Rep. Karen Bass is making addressing homelessness the centerpiece of her campaign to be mayor of Los Angeles.
Bass unveiled a plan Friday calling for 15,000 people to be housed in her first year in office — though she didn’t specify exactly what proportion of those people would go into permanent housing, as opposed to interim housing such as bunk-style shelters, tiny homes or rented hotel rooms.
Bass said this could be accomplished by expanding current programs using funding from the state and federal government and by cutting bureaucratic red tape that she thinks may have held back construction of permanent supportive housing and distribution of rental vouchers.
She called for more leasing and purchasing of existing properties, as the city, county and state have done with Project Roomkey and Project Homekey. She also wants to create teams of outreach workers, medical and mental health professionals that would fan out across the city to help bring people indoors.
“There has to be a comprehensive response,” Bass said, speaking at the vacant St. Vincent Medical Center near downtown. “We need housing, we need temporary housing, we need to get people off the streets, immediately. … The bottom line is people will not be allowed to live on the streets. There are just some things that you don’t do outside, and sleeping is one of them.”
Bass was joined at the event by Pat Bates, president of the Encino Neighborhood Council, who said she saw Bass as a consensus builder who had the experience to improve the conditions of the people living on the street. She applauded Bass’ focus on eliminating street encampments and providing more shelter, calling it “overdue.”
She “is more than up to this test,” Bates said.
Reba Stevens, a county mental health commissioner who is formerly homeless, described her own battles with depression and substance-use disorder. She was housed and then returned to the streets twice before finally finding the adequate mental health support to help her.
That was a long journey, but it made her appreciate how helping people on the streets is more than just placing a roof over her head. She said she believes Bass understands that more than any other candidate.
“I truly believe that you are the solution to the ending of what is happening here in the city of Los Angeles,” Stevens said to Bass during the event.
For her part, Bass used language that would sound familiar to those who have been watching the city’s homelessness response.
“This is the big one that should receive the immediate response that is expected when there is a natural disaster,” Bass said. “This is just a man-made disaster, and we need a FEMA-style response. I’m running for mayor to lead the emergency response that L.A.’s homeless catastrophe requires. L.A. needs decisive leadership. We need action and urgency. We need follow-through to get the job done.”
Mayor Eric Garcetti has long called for a “FEMA-like response” to homelessness. Mayoral election rivals City Councilman Joe Buscaino and City Atty. Mike Feuer, among others, have used similar language.
Bass pointed to the building she stood in — a shuttered hospital with about 350 beds — as emblematic of the bureaucratic malaise that has plagued government addressing the crisis.
She said the facility should be rented and retrofitted to care for people living on the streets. Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who owns The Times along with a network of medical companies, purchased the complex in 2020.
“Medical care and mental health services are important issues in confronting the homelessness crisis and I am pleased that Congresswoman Bass is raising these concerns and looking for solutions,” Soon-Shiong said in a statement. He did not directly address Bass’ call for the facility to be leased for that purpose.
Bass was asked about a law passed last summer, known as “41.18,” that restricts where homeless people can camp. Buscaino and Councilman Kevin de León, another mayoral candidate, have both introduced motions under the new law to ban camping at specific locations throughout the city.
Bass said that while she “agreed with the intent,” she thought this approach made it harder to have a unified approach on homelessness. She worried that it would lead to a balkanized response to homelessness that would look different based on where a person resides in the city.
Bass described the sense among voters she’s spoken to that past money devoted to homelessness had not been spent well. She said that government needed to show the public that dollars were being disbursed wisely.
She was also unwilling to lend her support to a recently announced ballot initiative backed by housing advocates, labor unions and progressive activist groups that would increase taxes on real estate transactions in the city to fund permanent housing for homeless people and those at risk of ending up on the street.