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Column: Dear Karen Bass and others, L.A. needs a real homeless plan we haven’t heard before

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OK, here we go.

In the city of sprawling encampments, broken promises and simmering frustration, the mayoral derby is under way. Eric Garcetti, after 20 years in power as a councilman and mayor, will soon be leaving City Hall here in the homeless capital of the United States.

Out of the gates and in the front of the pack are Rep. Karen Bass, City Councilmen Kevin De León and Joe Buscaino, and City Atty. Mike Feuer, among others. A lot of people seem to think Bass is the front-runner, and it would be nice to see a woman get voted into the top job at City Hall for the first time in history.

So I was eager to see what Bass had to say about what she rightly called the city’s biggest and most obvious challenge. And I know it’s early, but I was expecting something a little more dynamic, or different, at least.

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On Friday, Bass rolled out a plan that calls for 15,000 people to be housed in her first year in office, as Benjamin Oreskes reported for The Times.

“This has to be a comprehensive response,” Bass added.

She called homelessness a humanitarian crisis, noting that 40,000 people are out there somewhere.

She said we need a “FEMA-style response” and “decisive leadership.”

All true.

But we’ve heard it all before, over and over.

Rep. Karen Bass, seen above at a House Judiciary Committee hearing, unveiled her plan on homelessness on Friday.

(Erin Schaff / Associated Press)

Maybe Bass would in fact be a more decisive leader, but the bar hasn’t been set particularly high. And to be fair, there’s a bit more to the Bass plan than a few limp sound bites. You can read the whole thing on her website.

But even at that, it’s stuff we’ve heard before.

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More temporary housing. More affordable and supportive housing. Take the lead on mental health and substance abuse treatment. More job training. Identify all available land. Cut red tape. More homelessness prevention. Fight for more federal and state money but do more with the dollars we have. Forge a city-county partnership. Appoint a homelessness chief.

A woman looks out from her tent at a sidewalk homeless encampment

An encampment near St. Vincent’s Medical Center, which Rep. Karen Bass wants to convert into a housing facility for the homeless.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

All good. But the same song has been playing for at least 15 years in Los Angeles.

Bass is no slouch. As a lawmaker in both Sacramento and Washington, and as someone who served as a physician assistant, and addressed a drug epidemic and economic and social injustice in South Los Angeles as a co-founder of the Community Coalition, she’d bring a lifetime of invaluable experience to the job.

I just get a little nervous when I see generalizations, simplifications and claims I don’t trust.

Mark Horvath, who was once homeless and now runs the Invisible People website, where he shares stories about homeless people, had his own doubts about Bass’s claim that she’d house 15,000 people in the first year.

“It’s like pulling a number out of thin air,” said Horvath, who added that thousands of people are being housed each year as it is. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they stay housed or get the services needed to avoid falling back into homelessness.

“I have been to over nine countries and over 300 cities doing this work, and the one constant is that with every homeless person I meet, there’s this insane amount of times they were connected to homes or services but then didn’t get the help they needed,” Horvath said.

I haven’t done as much legwork in other countries as Horvath, but I did go to Italy in 2019 with local, county and state officials to look at the Trieste mental health services model. In that system, you can’t fall through the cracks as a client, as people do by the thousands in Los Angeles.

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Nobody dies of a mental breakdown on the street in Trieste. In fact, there are no homeless mentally ill people because there’s care and continuity and community involvement.

The whole point of the trip was to examine how Trieste cut through bureaucracy and refused to let people suffer. A pilot was supposed to have already begun here in Hollywood, but something got in the way of it.

Bureaucracy.

Each and every mayoral candidate should be screaming for city and county officials to quit making excuses and start the program.

Could it work here? We don’t know that yet, but we know that what we’re doing doesn’t work.

“As mayor, Bass will lead on homelessness and personally drive action at City Hall to marshal the resources of every city department to fight homelessness and end all street encampments,” her plan says.

End all street encampments?

To do so, she would need to entirely restructure the U.S. economy, eliminate poverty, retool public education, turn the California housing industry on its head, end racism, fix a badly broken mental healthcare system and alleviate addiction.

I’m not expecting Bass or any of the other candidates to perform magic. So much of what we see on the streets of Los Angeles is a result of major forces beyond local control. Rather than broad unrealistic promises that sound good politically, we need tangible, realistic frameworks for change we can witness.

There’s still far too little focus on the addiction epidemic, which complicates efforts to reel people in. Pending legislation would create safe-use drug sites, which have been effective in Europe, and I’d like to see mayoral candidates lead the charge on that and greater addiction intervention.

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“When I was on the street,” said Shawn Pleasants, “I’d look around me, and the people out there were African American or Latino and most of us were addicted. When I got into rehab, it was just the opposite.”

Pleasants, who is Black, said his mates in rehab were white. The Yale grad, who was homeless in Los Angeles for years, is now on the Lived Experience Advisory Board at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. He wonders, as do I, why there isn’t more addiction intervention, particularly for people of color.

Josh Legere, who works in homeless services in Oregon after years of the same in Los Angeles, said today’s homeless people suffer from what he calls “social illness,” usually involving poverty, and they don’t all fit the neat categorizations we’ve always had for them.

“We’re dealing with people who have a cluster of different symptoms, challenges and traumas, and we’re not really putting it together in a way that we can address it,” Legere said.

We tend to fetishize the latest solution fads, Legere said, whether it’s sanctioned camping or tiny-home villages. But ordering someone off this corner or that, and pushing them into one program or housing situation or another, might not have any lasting effect.

“We have to find a way to restore the value and dignity of individual human beings,” he said.

In the interest of the unhoused and the housed, 2022 must be the year we do better.

From every mayoral candidate, we need firm but humane, clearly stated goals and believable strategies for achieving them.

Don’t over-promise, don’t under-deliver.

And don’t tell us what we’ve already heard.

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