Serving Larchmont Village, Hancock Park, and the Greater Wilshire neighborhoods of Los Angeles since 2011.

Candid Conversation with Mayor Karen Bass on Homelessness

Sarah Dusseault, Mayor Karen Bass, and Dr. Va Lecia Adams Kellum were part of panel discussion on homelessness at The Ebell of Los Angeles Wednesday morning.

“We have to admit that the system is broken,” Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass told a gathering of more than 200 people at The Ebell of Los Angeles Wednesday morning in a candid conversation about the challenge of addressing homelessness in the city. This is the third large forum the Ebell has organized on the topic as part of the women’s nonprofit organization’s education and community service mission.

Ebell member Jill Bauman, CEO Emeritus of Imagine LA, welcomed more than 200 people to the forum.

The panel was organized by Ebell member Jill Bauman, CEO Emeritus of Imagine LA, and Sarah Dusseault, Co-Chair of the Blue Ribbon Commission on homelessness, who served as the moderator of the panel and featured Dr. Va Lecia Adams Kellum, the new CEO of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), with an introduction of the data by Janey Rountree Executive Director of the California Policy Lab at UCLA.

Leading off the discussion, Dussealt asked Bass to share some revelations she’d had over the last year since taking office. Bass used the example of HUD vouchers, originally intended only for permanent supportive housing, as a policy that could have been very well-meaning but no longer made sense.

“I cannot live with the idea of telling someone you have to stay in a tent until housing is built,” said Bass. Instead, using relationships she had with officials in the federal government, she proposed a waiver to use the vouchers for interim housing to get people off the street immediately.

Her program, Inside Safe, which offers people living in encampments temporary housing, has moved 17,000 people from the street into housing in the past nine months.

Bass explained why she has made reducing the number of encampments in the city a priority since taking office last December. Most residents experience homelessness through encampments and removing them gives people hope that the problems can be solved which is essential to maintaining future funding for these programs, explained Bass.

“Addressing street homelessness has allowed us to save lives but it also allows us to continue to address this problem,” said Bass.

Bass said she was learning from experts, some she called out to in the audience, who have been working in the field to identify the barriers so she can remove them. She said she doesn’t blame anyone working inside the system and hopes there can be an honest conversation about improvements.

Mayor Karen Bass and Dr. Va Lecia Adams Kellum

Dr. Va Lecia Adams Kellum, who designed the Inside Safe program, said she and Bass were committed to taking a hard, honest look at the system to understand the barriers to getting people housed.

“At this time of crisis, we can’t sit by and overlook the barriers of these systems,” said Kellum. “We have to be bold and we have to be honest with ourselves and all of you about what is keeping us from getting this done.”

Kellum told the group, many of whom represented nonprofits working in the field, “We have to prioritize and focus on what we want to do here or things will continue to look exactly like they do today.”

Kellum wants to see everyone laser-focused on the goal and working towards it.

“Everyone has picked up an idea, grabbed a couple of million dollars, and ran with it,” she said. “Instead of saying, in LA our priority is to reduce unsheltered homelessness, (I’m just throwing that out, that’s not the answer), by 25 percent in the few years and we are going to throw everything at that and manage that goal like nobody’s business and anything that comes up is going to line 3 or 4 or 5. Because we are so scattered, that’s why you don’t see any progress.”

Using Inside Safe as an example, Kellum explained they chose to utilize motels because they didn’t want to build more interim housing because it doesn’t get people permanently housed. To reduce costs, they turned to master leasing. As a result, they were able to reduce the wait times from 120 days to 30-40 days. She asked the audience to consider allowing some of their ideas to be the third or fourth goal after the city gets the humanitarian crisis on our streets addressed.

Janey Rountree Executive Director of the California Policy Lab at UCLA.

Before the panel discussion, Janey Rountree Executive Director of the California Policy Lab at UCLA, a policy and data expert presented an overview of facts about homelessness.

Rountree told the audience the root cause of homelessness is the intersection of an affordable housing crisis and low wages. The solution lies in addressing the underlying root causes of homelessness: lack of affordable housing supply, low wages, behavioral health care, and structural racism. In addition, she said, we must address the crisis on the street. We must get people off the street to reduce death, injury, trauma, worsening health conditions, stress on the service sector, and stress on our communities.

According to Rountree, our current homelessness crisis has been fifty years in the making when public policy leaders stopped building housing.

Rountree said Los Angeles is currently missing 500,000 affordable housing units. As a result, many residents are paying far more for housing. On average, LA County residents spend 49% of their income on rent, explained Rountree. The problem has gotten worse. Since 2000, median rent increased by 38% while income decreased by 7%. She said whenever people pay more than 30% of their wages for housing, there will be homelessness which is why the problem is visible in cities all over the U.S.

In Los Angeles, there are an estimated 140,000 people experiencing homelessness each year;75,000 on any given night. 90% of those people are from California and 73% are unsheltered. Living on the streets is deadly. Mortality rate increased by 55% from 2019 to 2021.

The Homeless Population. While Black people make up 9% of the population more than 33% of people experiencing homelessness are Black, explaining that systemic racism plays a role in determining who will be homeless.

9% (6,230) are children ages 0-17
6% (3,718) are “transition-aged youth” ages 18-24
78% (56,647) are adults ages 25-64
7% (4,725) are seniors (65+), a growing segment of the homeless population.
30% (22,320) are women who are at particular risk for violence and additional trauma. 80% of unsheltered women report abuse and trauma as a cause compared to 34% of sheltered women and 38% of unsheltered men.

Working people can often be homeless. 37% of homeless individuals earned wages in the 2 years before becoming homeless but those average wages are $9,900 per year. Poverty is the single most important risk factor for experiencing homelessness.

Mental Health. Not surprisingly, living on the street worsens mental health. 66% of homeless people report a lifetime experience with depression, anxiety, or other mental illness. 25% of individuals on the street or in shelters report a serious mental illness. Roundtree said that 4,500 (10%) have been diagnosed with a psychotic spectrum disorder which is a very large number. Finally, almost one-third (31%) of people surveyed on the street are active users of methamphetamines.

Rountree closed her presentation with a list of solutions including prevention to address the problem, many of which were raised during the panel and in the question and answer session that followed.

Attendees told the Buzz they left with a greater understanding of the issue and how the approach to solving the problem has evolved. And, perhaps most importantly, a sense of optimism and urgency about finding solutions.

A candid moment before the panel discussion began

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Patricia Lombard
Patricia Lombard
Patricia Lombard is the publisher of the Larchmont Buzz. Patty lives with her family in Fremont Place. She has been active in neighborhood issues since moving here in 1989. Her pictorial history, "Larchmont" for Arcadia Press is available at Chevalier's Books.

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  1. Well maybe if the mayor focused on actually getting affordable housing built and getting more federal funding from the government for section 8 instead of building more shelters and transitional housing. We don’t need anymore shelters, that’s not permanent and that’s not the answer to cleaning up the city and “solving” the “homeless issue”. I was homeless myself for seven years so I know. I am a single mother who’s physically disabled/in a wheelchair, I have two school age daughters and over 75% of my monthly income from disability goes to rent, I only get $1300 a month so that leaves money for little else. We need real answers. I was trying to get section 8 for years, it was on a freeze/not taking applications in Los Angeles for over 12 yrs. I just barely got on the waiting list and I’m only not homeless cuz I’m renting a refurbished garage from my family, but it’s not a long term situation and when it’s done we’ll be on the streets.


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