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New LA Mayor Bass declares homeless emergency as term begins

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass began her first day in office Monday by declaring a state of emergency to grapple with the city’s out-of-control homeless crisis, bidding to move swiftly to get thousands of unhoused people off her city’s streets.

Bass called the declaration “a sea change in how the city tackles homelessness,” making good on a campaign pledge to call the emergency the day she took power. The issue dominated her mayoral race against billionaire developer Rick Carusoz, and the crisis has continued to worsen despite vast public spending increases.

She said Sunday that the many, disparate arms of government must unite to confront homelessness in the nation’s second-largest city. To move in a new direction, “We must have a single strategy” bringing together government, the private sector and other stakeholders, she said at the ceremony.

Trash-strewn encampments and rusting RVs have spread to virtually every neighborhood of Los Angeles, and her declaration on Monday included a grim statistical rundown of the many problems stemming from the homeless crisis.

Fires caused by homeless people constitute a majority of all blazes handled by the Los Angeles Fire Department, averaging 24 a day, according to 2021 figures. About half the homeless population — totaling over 40,000 citywide — suffers from drug or alcohol addiction, and about a third have serious mental illnesses. And homeless deaths average five a day.

Despite more than $1.2 billion in spending for homeless programs in the current city budget, there is scant evidence of change on the streets, and the declaration said the crisis has grown “beyond the control of the normal services, personnel, equipment, and facilities” in Los Angeles.

Advocates for the unhoused cheered the declaration.

Jennifer Hark Dietz, CEO of the homeless services nonprofit PATH, said the city’s previous “piecemeal” approach to the crisis too often involved law enforcement instead of service providers. She expressed hope that the move would cut down on red tape, bolster outreach and include “tangible housing solutions.”

“From individuals just falling into homelessness, to those living outdoors or in interim housing … we know that the affordable housing they need is just not here,” Dietz said in a statement Monday that backed efforts to speed creation of affordable housing.

Janice Hahn, who heads the county Board of Supervisors, credited Bass with “treating the homelessness crisis with the urgency it demands.”

Bass’ election in November represented a historic marker in the city’s 241-year history. She is the first woman and second Black person to hold the job. The former Democratic congresswoman and legislative leader begins work amid multiple crises. Bass also is tasked with easing rising crime rates and restoring trust in a City Hall shaken by racism and corruption scandals.

Bass — who was on President-elect Joe Biden’s short list for vice president — claimed the post last month after overcoming more than $100 million in spending by rival Caruso, a billionaire and Republican-turned-Democrat who campaigned as a centrist and promised a strong emphasis on public safety.

Caruso would have represented a turn to the political right for the heavily Democratic city. Bass swayed voters by arguing she would be a coalition builder to help heal a troubled city of nearly 4 million.

She took her formal oath privately but was sworn in ceremonially at a downtown theater on Sunday by Vice President Kamala Harris, a longtime friend and former California attorney general.

Bass, 69, ran as the consensus pick of the Democratic establishment and was endorsed by Biden, former President Barack Obama and former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Despite her close ties with the Democratic political community, she has described herself as a change agent who will marshal “all of the resources, all of the skills, the knowledge, the talent of the city” to get homeless people into housing.

She has said she intends to get over 17,000 homeless people into housing in her first year through a mix of interim and permanent facilities.

She also will contend with entrenched urban problems that include a housing shortage, crumbling streets and some of the nation’s worst traffic.

She replaces beleaguered Democrat Eric Garcetti, who ends two bumpy terms with his nomination to become U.S. ambassador to India stalled in the Senate, apparently over sexual misconduct allegations against a former top Garcetti adviser.

Bass takes office as the City Council contends with a racism scandal that led to the resignation of its former president and a powerful labor leader, while one councilman snared in the scandal has resisted calls to resign. Meanwhile, three current or former council members have been indicted or have pleaded guilty to corruption charges.