LA Mayor Karen Bass on Homelessness Crisis

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SARA SIDNER, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Turning now to the United States. Los Angeles now has the largest homeless population in the country, overtaking New York City. Newly elected L.A. Mayor Karen Bass ran on this issue. And one month into the job, has already taken some action. And she joins Michel Martin from the U.S. Conference of Mayors to discuss her plans to tackle this crisis.


MICHEL MARTIN, CONTRIBUTOR: Thanks, Sara. Mayor Karen Bass, thank you so much for joining us.

MAYOR KAREN BASS (D-LOS ANGELES): Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: Mayor, I just wanted to start with just a little bit about you and your career. First of all, you were a speaker of the State Assembly of California. You happen to be the first black woman speaker of any state when you were elected to that job in 2008. Anybody who followed the state government knows that’s an incredibly consequential position. I mean, you’ve been member of Congress. You have been a chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. And now, you are the mayor of Los Angeles. I guess I just was wondering, like, why this position at this time? I mean, it seemed that obviously nothing is assured, but it seems pretty clear that you would have easily won another term in Congress if you wanted it. And so, I guess I’m just curious, like, why this position at this time in your life?

BASS: Well, you know, because I’ve never been motivated by my career most. I have been motivated by issues. And frankly, I was perfectly happy in Congress, but as I saw the problem with the unhoused escalate in Los Angeles to the degree that I was worried that we were getting ready to go through another period of, essentially criminalizing poverty, that is what made me decide to run. We have over 40,000 people sleeping on the streets, sleeping in tents, in Los Angeles. And voters were very, very fed up. They had taxed themselves twice only to see the problem double. And that, to me, was a recipe to return us to the 1990s when we had another health social and economic crisis that we chose to punish and criminalize. I didn’t want to see that happen again. That is what drove me to run.

MARTIN: So, tell me a little more about why you think we are at this point. And it has to be said that Los Angeles isn’t the only city or local facing this problem. I mean, it’s certainly, you know, an issue in San Francisco, certainly an issue in a lot of major cities. People are seeing, you know, encampments where they had never seen them before or thought that they would see them again. So, what is your take on why?

BASS: Well, I mean, I think it’s the economic conditions right now. I’m in Los Angeles and many other cities are just becoming unaffordable. And as we’ve gone through economic downturns, for example in Los Angeles, the African American population is nine percent, but we are over 30 percent of the people living in tents. If you look at home ownership through the last recession, you know, African Americans significantly lost home ownership and people find themselves one paycheck away from a tent. And so, this — you know, the specific economic conditions right now that is driving this situation. The other thing that drives it is the fact that overtime, we have divested from the social safety net. So, we’ve cut back on drug treatment to the extent that we had mental health treatment, we have cut back on that. And then surprise, surprise, all of these issues have converged to 40,000 people in our streets, and four or five of them who don’t wake up each day that die on the streets.

MARTIN: And why is that? Is that from untreated medical conditions? Is that from exposure?

BASS: Sure. Well, a couple of things. We don’t have the numbers from 2022 yet. But in 2021 to 2,000 Angelenos died on the streets. And many of them are health-related conditions. Some of them are violence and — I mean, horrific crimes that are committed against people who are unhoused. And we certainly know that substance abuse and fentanyl was a key factor. But all of those issues are health, social, and economic issues. And I just don’t think that people should have to live on the streets in the United States of America.

MARTIN: On the first day after being sworn in, you declared a state of emergency on homelessness.

BASS: Right.

MARTIN: What does that help you do? What does that do?

BASS: Well, first of all, on my first day, I didn’t even go into city hall right away. I went straight to our emergency operation center. It’s a center that operates when there are natural disasters. The state of the unhoused in Los Angeles is a man-made disaster. And so, I think that the problem that we have faced in Los Angeles and many other cities around the country is that we have not addressed this as though it was an emergency.

MARTIN: Uh-huh.

BASS: And when you don’t have a sense of urgency, then you are essentially going to go along with the status quo, you are going to accept the bureaucracy, and then the problem just keeps exploding. So, what the declaration of emergency did, putting Los Angeles in a state of emergency gives me additional powers. But in addition to that, the next day I did an executive directive that allowed for me to expedite building because Los Angeles has been a city where building further has been resistant, whether you are talking housing or commercial or otherwise. And so, there’s so many hoops for people to jump over, so much red tape. So, the executive directive — and by the way, I did the press conference at the location where a nonprofit housing developer spent 14 years in order to break ground on a property for people who needs affordable housing.

MARTIN: So, that would indicate — it would suggest that there’s a regulatory problem here, right?

BASS: Yes, it — there’s no question that there is regulatory problems on every level which we’ll get to in a minute. Talking about substance abuse, mental health, regulatory problems there as well. But, you know, in some instances it’s not regulation, it’s just the process that takes so long. The permits that you need to have. The funding that is slow. And that drives up the costs. So, voters in Los Angeles taxed themselves several years ago to get housing built. But didn’t realize that because of all of the red tape, the cost is so expensive, it’s between $600,000 and $700,000 per unit. So, just imagine in apartment building with 24 units and multiply that. It is — the expense is exorbitant. That’s why it was important for me to cut the red tape, to fast track, and to promote building. At the same time though, on this — in the second week that I was in office, I launched a program called “Inside Safe” to end street homelessness. Get people out of encampments. Not arrest him. Not give them tickets. Not just move them to another location. But move them from a tent into a motel as temporary housing where they might stay for a few months, and then enter permanent supportive housing.

MARTIN: What role does mental health play in all of this?

BASS: Mental health plays a role everywhere. I mean, it is a huge problem. Now, I don’t subscribe to the notion that everybody that is on the street has a mental illness, but a significant percentage too. And frankly, it’s a chicken and egg issue.

MARTIN: Uh-huh.

BASS: I mean, if I were on the street, I don’t know what my mental health condition would be like. So, the question is, is that why you are unhoused, or did you deteriorate mentally and emotionally because you were unhoused? And so, that is an issue that has to be addressed. Substance abuse and mental health have to be key core components of addressing the unhoused or we will not solve this problem.

MARTIN: You obviously have a very, kind of, well thought out coherent point of view on this. And so, I’m just curious, like, what informs your point of view about the best way to go here?

BASS: First of all, being involved on this issue for over three decades. In the early ’80s, I worked in L.A. County’s emergency room. My patients were unhoused.

MARTIN: Uh-huh.

BASS: So, I have seen this problem. I saw it as it was beginning in the early ’80s, and it completely coincided with the crack cocaine epidemic. Now, we have new drugs that are epidemics, whether it is meth or fentanyl. And what I saw from society was no push to deal with the health problem, but the strong push was to criminalize it. And was to pass, you know, laws that locked people up and did not deal with the root causes. And then I saw — I formed an organization. I spent 14 years in South Central Los Angeles on the streets, doing neighborhood organizing, trying to address this problem, prevent the problem. When I went onto my role as a legislator, I was still addressing the issue. That’s why I focused on the child welfare system, which is one of the beater systems to homelessness. And also, to the prison system. And then I also focused on legislation to prevent recidivism. Because the issue is, is that the people in tents, it’s a diverse group of people. It’s not the same. There are thousands of children on the streets. There are women who have fled domestic violence situations. There are veterans. There are people on the streets in tents who actually worked full-time. They just can’t afford first or last month’s rent. Their credit is bad or they have a history of being evicted and they can’t get anybody to rent to them. So, it’s important to understand the diversity of the population and to provide appropriate strategies for each category of individual that is on the street.

MARTIN: It sounds like these are the things you have been focused on for a while, so.

BASS: It is the — it is. But, you know, you work on issues from the vantage point where you are. But that is what made me come home though. And I felt like the level of anger in Los Angeles was so high that we were getting ready to take a very serious turn to the right, a conservative move that would have led to, I want to get rid of those people. I don’t care what you do with the, just get them out of my sight. And the minute people have that attitude, then you have criminalization.

MARTIN: Well, I will — but, Mayor, you know, conservatives have argued for some time that the regulatory requirements of too many of our major cities have been too strict, too cumbersome for some time. That they have inhibited the market in addressing this need. Do they have a point? Are they right?

BASS: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely, they have a point. I mean, regulations should be put in place to protect people. But you know, one of the things that happens, and this is across the board, when legislators pass law, or regulations are put in place, unless there is a specific policy to evaluate and to sunset the regulation, nothing stops it from going on forever. So, for example, 50 years ago, regulations were put in place to de- institutionalize the mental health facilities. But nobody studied it, five years or 10 years later, to say, is this working. Was this the best policy? So, I believe that policies need to be reviewed. And when they are outdated or they are actually cumbersome and no longer address the conditions, then you need to change the policies.

MARTIN: There are other issues on the table too, and I think in some ways, they might be related. But, you know, you mentioned kind of the level of anger that you are hearing from Angelenos. Is crime part of that too, like street crime? I mean, you yourself were burglarized.

BASS: Yes.

MARTIN: Tell me more about that. Like what is your take on that?

BASS: There is an intersection between the unhoused population and crime, but that does not mean that the two are equal. Meaning, that every homeless person is a criminal. But there is certainly an overlap, and a lot of that overlap is based on substance abuse and mental illness. Yes, public safety is a problem. It is the number one job of any mayor, is to keep Angelenos safe. And so, what I believe, and another issue that I’ve worked on for a very long time, I believe in stopping crime when it happens, holding people accountable, but I also believed in making very serious investment toward crime prevention. And you will see me do that. I have not launched that yet. And I will remind you that I’ve been in office five weeks. One month and three days.

MARTIN: One month. Yes. No, I’m not suggesting, Mayor, that, you know, people who are unhoused are responsible for most of the crime. That’s not the question. What I’m suggesting is that when people feel that there’s a level of disorder in their community, it makes them angry.

BASS: Yes.

MARTIN: And one of the things that makes people feel a sense of disorder is this sort of, you know, tent encampments. I’m sorry. I mean, I just think that, you know, it’s not just it’s an aesthetic objection, as some people would make it, but it just — it does seem unreasonable that in the United States of America you’ve got people living in tents in affluent major cities like Los Angeles and New York and Washington D.C., and places like that. And on top of that, the street crime that people are experiencing now, which is spiking in a number of localities around the country, both, you know, so-called red states and so-called blue states and, you know, lots of different places, it just creates a sense of unease, anxiety.

BASS: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree with you more, but there is an overlap, and I am referring to the overlap. And the overlap is based in — a lot in substance abuse and mental illness and the scarcity that people feel. But the uptick in crime is not completely about the unhoused population. We definitely know that. But you are absolutely right. I mean, when you drive by encampments, to me, I just think it’s shocking. If you look at the State of California. The State of California has the fourth largest economy on earth. How do you have 67,000, if you count the county, people unhoused in Los Angeles County? So, I think the — to me, when I drive past an encampment, I just think it’s absolutely tragic. And it is amazing to me that overtime people have kind of acclimated to, well, you know, they’re on the street.

MARTIN: But, I mean, the fact is, you know, you have been in positions of leadership for some time. One of the arguments that the Republicans have made and the conservatives have made is that Democrats have run these cities for a long time. And that — you know, that this happened under their watch. So, is this not an indictment of your predecessors and saying, they failed to address this problem aggressively, isn’t it?

BASS: Well, you know, first of all, I mean, I think that Republicans absolutely use that rhetoric, but they are also the first ones that won’t to allow any housing bills to be funded as well. And so, one of the reasons why I have not just introduced bills on homelessness is because I don’t believe in introducing bills that I know are going to go absolutely nowhere, which is why I focused on prevention. So, they say that about mental health every time there’s a mass shooting, but yet, they provide absolutely no resources for mental health. And then, then quite as it’s kept, crime and homelessness is now creeping into Republican cities as well. Fentanyl and oxycontin are certainly issues that are Republican cities are suffering from as well.

MARTIN: So, is there a role for the federal government here? And if so, what is it?

BASS: Huge, huge. I mean, I’m sitting here in Washington D.C. wanting to attend the conference, but I’m also meeting with cabinet members. I met today with the VA secretary. Why? Because there’s hundreds of thousands of homeless veterans. I also met with Secretary Xavier Becerra. Why? Because of mental health and substance abuse. And so — and we need regulatory relief from the federal government as well. Because right now, you have to — for residential drug treatment, you can only stay in treatment 90 days. No one who has been an addict for years is going to get sober in 90 days. So, I’m here asking for regulatory relief there. So, what I believe has to happen, and in my 30 days of being in this seat, I have worked very hard to bring about, and that is in alignment of every level of government. The city and the county used to be at odds. We are beginning to work together. We are in alignment with our governor that wants to address mental health. We are in alignment with the administration where the president has said he wants to reduce homelessness by 25 percent. So, aligning every level of government along with the private sector, again, just like you would in a natural disaster, we need to mobilize all of our forces.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, Mayor, you have been in Washington for the last, you know, dozen years.

BASS: Twelve.

MARTIN: Dozen years. And, you know, you’ve seen the polarization increase. Do you believe that this is a subject that is sufficiently compelling that would allow the parties to kind of bridge that —


MARTIN: No? You don’t? No.

BASS: No. No, I do not, because the Republican Party, again, it was what you said a few minutes ago, the Republican Party’s position is, this is a problem of Democratic cities. They are going to use this issue to run on, even though it’s beginning to impact their cities. And so, my focus on Washington is the administration. It is not the House or the Senate. Not legislatively. I will look to my two senators and our over 20 members of Congress in Los Angeles County. I will look to them for specific appropriations. But in terms of legislatively, this is — we are getting ready to go into campaign season again, even though it just ended. And I don’t believe that the Republicans will let up on this issue at all because they have politicized it, turned it into a partisan issue, and have said that it’s a Democratic issue. I mean, the large cities are Democratic cities. The large cities, of course, experience homelessness more than other cities. But as long as they can politicize it and run on it, I do not expect support from Republicans.

MARTIN: Madam Mayor, the mayor of Los Angeles, Karen Bass, thank you so much for talking with us today.

BASS: You are welcome. Thank you.

About This Episode EXPAND

The U.S. has now reached its debt limit and risks a potentially catastrophic default. An exclusive interview with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Henry Marsh on his latest book “And Finally.” LA mayor Karen Bass discusses her plan for addressing homelessness. Jacinda Ardern announced she will step down as New Zealand’s prime minister. We take a look back at her conversations with Christiane.