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LA Mayor Bass plans to spend $1.3 billion to address homelessness in the city

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The new mayor of the city of Los Angeles, Karen Bass, plans to spend a record $1.3 billion addressing homelessness in the coming fiscal year. But what can all that money buy? And will it get to the root of a crisis that's left an estimated 42,000 people unhoused in LA? KCRW's Anna Scott reports.

ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: Sixty-year-old Yolanda Orellana (ph) had lived on and off in a makeshift tent village for months when late last year, outreach workers offered to take her and others at the encampment to a motel.

YOLANDA ORELLANA: First I was skeptical. And then they said it was going to be a different way of doing things with the - a new mayor, is it? We have a new mayor. And she, you know, wants to help with the homeless. And so I was like, why not?

SCOTT: The motel Orellana went to was part of a program started by that new mayor, Karen Bass, Inside Safe. It aims to break up large street encampments one by one and move people indoors fast. Bass plans to devote a quarter of the $1.3 billion to scaling up Inside Safe. Some unhoused people and their advocates question that. They say the program's disorganized and that services and meals for people in it have been spotty.

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ORELLANA: They have not kept their promise. We don't know what's going to happen. It's like being in "The Twilight Zone."

SCOTT: This is Yolanda Orellana at a press conference earlier this month held to call out the problems with Inside Safe. And Mayor Bass says they have a fair point.

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KAREN BASS: We have essentially been building the plane while flying it. We are stretching all of the resources. And in the course of doing this, we are seeing lots of weaknesses, lots of problems. And we are moving to address those problems.

SCOTT: She says the problems reflect longstanding gaps in LA's social services system.

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BASS: I could have said, let's spend the next month, two months, three months, designing a program that will meet every single need. To me, that is the antithesis of how you would respond to an emergency.

SCOTT: Instead, Bass says, she's prioritizing getting people off the streets as quickly as possible and doing what she can to build a pathway to permanent housing. Besides renting rooms for people like Orellana, Bass' spending plan calls for buying motels and converting them to transitional housing. She also wants to create new substance abuse treatment beds and provide rental assistance to vulnerable seniors, among other things. But analysts say even all that might not be enough to get to the root of the issue.

JASON WARD: The homelessness crisis we have here has been decades in the making.

SCOTT: Jason Ward is the associate director of the RAND Center on Housing and Homelessness.

WARD: It really comes down to a lack of housing production.

SCOTT: The housing shortage has led to a massive affordability crisis that's pushing people into homelessness faster than the system can catch them.

WARD: In an ideal world, what we want to do is work backwards from having some sort of permanent source of housing for people. It seems like the way we're taking this now is, like, we're working forward from, like, let's get people off the streets.

SCOTT: Which, he says, is incredibly important. But it's hard to see now whether it'll lead to fewer people experiencing homelessness or just a less visible crisis.

ORELLANA: Welcome to this community room. You know, and there's a couch, TV. And we have tables. We can play cards or whatever.

SCOTT: The pandemic showed that hotel or motel rooms do work to transition some people from homelessness to permanent housing. And it worked for Yolanda Orellana. Earlier this year, she moved to a shared home in south LA. She says it's changed her daily life.

ORELLANA: And the self-esteem because, oh, my gosh, being in that - where we were, where I was, yeah, I felt like a fish in a fishbowl. I mean, I didn't even want to get out of the tent.

SCOTT: She says she still doesn't have all the support she needs, like a consistent case manager. But it's a lot better than the streets.

For NPR News, I'm Anna Scott in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anna Scott
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