Karen Bass wants to reverse the decades-long battle against homelessness in LA – and the nation

Karen Bass’s first act after taking the oath of office as mayor of Los Angeles in December 2022 was to declare a state of emergency over homelessness.

Now Bass, the first woman to lead the City of Angels, also has her sights set on tackling homelessness nationally as chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Task Force on Homelessness.

This week, the former California congresswoman helped lead a bipartisan group of more than 50 mayors from across the country back to her old stomping ground on Capitol Hill.

The mayors – who together represent 17 million people – have established a three-pronged national policy agenda to address homelessness at the city, state and federal levels.

“To create tangible change in the greatest crisis facing Los Angeles and hundreds of cities across the country, we know we must continue to work together with leaders across the country,” said Bass, who moderated the meeting with the president of the conference. Hillary Schieve, mayor of Reno, Nevada.

The task force called for increased funding for the Housing Choice Voucher program, a federal effort under the Department of Housing and Urban Development that helps low-income people, the elderly and the disabled secure housing in the private market.

The mayors want to lift certain caps and restrictions on project-based vouchers for public housing, which they say would give cities more flexibility to build more affordable housing.

Mayor Karen Bass speaks at a press conference (Mayor Karen Bass office)Mayor Karen Bass speaks at a press conference (Mayor Karen Bass office)

Mayor Karen Bass speaks at a press conference (Mayor Karen Bass office)

The mayors also called for more robust housing support for military veterans during a press conference hosted Tuesday with Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

The mayors explained that unintentional barriers prevented veterans without homes from entering.

For example, veterinarians may sometimes be ineligible for housing because of other benefits they receive, the mayors said. They want to ensure that at-risk veterans across the country don’t have to choose between their disability benefits and housing.

The estimated number of veterans experiencing homelessness has halved since 2010. Still, the Department of Veterans Affairs has announced a goal of moving at least 41,000 unsheltered veterans into permanent housing by 2024. Last year, the VA housed more than 46,000 veterans, including nearly 1,800. in Los Angeles.

Last May, Bass joined VA Secretary Denis McDonough and stakeholders at the VA campus in West Los Angeles to celebrate two new residential buildings, part of the ongoing development for formerly homeless veterans. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., a veteran himself, co-authored the West Los Angeles Leasing Act legislation with the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, which helped facilitate the project.

“Americans who fought on behalf of our country, the people who defended us, should never spend one night sleeping outside on the streets,” Bass said this week. “There are solutions to this crisis, so while we fight day in and day out to get people off the streets, we need to bring the fight here to Washington DC so we can look at rules and regulations that need to be set aside, given the magnitude of the problem we have today.”

More broadly, Bass’ administration in Los Angeles launched Inside Safe, a comprehensive strategy designed to keep people off the streets. The Mayor’s Field Intervention Team speaks with unhoused people and then works with outreach experts and multiple government, private and nonprofit partners to help individuals and families move into designated temporary housing.

“We will not hide people – instead we will house people,” she said in her State of the City address last month. “Inside Safe is our proactive rejection of a status quo that left unhoused Angelenos waiting – and dying – outside in camps until permanent housing was built.”

So far, Bass’ administration said the initiative has helped about half of the city’s estimated homeless population of 44,000 people. The government’s goals include efforts to build more permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness.

Lacey Beaty, the first female mayor of Beaverton, Oregon, and the youngest at age 39, is an Army veteran of the Iraq War and said she feels a “duty” to give a voice to people experiencing homelessness , especially fellow soldiers.

“Cities are on the front lines of this humanitarian issue,” she told NBC News. “We need help at every level of government. It is not just a big city problem,” she added, explaining that homelessness affects her city of 96,000, but also the broader region and state.

In 2023, Oregon Governor Tina Kotek, also a Democrat, declared a state of emergency over housing and homelessness. In January, a homeless man in Beaverton died after lighting a cigarette and accidentally setting himself on fire near a library. And in nearby Portland, NBC affiliate KGW reported that the fire chief shared data showing that in 2023, about 46 percent of fire-related injuries and 50 percent of deaths were linked to homelessness.

As mayor, Beaty was instrumental in establishing a year-round shelter in Beaverton. It has a community health clinic and behavioral health resources to help people experiencing homelessness.

Nationwide, Shawyn Patterson-Howard is in her second term as the first female mayor of Mount Vernon, a New York City suburb of 71,000.

She is a trained social worker and former president of the African American Mayors Association. She has worked on housing people for decades.

“Homelessness occurs in large urban, suburban and rural communities. It can look different from city to city and state to state,” she said. “There are homeless encampments, and the hidden homeless sleep in basements, alleys and their cars, and triple up with family and friends. But it is a national crisis.”

The mayors met Monday and Tuesday with several Cabinet secretaries in the Biden administration, as well as a bipartisan group of members of Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, both New Yorkers. Democrats, and House Majority Leader Steve Scalise. , R-La.

Last May, the Biden administration launched ALL INside, billed as a first-of-its-kind initiative to reach out to unsheltered people across the country. ALL INside is part of a federal strategy to address homelessness that aims to reduce homelessness by 25 percent by 2025 and ultimately ensure that everyone in America has a safe and affordable home.

Federal, state and local partnership is “essential to sustainable, systemic solutions to the homelessness crisis,” said Tom Perez, White House senior adviser and director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, who attended this week’s meetings with the mayors. In 2023, Bass took Perez on a tour of Skid Row, a part of downtown LA where thousands live in tent cities.

“People experiencing homelessness face a wide range of challenges that require an unprecedented level of collaboration at every level of government,” added Perez, who commented through a spokesperson.

Since Bass took office, Los Angeles has received at least $60 million for housing and supportive services through HUD. The mayor and council also worked with members of Congress to secure more than $35 million in fiscal year 2024 appropriations bills to improve housing and support programs like Inside Safe.

In her State of the City address, Bass acknowledged the high costs associated with the city’s efforts, but said they were necessary to end the homelessness crisis.

“It is much, much more expensive to leave people on the streets without homes,” she said. “In addition to the human toll, we are all paying the cost of the thousands and thousands of fire, paramedic and police calls. The cost of every overdose, of every emergency room visit, of every night in jail – each is a human tragedy.”

Bass thanked President Joe Biden and his administration for “their strong partnership” on this issue and members of Congress who, regardless of party, are willing to “lock arms” to save lives.

“We must continue this fight to get the job done,” the mayor said.

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