Last week, during Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass’s first days in office, Bass declared a state of emergency over the spiraling homelessness crisis in the city. It is intended to last for at least six months, though it will need to be reapproved by the LA City Council every 30 days.
That should be straightforward, except for the fact that the city council is embroiled in a series of controversies stemming from racist statements made by several council members on a hot mic in the fall. In that incident, several Latino council members, including onetime California state Senate leader Kevin de León and the leader of LA’s Federation of Labor, were caught using racially inflammatory comments disparaging the African American son of a white council member during a conversation on how to shape council district boundaries in a way designed to increase Latino political power in the multiracial metropolis. Protesters have vowed to shut down city council meetings until de León steps down, which he has refused to do. Several council members have also declined to participate in meetings with de León, thus depriving the council of a quorum to do business. Earlier this month, a Santa Claus hat–wearing de León got into a physical brawl with an anti-racist activist; the resulting footage, captured on cell phone, went viral via Twitter.
Bass’s office is, however, working on the assumption that the council will be at least functional enough to hold meetings in the coming months—and that at those meetings they will approve her state-of-emergency declaration in order to channel more resources into efforts to tamp down the homelessness catastrophe in LA.
The new mayor’s declaration is, primarily, intended to cut red tape. It is built around a strategy called “Inside Safe,” which aims to expedite the moving of homeless individuals into city-leased motel rooms and apartments and would mandate that applications for affordable housing and shelter placement be processed within 60 days rather than the current six-to-nine months.
At the same time, Bass is ramping up coordination between city departments that work on homelessness and nonprofits and other on-the-ground organizations, with daily meetings scheduled to address the crisis. Her aim is to house at least 17,000 of the city’s more than 40,000 on-the-streets homeless in her first year in office.
The mayor’s plan isn’t meeting with universal acclaim. Communities such as Lancaster, in the Antelope Valley north of LA, worry that in the end they’ll become dumping grounds for the City of Angels’ homeless, with mental health facilities and shelters being situated out-of-sight-out-of-mind in these far-from-the-center exurbs. In response to a statement by Bass that she was considering moving a number of homeless into a “village” in Antelope Valley, Lancaster declared a state of emergency and vowed to oppose any such action.
The brewing conflict between Bass and those on LA’s edge who fear that they will be swamped by high-need homeless individuals is a microcosm of California’s broader challenge regarding homelessness. As a state, we want the crisis fixed; as individuals, however, we don’t necessarily want it to be fixed in our backyards. The result is the untenable status quo.
Recently released Housing and Urban Development data suggests that fully 30 percent of the country’s homeless live in California, as do an astounding half of the unsheltered homeless in the country. And the problem is accelerating in the Golden State even as it slows in much of the rest of the country. Last year, the number of homeless nationwide grew by 0.3 percent. In California, despite Governor Gavin Newsom’s throwing tens of billions of dollars into addressing the crisis, it grew by more than 6 percent.
Housing in California, as well as in Oregon and Washington, is one of the country’s greatest political and moral catastrophes. Bass’s pledge to finally tackle this issue in LA is both long overdue and also fraught with the political risks that come with the possibility of failure. After all, politicians have pledged to address homelessness for a decade at least, and yet, year in and year out, the crisis has worsened. A state that prides itself on its progressive social vision is now littered with housing encampments that, in many ways, are at least as dilapidated and dangerous as refugee camps on the edge of war zones.
In the first 11 months of 2022, more than 200 people died on the streets in San Francisco. In 2021, more than 1,500 died on the streets in Los Angeles County. More than 500 died in San Diego County in the first 10 months of this year. Between January and July of this year, nearly 100 died on the streets in Sacramento County.
They die of natural causes, they die of drug overdoses, they die of exposure to the elements, and they die violent deaths. In Sacramento, fully one-quarter of those who died on the streets were killed either intentionally or by accident, the majority of them by blunt force—in other words, they were bludgeoned to death, either murdered, hit by vehicles, or involved in other deadly accidents. That’s a trend that has been going on for years but seems to have worsened in the recent past.
In the huge, and growing, encampments up and down the West Coast, public health workers have, in recent years, found outbreaks of typhus, hepatitis A, shigellosis—a bacterial disease that causes diarrhea—trench fever, and other contagious illnesses. Tuberculosis, HIV, and other highly communicable diseases also proliferate in these encampments, most of whose residents have no reliable access to running water, toilets, or showers.
Up and down the state, city and county officials in California play whack-a-mole, moving the homeless out of one encampment only to watch as a new encampment springs up a block or two away. In my neighborhood in Sacramento, that whack-a-mole game has been intensifying in recent weeks, as the city finally has started to clamp down on encampments that are both a public health calamity and also epicenters of quality-of-life crimes that are driving local businesses out of downtown thoroughfares. At one point earlier this year, none of the local gas stations had air pumps for tires; all of the pumps had been vandalized and the rubber stolen. The local Starbucks and Jamba Juice closed, with the managers publicly stating they were shutting down operations because so many unhoused residents were coming in and stealing things. The local Walgreens has so many thefts that it now locks up many of its goods behind glass shelves; recently, when I went in, an employee took me down one aisle and then, apropos nothing, said “so many nice things, and they’ll all be stolen.”
Along Broadway and other main streets, there’s a postapocalyptic air these days: homeless encampments every other block, people dealing unaided with addiction and mental illness—lying unconscious on sidewalks, wandering in and out of traffic on the busy streets—garbage strewn everywhere.
For years, politicians of both parties have either proven unable to tackle this crisis, or unwilling to acknowledge the heavy lift needed to get a handle on all the interlocking issues in play here: drug addiction, untreated mental illness, the mass release of prisoners without wraparound social services to help them integrate back into society, the high price of housing, the over-regulation of developers, the abuse by NIMBYists of environmental laws such as the California Environmental Quality Act. The result has been an escalating catastrophe.
Karen Bass has pledged to put the full force of the LA city government, and its resources, into tackling homelessness. If she succeeds, her state of emergency ought to serve as a template for other city and county governments up and down the West Coast; if she fails, and if Los Angeles’s crisis continues to spiral, it will show the limits of good governance philosophy in this dysfunctional and often cruel era. Let’s hope she doesn’t—for if California is to continue to thrive, it is vital that Bass’s efforts to rein in homelessness bear fruit over the coming years.