In summary

California politicians need to show visible results in order to justify ongoing spending on homelessness. Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass and Gov. Gavin Newsom agree that clearing encampments is key. But making homelessness invisible fails to solve the root problems. As Bass emphasizes permanent solutions, will small gains be enough?

Here is the political and moral heart of the matter of homelessness in Los Angeles: Even great strides against this soul-deadening issue will not feel like enough.

With some 47,000 or more Angelenos sleeping on the streets on any given night, what if Mayor Karen Bass succeeds in finding shelter or housing for half of them? Will that be a victory, because 25,000 people will have found some measure of safety, or a failure, because 25,000 still will lack it?

How, then, to begin the search for solutions, a struggle that is national in scope and affects all of California, but has a particular locus in Los Angeles, where circumstances have combined to make this city the center of this crisis?

For Gov. Gavin Newsom, with whom I spoke at length last week, the answer is obvious: The efforts by state and local governments have to begin with encampments, the tent cities, large and small, that have become semi-permanent homes to people without any place to go.

These camps dot the landscape of urban California. They are dangerous and unsafe places to live or even to pass by. And they are visible signs of a society unable or unwilling to grapple with how they came into existence.

Asked what his priority for responding to homelessness in Los Angeles and California is, Newsom responded clearly.

“Encampments,” he said. “If we don’t demonstrably see reduction, not only will we have failed in the minds of the public, but we won’t have the political capacity to continue to make these kinds of investments. And shame on all of us. We own this.”

That commitment reflects a change. Not long ago, it was up to cities and counties to respond to homelessness. Under Gov. Jerry Brown, the state, under pressure from mayors of California’s largest cities, contributed about $500 million to the problem. That number has skyrocketed under Newsom, who has launched and expanded pilot programs to address the issue and who is exploring the use of mental health resources to attack it further. And yet, the state is nowhere near being able to claim real progress on the issue.

Tents are lined up on the sidewalk in Downtown Los Angeles on Feb. 18, 2023. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters
Tents are lined up on the sidewalk in Downtown Los Angeles on Feb. 18, 2023. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters

What does that mean for Bass? 

For starters, she and the governor agree on the priority of clearing encampments. “That is where the suffering is the most,” she said in an interview on Monday. It is where drugs flourish, where violence is greatest, where danger is most pronounced. All of which makes breaking up encampments an essential first step in attacking this problem of moral consequence, she said.

Bass, like Newsom, tacitly acknowledged the politics of encampments, and the impact that they have on the larger, housed community. They are “where Los Angeles experiences homelessness,” she said. 

That’s a polite way of hinting at the undercurrent of this problem. In part, the mission is moral and urgent – it is finding shelter for those in desperate need of help. And in part, the mission is practical and political – convincing more comfortable residents that their communities are safe and unspoiled by the blight of that suffering.

The latter mission reinforces the politics of responding to homelessness: Politicians need to put up visible results in order to justify continued public expenditures.

There’s peril in that. The temptation for those concerned only with politics is to solve homelessness by making it invisible – by breaking up encampments and shooing the homeless to other locations where they won’t be seen. That placates the larger community without addressing the moral mandate.

Bass rejects it outright. It is, she emphasized, “not acceptable in any way, shape or form to just move people around. … You cannot hide 47,000 people.”

To that end, she and her administration are identifying dozens of properties in Los Angeles that can supply short-term shelter while also working with nonprofits and others to develop permanent housing, as well as services that support those in that housing with opportunities for counseling and jobs.

That last mission – creating sustainable places to live – is the most durable, but it, too, is an enormous challenge.

“You cannot hide 47,000 people.”

Karen bass, mayor of los angeles

Just last week, a visiting Congressional delegation – the Congressional Black Caucus – toured Los Angeles and saw some of the work that’s being done here to respond to the plight of those without shelter. One stop was The Beehive in South Los Angeles, where a vision of how the city can be better is unfolding. Home to Sola, the largest Section 8 housing landlord in the city, as well as a hub of tech activity and cultural life, it’s a modern campus nestled in a historic but struggling neighborhood. 

Sola’s work is beyond commendable. The company permitted 788 units of affordable housing last year and is on track to create another 1,251 this year – with hopes and plans to expand going forward. The company is not in the business of fixing up units and flipping them. It’s there for the long term. A resident who comes, gets a job and stays is, in the words of one Sola executive, “a victory for us.” 

It’s a victory for Los Angeles, too. The majority of those who move into Sola’s units have recently experienced homelessness, so its tidy, one-bedroom apartments represent new starts for those who land places there, the ennobling transition from insecurity to security.

And yet, even those noble efforts can seem small when measured against the vast challenge that Los Angeles presents. If every one of Sola’s units is completed and opened, that will bring some 2,000 to 3,000 people to safety over the next year or so, a grand accomplishment in human terms. 

And one that will leave some 45,000 people still in need.

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Jim Newton is a veteran journalist, best-selling author and teacher. He worked at the Los Angeles Times for 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief and columnist, covering government and politics....