Column: How Karen Bass plans to end homelessness

In 1990, a physician assistant who worked in the emergency room at LA County-USC Medical Center saw poor and homeless patients daily, and she wanted to do something about the conditions in the neighborhoods they came from.

She and other activists therefore created the Community Coalition, a non-profit service provider whose goal was “to organize the community to turn despair and homelessness into action”.

US Representative Karen Bass, currently running for mayor, will have to do a lot if elected.

If you believe the polls, Bass and billionaire businessman Rick Caruso are leading the pack right now. When I interviewed Caruso recently, by the way, his staff arranged for me to meet him at The Grove, his signature mall. Bass asked me to meet her at 81st Street and Vermont Avenue, headquarters of the Community Coalition.

The contestant, years into her medical career, wanted to talk about how she intended to heal the city, moving it past years of escalating homelessness influenced by poverty, addiction, mental illness and the housing shortage.

“It’s the whole foster care campaign we’ve been doing,” Bass said, pointing to black-and-white photos from the early days of Community Coalition protests around the plethora of liquor stores, the outbreak crack and other causes. She pointed to a man attending a coalition rally and said: “Now he was homeless.”

Bass’s work at the time convinced her of the need to serve in the state Legislature, where she served as Speaker of the Assembly for two of her six years. She has been in Congress since 2011 and chaired the Congressional Black Caucus for two years.

For one, she has experience and connections that would serve her well if elected mayor. On the other hand, the homelessness epidemic is largely the result of failures not only at the city level, but also at the state and federal levels. So I asked Bass if she thinks she deserves to be blamed for the disaster in the town she wants to rule.

“I have no problem being held accountable,” Bass said. But she ticked off some of the many legislative initiatives she is focusing on to tackle inequality, including equal school funding, criminal justice reform and the Family Services First Prevention Act – a landmark child welfare reform package designed with bipartisan congressional support.

As for roaming, when Bass rolled out its plan in January, I wrote that it was more than a little disappointing.

Not that I disagree with her call to treat homelessness as a five-alarm emergency, to build more temporary and permanent housing (she said she would house 15,000 people in her first year), to build better mental health and addiction treatment systems, do more homelessness prevention, unlock more state and federal money, and work more closely with the county.

But we’ve been hearing the same promises for years, and the problem has only gotten worse.

“I don’t think I necessarily have big ideas,” Bass told me, but she had no trouble detailing how she wants to put her compassion, outrage, legislative savvy, and connections to work. not only to reduce homelessness, but to end it.

I’m always suspicious when a politician talks about ending homelessness with a set of promises that sound more like a wish list than an action plan. Is that even possible in a state with million dollar shacks, widespread poverty and poorly performing schools? Is this possible when so much of what we see on the streets is the result of forces beyond local control, with an economy that crushes far more people than it lifts?

And yet, while the idea of ​​ending homelessness is naive, Bass doesn’t seem at all oblivious to the complexities it would take on.

“Homelessness is not monolithic,” she said, so no solution will work for two people. We would need a much larger army than is currently deployed to raise awareness in the streets, she said. And she seems to understand — not all candidates do — that there needs to be another army on the other side, because without long-term case management, a lot of people don’t stay housed.

She recalled the story of my friend Nathaniel, a classically trained musician, and how long it took mental health workers and me to gain his trust and help him get inside. It took a year, and 17 years later he still needs that support. Not all homeless people need this, but many do, especially those with serious mental illness.

Bass said she would work with the county to create the clinics that never materialized after mental hospitals closed. “There’s a big piece of land in Palmdale and maybe we could make a village there,” she said, and in her perfect world, it wouldn’t be the only one.

Bass said she not only had a working relationship with the five county supervisors, but considered them friends and had a direct line to department heads and state politicians and from the federal government, all the way to the Oval Office.

“I can pick up the phone and call Xavier Becerra,” she said of the US Secretary of Health and Human Services.

As someone who was in medicine during the crack epidemic, Bass said, she understands the science of addiction. The methamphetamine that has become such a scourge is so potent, Bass said, that she would go to work with federal colleagues to extend rehab beyond 30 days because that’s not enough time for the healing has a chance.

When she led the Community Coalition, Bass said, many service providers hired by the agency were previously homeless and/or incarcerated. She said she sees no reason why many of the tens of thousands of homeless people cannot be rehabilitated, rehoused and registered for outreach, cleanup and graffiti activities. There is an untapped workforce there.

Given the resistance of many homeless people to group shelters, where there is often little or no privacy, Bass said she wanted to challenge architects to come up with better design concepts.

She wants to recruit interfaith ministers and philanthropists in a “moral crusade” to help solve what is a humanitarian crisis and a sad commentary on a country of unprecedented wealth, and she wants to “issue a clarion call”, perhaps by creating a local version of the Peace Corps.

These would all be massive, difficult and expensive undertakings, and the twin forces of bureaucracy and petty politics have destroyed lesser ambitions.

Bass, who remembers watching news about civil rights and anti-war movements with her father in her youth, said she still sees people of color and others struggling today as they did when she was a young doctor and activist.

“I know how difficult this is going to be,” she told me, adding that she has always been driven by the tragedy of people on the streets, and there are way too many now. “I have nothing to lose and nothing holding me back.”

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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