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Los Angeles mayor works to tackle city's homelessness crisis as nation focuses on affordable housing

The fight against homelessness
The fight against homelessness 07:41

Across the United States, cities are bearing the brunt of homelessness, a problem fueled by a lack of affordable housing and issues like mental health and addiction that are worsened by poverty.

New York and Los Angeles alone account for around 40% of the country's unhoused population. Now, those cities are trying to find lasting solutions. 

In California, which leads the nation in homelessness and home prices, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass ran and won last year's election largely on a promise to house about a third of the city's 46,000 homeless people by the end of the year. 

Making good on that goal started on Bass' first day in office. 

"What I did on Day One of my administration was put the city in a state of emergency," Bass told CBS Saturday Morning. 

That began her housing relief program, "Inside Safe," which brought nearly 2,000 people off the street, according to numbers reported by the city of Los Angeles. That, along with other homeless relief programs, got nearly 22,000 Los Angeles residents into temporary housing. That's 5,000 more people than last year, the city said. 

Tents in Los Angeles in 2023. CBS Saturday Morning

"We have dispelled the myth that people who are on the street will not leave the street," Bass said. "So we have not had a problem of people accepting housing." 

Getting people off the street and into temporary housing is one thing. Keeping them housed is another. As of November 2023, only 3,500 unhoused people in Los Angeles have found permanent places to live. There just isn't enough affordable housing stock in the city, or in several other large American cities, making it nearly impossible to find placements for those living in temporary units. 

On Nov. 1, Bass issued an executive order allowing "Inside Safe" to use vacant residential hotel rooms as interim housing.

"I don't want people waiting on the streets in tents while we're building (affordable housing)," Bass said. "That's why we're getting them off the street, providing motel rooms for them, while at the same time we are expediting building." 

However, those temporary rooms are used as permanent housing for low-income residents, which some says creates a new problem. Barbara Schultz, the director of housing and justice at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, said that the city has released numbers showing that there need to be "456,000 more housing units to meet the need in the city." Almost 200,000 of those units would be needed for "low-income Angelenos," Schultz said. 

"The idea of removing the already too-few permanent units we have is the wrong policy at this time," Schultz said. 

There's also the challenge of matching funding sources to specific communities like the one at Summit View Apartments, an affordable housing building with 49 units that only serves homeless veterans. For veterans like 26-year-old Jean Casimir, who was unable to find work and living in a shelter after leaving the Army, it's been a place to get back on his feet and receive necessary mental health and employment services. 

New Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass contends with homeless crisis 05:22

"We want to be sure nothing triggers falling back into homelessness," said Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, the president and CEO of the non-profit L.A. Family Housing, which developed Summit View Apartments. "In order to realize a vision of providing more supportive housing for people in need, there's a little bit of the city, the county, the state, federal government and private investors (needed) to make this happen." 

That complexity is part of the problem, especially in the midst of a post-COVID economy with high inflation where housing the poor isn't a profitable business.

"Until we spend the money directly on housing, we're not going to have an impact on homelessness," Klasky-Gamer said. 

Secretary Marcia Fudge at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said her office is trying to streamline the process to build new affordable housing.

"I don't believe that we have done all we should have done as a nation," Fudge said. 

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has instituted a goal of reducing homelessness by 25% in the next two years. It's an "ambitious" goal, Fudge said, but "not impossible." To that effort, Fudge has raised the value of housing vouchers and released $50 million to support homeless youth. 

Homelessness Emergency Declaration Issued In Los Angeles
A homeless encampment in Los Angeles in December 2022. Getty Images

"We are doing all we know how to do because we understand that young people in particular, if they don't start to look at homeownership as an option, they may never be put in a situatoin to start to build the kind of generational wealth that our parents built," Fudge said. 

On a local level, Bass has worked to cut down the time it takes to build affordable housing in Los Angeles. 

"What used to take months in terms of permits now takes 37 days," Bass explained. "If you are coming to Los Angeles to build 100% affordable housing, you essentially break through a lot of the barriers and we expedite your building." 

Bass has also sponsored two bills in the State Assembly to create more permanent housing. One bill will allow the administration to "use a lot of city properties," including "city, state, county, federal property that is either vacant or is available" for Los Angeles' use to be the site for new affordable housing. 

"We don't even have to be involved in purchasing property, it's to expedite the building on public lands," Bass said. 

Homelessness Los Angeles
A homeless person's tent in Los Angeles in December 2022.  Jae C. Hong / AP

That's critical to organizations like L.A. Family Housing. Officials are also working to ensure an equitable housing landscape.

"If we just continue to only build in places where low-income housing has always been, we end up segregating poverty and segregating people in a way that is really contrary to the fair housing law," Fudge said. 

Bass also has an eye on major upcoming events in the city, like the FIFA World Cup, which will be held in 2026, and the 2028 Olympics. 

"I am hoping all of the energy ... will bring the city in a way that says we can't have the world come here and see 46,000 people sleeping on the street," Bass said. 

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