I'm proud to represent my city as the president of the National League of Cities. The last president of the National League of Cities was the greatest mayor of our time, that's Tom Bradley. And when my duty calls me both to travel nationally and internationally, I prefer to have my wife and kids with me, and I was able to do that.

So you don’t think it looks bad, even though you didn’t break any rules?

It can look bad, but I followed the rules. And these last 10 years, I’m proud of my record of fully disclosing to ethics all of my expenditures as the law allows.

We’re going to end with a light question, because KCRW is a music station, as well as a news station. What is your favorite guilty pleasure song? 

I love karaoke. And I love to sing in the shower and in public.

What’s your favorite karaoke song then?

“Sweet Caroline.” “Jessie’s Girl.”

Excellent, a little Neil Diamond. 

Absolutely. One of my favorites is “Give me the Night” by George Benson.