MICHAEL R. FISHER JR. , Newsweek Magazine, 12/22/22
ayor Karen Ruth Bass won a historic election and is now the 43rd mayor of the City of Los Angeles. Many may recall that homelessness was a central issue of her campaign and that she promised to “bring leadership, accountability and action to dramatically reduce homelessness and end street encampments in Los Angeles.” On her first day as chief executive, she declared a state of emergency on homelessness, vowing to hold nothing back in handling the problem. If indeed she intends to improve the lives of the nearly 42,000 Angelenos who have no permanent shelter, Mayor Bass must become a champion for decriminalization.
While homelessness has been a major problem in LA for many decades, an observable trend to police people experiencing homelessness has emerged in recent years. Take for example Ordinance 41.18 of the Municipal Code signed last year by outgoing Mayor Eric Garcetti that prohibits unhoused people from “sitting, lying, sleeping, using, maintaining, or placing personal property in the public right-of-way.” The City Council passed an amendment to the ordinance in August of this year (which became a contentious issue during the election season) that additionally prohibits unhoused people from sitting, lying, or sleeping on sidewalks near daycare centers and schools.
California is unfortunately not the only state with cities passing camping bans. Other states including Arizona, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wisconsin, have introduced homelessness camping bans within the last two years. As Stateline reported, the bills in these states copy model legislation crafted by the Cicero Institute, a Texas-based think tank.
Camping bans are driven in part by the presumption of danger that unhoused people pose to the general public. In LA, some expressed this concern during a public hearing on the ordinance amendment in May. While city leaders have a duty to ensure public safety, I know that criminalization is an ineffective approach that distracts from the pursuit of viable policy solutions to the problem. As a former policy director at a homelessness social service organization in Washington, D.C., during the first term of the Obama administration, I worked in coalition with unhoused people, policymakers, activists, and social service agencies to reduce homelessness in the nation’s capital by increasing funding to programs that address the causes of homelessness—the same that account for homelessness on the West Coast.
According to a policy brief by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, there are four major contributing factors for homelessness in California: high housing costs, inadequate shelter, deinstitutionalization, and population reduction in overcrowded state prisons. Together, these factors account for the rise of people experiencing homelessness, and a combination of policy strategies are needed to move toward ending homelessness in LA.
Mayor Bass’s campaign proposed many of these policy solutions. Among other things, she pledged to build more temporary and permanent affordable housing by identifying available city-owned land for new housing development, convert existing properties into clean and safe temporary housing, and leverage billions in Proposition HHH and Homekey funds to build permanent affordable housing. She also pledged to work with local, state, and federal governments to address the “severe shortage of mental health and substance abuse disorder services, support, and capacity.”
Angelenos must hold Mayor Bass accountable to fulfill her campaign promises and press her to champion homelessness decriminalization.
Criminalizing homelessness by policing where people can sit, sleep, and stand reflects a misplacement of priorities that does not effectively end or even reduce homelessness. In fact, as some argue, LA lacks sufficient resources to enforce the camping ban on the nearly 400 marked sites that constitute one-fifth of the entire city and risks escalating tensions between law enforcement and people experiencing homelessness who may be unaware of the new prohibitions.
Councilmember Mike Bonin was right when he said at a public hearing that, “This is a question of whether or not we are going to put our energy and our focus into a strategy that manages where encampments are by moving them from block to block, or whether we are going to put our time, our energy, our funds, our attention into ending homeless encampments by ending homelessness and moving people indoors.”
Mayor Bass did not explicitly indicate her position on homelessness decriminalization in her campaign platform. However, given her strategy to end street encampments, she is already positioned to become a powerful champion for the cause as mayor.
Now is the time to press Mayor Bass to lead the charge for decriminalization, fulfill her campaign promises, and implement evidence-based solutions to homelessness during the first 100 days in her new role as the chief executive officer of LA.