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Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass on addressing homelessness


Since she took office about four months ago, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass has had two big issues dominating her agenda - homelessness and public safety, both of which Angelenos have said are their top priorities for the new mayor by far. In her first state of the city address earlier this week, Bass laid out some bold proposals on both issues. She's asking the city council to let her spend an unprecedented $1.3 billion to address the city's huge homelessness crisis.

She also wants to hire hundreds of new police to rebuild the Los Angeles Police Department, which has been hemorrhaging officers for years. And she wants to spend more money on anti-violence programs. I spoke with Mayor Karen Bass about her proposals for her city of just under 4 million people, and we began by discussing where that $1.3 billion to address homelessness would go.

KAREN BASS: First of all, that money is in recognition of the magnitude of the problem. I mean, if you think about it, I told the Biden administration - and I had an opportunity to meet with the president - and basically said, if your goal, Mr. President, is to reduce homelessness in the United States by 25%, you can literally meet that goal in our city. Part of the money goes to our Inside Safe program, about $250 million. I do believe we can see a clear pathway forward, and that is to get people in interim housing. And what we have done over the last 130-some days has definitely dispelled the myth that people do not want to go inside.

But of course, a number of problems have emerged as a part of it. No. 1, motel rooms cannot be sustained financially forever. And so now we want to purchase hotels. We want to purchase motels. And then, of course, we want to expedite housing because we don't want people to languish in motels, just like we wouldn't want them to languish in the streets or in shelters.

FLORIDO: Mayor Bass, I was looking at some of the figures, and a decade ago, the city of LA budgeted $10 million for homelessness.

BASS: Wow.

FLORIDO: Last year, almost a billion, 100 times as much. And I was kind of shocked by that number, in part because the crisis has only worsened.

BASS: So...

FLORIDO: What is going wrong, and why are you convinced that your proposal will finally work?

BASS: Well, let me just say, the reason why the city was able to budget so much last time was because of COVID money, and COVID money now has gone away. So that's what makes our budget historic in the sense that this is a direct contribution and investment from the city. And I think that, one, we have an unprecedented cooperation on every level of government. It's something that I campaigned on. I wanted to have every level of government in alignment with the commitment to reduce and end homelessness. So we do have unprecedented cooperation on every level of government. We also have significant cooperation from the private sector. So we are trying to lay the foundation and set the stage for what I hope will be a very significant reduction, especially in street homelessness this year.

FLORIDO: I'd like to turn to your other big priority, which is public safety. The LAPD has about 9,000 officers, down from about 10,000 before the pandemic. And the headline of your proposal, at least one of them, is that you want to get those numbers back up, not quite that high, but closer, by hiring hundreds of new officers to replace the ones who have left and who are expected to continue leaving in the next year. Why do you think more officers for LAPD is necessary?

BASS: Well, I do think that we have to do both things at the same time. So the idea that we're down almost, you know, a thousand officers - and I anticipate a very serious exodus, not just because of attrition but because of all of the information that was released to the public - and we have hundreds of officers that work in confidential settings. And I'm worried that many of those officers will have to leave just to protect themselves and their families.

FLORIDO: You're referring to a leak of sensitive personal information that was published by an advocacy group that's critical of police here in the city of Los Angeles, right?

BASS: Absolutely. And, you know, I am very happy that crime has been on the downturn in Los Angeles, not in every category. We have, you know, an increase in homicides, especially in the inner city area. So I'm also calling for attention paid to that because 50% of the homicides are solved. But at the same time as we don't want to have hemorrhaging within our police department, I've also started the Office of Community Safety. We can do both things at the same time. We want to build up the infrastructure within our city so that we can address some of the problems so that we don't need law enforcement officers.

For example, when officers go into the academy, I don't think they're going to address homelessness, substance abuse and other aspects of poverty. And we know that there's a lot of calls - in particular, mental health - that really don't require an armed response. Well, it's fine to say you want an unarmed response, but you have to build out the infrastructure so that you actually have the individuals that can respond to those calls.

FLORIDO: Crimes like homicides and robberies are still somewhat elevated compared with before the pandemic, but they're down significantly over the last year, despite the fact that in this same time period, you have lost a lot of police officers in the LAPD. I wonder if you think that suggests, as a lot of police critics argue, that more police is not what actually improves public safety.

BASS: Well, I agree with that if your strategy is just more police. My strategy will never be just more police. That's why I'm explaining that at the same time, I'm saying we don't want our law enforcement to hemorrhage. We also want to build up the Office of Community Safety. Now, one thing about crime - and I've been studying crime trends for the last three decades - crime cycles. It goes down. It comes back up. Now, we would hate to have happen when crime goes back up - which it will - that then the blame is, well, you allowed the police department to hemorrhage, and you focused all of your time on non-law enforcement solutions. You absolutely need both at the same time.

FLORIDO: Homelessness and public safety are not, as you said earlier, issues solved overnight or even in a year. But what should Angelenos expect to notice in their neighborhoods over the next year?

BASS: Well, I hope that they notice far less encampments. And let me just say that I feel confident that we could house everybody in the encampments if we had enough hotel rooms and if we could expedite the building of housing. We need a place for people to go so that they do not have to languish on our streets. We need a permanent infrastructure of interim housing. We need to expedite the building of affordable housing and permanent supportive housing. And in addition, two other things that we need that are critically important - we need resources for substance abuse and mental health.

Unless we develop the method of addressing this problem on the scale in which we experience it, we're not going to be able to end homelessness. So I'm putting money into the city making a direct contract with nonprofit drug programs and mental health programs so that we don't have to worry about federal restrictions and we can put people in substance abuse beds when they are ready and we don't have to worry about them being restricted to 30, 60 or 90 days of treatment.

FLORIDO: That was Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass. Mayor Bass, thank you so much for being with us.

BASS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.