LA Mayor Garcetti on endorsing Biden and helping the homeless

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Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti visit the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City headquarters in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 10, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Ringo Chiu.

Mayor Eric Garcetti speaks with us about his endorsements for presidential candidate Joe Biden and LA District Attorney Jackie Lacey. We also discuss housing and homelessness. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Press Play: Why do you think Biden is the face of the future?

Eric Garcetti: I think he's somebody who's produced for our city, whether it was helping us raise the minimum wage, or make community college free, or bring the biggest climate set of agreements before Paris together here in L.A. with our Chinese counterparts. … He has absolutely been there for us. So I don't think anybody else in the race comes close. 

Secondly, this is the moment, I think, in which we need to have stability internationally. And he's by far the most knowledgeable and most experienced there. And somebody who I've worked very closely. 

And don't get me wrong, I'm close friends with people Pete Buttigieg. Mike Bloomberg has been a great friend and mentor. And I'm so excited by Bernie [Sanders] and Elizabeth Warren. 

But nobody has produced more for L.A., and I thought he [Biden] deserved that support. 

Why did you feel compelled to endorse him right before Iowa and New Hampshire? Why not wait to see how those races shake out? 

I don't believe in parsing these things or figuring out who's in the lead. I believe that relationships matter, friendships matter, and people who have delivered for your city matter. That it wasn't even a close contest for me.

I think Joe Biden can actually heal this country. Here’s somebody who's a proud progressive who's delivered, but also who I believe can heal those folks who feel shut out of government and don't feel that government speaks to them. 

What is Joe Biden's plan to address homelessness? 

It will come out, I believe, in the next couple of weeks. But we're working very closely. And one of the things I've asked all candidates to commit to -- and push this administration right now to move forward on -- is making housing assistance more readily available. Every country that has solved homelessness has done it because the national government looks at housing as a right, not as some sort of privilege. 

… I’m helping him [Biden] with a plan that he's already drafted. When we were together this past week, I looked at that, gave him my feedback as somebody on the frontlines. 

And I will work with anybody on this. But I think that Joe understands this -- that it is a combination of what we have disinvested in, in terms of our federal housing policy, and also our lack of mental health care in this country. 

Do you think some people should be forced into mental health care treatment? 

I think that we've seen over the years that's not an effective strategy, except in mild ways. When you have people who I think are dying on our streets, the threshold should not just be ‘are they about to cause bodily harm to themselves or to a person?’ 

… We see people who are clearly dying on our streets and causing harm to themselves. … We had somebody in front of City Hall that died. We see folks that are clearly not able to take care of themselves. And I do believe that that should be relaxed so that we can get them into the care that they need.

 … We do need a threshold that isn't as strict as today. And I do support that change at the state level. 

What about the major recommendation from a task force (appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom) that calls for amending the state constitution, so cities are required to cut their homeless numbers?

On the face of it, it looks pretty darn good. I want to dig a little bit more into the details. 

It's not just about cities. My understanding is it's often that there's counties and cities that aren't doing anything. 

… This would allow one person -- it might be the attorney general or somebody who's an inspector general in the state -- to go to those jurisdictions where they're really doing nothing [about homelessness], and let them know that they have to do it. And if they aren't doing it, that they can refer that to a court who would begin to then enforce. 

Many cities are not building a single shelter, are not building a single unit of permanent supportive housing. They're relying on big cities in the region like the city of L.A. to do that work, where we're building 2000 shelter beds and 10,000 supportive housing apartments. 

But oftentimes we have neighbors that really aren't stepping up when the populations that are homeless that come into the city of L.A. sometimes come from those areas. 

So I do think it would be a good, enforceable way to make sure everybody is solving this together because it takes all of us to do that. 

What do you make of the latest opposition to a planned shelter in Los Feliz? 

You can never get 100% of people to support it. But we've seen every single time when one of these bridge home facilities opens -- and we have almost 10 of them open now, we'll have over 20 by July 1, representing 2000 beds that weren't there recently -- the people go, ‘Oh, it's actually great. It's well-run. It's better than the status quo.’ 

… We know what solves homelessness is bringing those shelters, transitional housing opportunities to where people live. … So the solution has to be local. You can't ship people off to another jurisdiction or neighborhood that they don't know and expect them to somehow lift themselves out of homelessness. 

You’ve sent a letter to Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, asking for federal help. What resources did you ask for, and what has Carson offered? 

I think Secretary Carson, when he went through Skid Row, rightfully so, was haunted by the images that he saw. And anybody who walks through Skid Row in the last 40 years should feel that way. And so, I'm not going to ever weaponize this is a partisan issue.

The federal government, I've asked them to look at their land, their excess dollars, the vouchers that have proven so effective in us reducing veterans’ homelessness by 80% in the city, and to do similar things. 

And just because somebody might have a different letter after their name because of the party they register in, I do think this is something that unites us. 

So I'm hopeful. I'll believe it when I see it. But we've had some really good conversations. And I think they're looking at excess funds that are there in the federal government that we can apply to. They're looking at federal land that we could use throughout the county of Los Angeles. 

And we owe it to this issue and the people who are experiencing homelessness here in Los Angeles to work with anybody. 

And as I remind everybody, this will not be solved without deep federal assistance. I hope this can be the beginning of that. 

However, Ben Carson wants to evict residents of public housing if there's an undocumented person living there. He's tried to cut funding for rental subsidies. He's rolled back some anti-discrimination measures. Is he a trustworthy partner? 

I strictly oppose those, and I speak out about them. But people aren't simple. They may help in one area, and we have to fight in different ones. 

We could get infrastructure dollars, for instance, for our subway that came from Washington, D.C. and through this administration. At the same time, we're telling them that their immigration policies are corrosive, destructive. 

So I think part of being mayor is making sure that you always think of the city first, that you never sacrifice your values, but you don't write off anybody in authority because they're in a position to help. You better step up and get that help, or else you're not serving your people. 

State Senator Scott Wiener, who represents San Francisco, is making a third push for SB 50, which would force cities like L.A. to build more housing along transit lines and in neighborhoods dominated by single family homes. What is your opinion on that? I believe you did not support one iteration of SB 50. Would you support this one? 

We have to see it. I've worked really closely with the legislature, including Senator Wiener, to say what's working here in Los Angeles. And I oppose the first iteration because it was a one-size-fits-all measure that would have been very destructive to our neighborhoods, and not necessarily gotten us to where we needed to go. 

If the measure comes out in a way that protects L.A. neighborhoods but still helps us reach our housing goals, that could be something that I support. 

You have endorsed Jackie Lacey in her reelection as L.A. District Attorney. She's facing a tough reelection battle, primarily against San Francisco D.A. George Gascon. And you endorsed her before Gascon entered the race, correct? Do you still stand behind that endorsement? 

I do, though I have great things to say about George too. He's been a dear friend who I worked with very closely when he was at LAPD. I love a lot of the things that he has done. 

But Jackie is also somebody who I've worked closely with on some issues that matter a lot to me, from domestic violence, to some of the work that we're doing in intervention. 

But I think George is somebody who people are looking at very closely, and he deserves to be looked at very closely. 

When I know two good people, I never try to drag one down. And George is a really good person. So I think L.A. County residents will have a great choice. 

I obviously have a lot of thoughts about the district attorney's office, growing up as the son of somebody who was a deputy D.A. and then the D.A. 

And I certainly am closer with George on a couple of things, like the death penalty. I'd like to see Jackie be even more progressive on those issues. 

… I also do believe, though, that both of them need to speak much more aggressively to reentry. We see too many people that are getting out of jail and prison. And we have no stick left. I don't want to see somebody go away for 20 years because they have a gram of something too much. But if you get arrested on the streets of L.A., there no longer is a threat of any diversion. 

And while we start to see a few million dollars come from the state, we were promised tens or hundreds of millions of dollars of savings. [It] would set up a system to help people with their addictions, to help them get jobs. 

I set up an office of reentry in our city, but we just don't have the resources yet. 

And I do believe the criminal justice system needs to have the tools to be able to say to folks who are experiencing this sort of addiction, ‘Look, if you are arrested for drug use, you need to be able to go into a treatment program, or else there is some stick of something, even if it's a couple of months in jail. And right now, the law isn't being enforced that way, and oftentimes doesn't allow it.’

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Michell Eloy