LA Mayor Karen Bass says Olympics could help solve homelessness

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Zeke Reed

LA Mayor Karen Bass speaks with the Paris Homelessness Assistance Unit on March 8, 2024. Photo courtesy of LA Mayor’s Office.

Over the weekend, Mayor Karen Bass was in France as part of an Olympic delegation ahead of the 2024 Paris Games. Also with her abroad: three members of LA City Council, the LA Metro CEO, and others involved in LA’s 2028 Olympic planning. The delegation wanted to learn how the French are preparing for the world-class event and using it to tackle homelessness and improve public transit. 

Bass tells KCRW that LA has four years to seriously address homelessness, which includes finding efficient ways of creating interim shelter and long-term housing paired with supportive services.

“The most important thing [is] to really make sure that the services that we provide people are strong, so they don't fall in and out of homelessness. And in France, of course, they have a much better system because their social safety net is much stronger than ours is. And unfortunately, one of the reasons we have the problems we do now is because over the years, we have shredded a lot of the safety net, and people always think of mental health, but it's much more than mental health.” 

She points to how many unhoused Angelenos there are, not only in the City of Los Angeles (over 46,000 in 2023), but the greater county itself (over 75,000 in 2023). Key to housing them will be collaboration across the cities in the region, Bass says. 

“I am hopeful… that the LA Olympics will help be a catalyst to LA finally addressing homelessness in a way that is long-term, that eventually ends street homelessness.”

There has been criticism that Paris’ approach to tackling homelessness ahead of the Olympics includes moving unhoused residents to less visible parts of the country. Bass says she did not see evidence of that and says LA has faced similar, inaccurate accusations. She also promises nothing of the sort would happen here.

“You will obviously have a very major commitment for me, I don't want to do that here. I mean, some people believe that the way to deal with homelessness is to just scatter people or make them go away. And what I've been trying to do is approaching it like we have a natural disaster, like it is an emergency, which means we need to get people off the street today.”

She points out, however, that homelessness is much worse in LA than in Paris, which informs her approach to the issue. 

“Having tens of thousands of people sleeping on our streets, I mean, how did it come to this? … I'm not saying that from the point of view of wanting to be punitive toward anybody that's on the street. But how is it that we allow Angelenos to live and die on the streets? Three to five people die every single day. And I just think that's egregious and it's something that should be unacceptable. And unfortunately to younger Angelenos, they've known this their whole life. … I've been around for a while and LA was not always like this.” 

She adds, “I think, hopefully, the Olympics will be a positive catalyst for us saying, ‘We're not going to deal with this anymore. We are going to help people, get them off the streets, and provide enough services so they don't fall back into homelessness.’ And we're not doing that to what I believe is the standard that it should be right now.” 

As a former congresswoman and the current chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ national task force on homelessness, Bass is working with the federal government to address the issue. Last weekend, President Biden signed off on nearly $10 million in federal aid to LA. “I've been extremely pleased that the Biden administration has selected LA to be one of five cities that they are targeting,” Bass says.

However, questions about the success of local programs remain. Last week, LA City Controller Kenneth Mejia announced a “focused audit” of Bass’ signature Inside Safe Program, which helps temporarily house people in motels and hotels. 

Bass says her program has been transparent since the beginning, but also very expensive — requiring upwards of several thousands of dollars a month per motel room, plus the cost of other services. She notes that new housing is being built but will take time to complete. 

“Even if you fast-track something, it still takes months and months. And the expensive thing in a motel versus the expense of being in some other type of housing is where we need to move to. And so one thing about the market that is positive is that builders and architects are now coming up with more cost-effective ways of building interim housing that we could put up quicker than we would permanent housing. And so that's what we have to do because the model we're using now is in response to an emergency, but it's far too expensive.” 

Bass says so far, 329 Angelenos have received permanent housing through Inside Safe. 

Meanwhile, LA voters overwhelmingly supported Measure HLA during last week’s election. Bass says her office is now meeting with key departments to implement the legislation. She points out that transportation in LA also intersects with homelessness. 

“I get notified every time there's a fatality on the street. And I will tell you that in many of those cases, these are people that are unhoused. I'm not saying all, but we have to address that as well — people who are mentally not able to take care of themselves wandering in the street in the middle of the night. So we need to do much, much, much better. And I am hoping that HLA will be helpful to us to do that, and so we're starting to work on it today.”

San Francisco voters also passed a measure that mandates drug testing and treatment for welfare recipients. Bass says in LA, she’d rather implement the Care Court model.

“I have a medical background. I've worked in the emergency room. I've even worked in the psychiatric emergency rooms. … It is inhumane to leave people that you clearly know have no idea that they're ill. They are so ill that they do not know that they're ill. … Sometimes people need to be hospitalized against their will. And it doesn't mean that they're hospitalized forever.”

She continues, “But you know what we do now? We operate the nation's most expensive mental health institution, and that's the county jail. So I would rather hospitalize somebody against their will for a couple of months, stabilize them, and then put them in housing. That's not what we currently do. We currently allow people to deteriorate on our streets until they become violent. And then we incarcerate them. And you want to talk about money? It costs way more to incarcerate somebody than it does to take care of them.”