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To Combat Homelessness 'Emergency,' LA Mayor Announces Spending Plan


Los Angeles has declared homelessness in the city an emergency. When I spoke with Mayor Eric Garcetti on Friday, he described the visible signs of the crisis.

MAYOR ERIC GARCETTI: Encampments, tents, things that we haven't seen in over a decade as people are congregating under freeways and on off ramps, by rivers - a real visible reminder of how long this hangover from the recession really is.

RATH: Garcetti has just announced a plan to spend $100 million on homelessness. I asked him why he declared a state of emergency now.

GARCETTI: We wanted to do two things - one was to declare a sense of urgency; that this was an emergency, which legally allows us to open up our shelters earlier, even before we get rain or cold days, which is the legal requirement. But it was also a political emergency that we want to see an increased amount of funding, not only to see at the local level - and we're working together very closely with the County of Los Angeles on this - but also from our state and national leaders where we've seen a lotof housing dollars cut back over the last few years precisely when we need them the most.

RATH: The city's affordable housing fund has been cut sharply in recent years. Rents are going up. More areas are gentrifying. Are there plans in this to create more affordable housing?

GARCETTI: Absolutely. There's no question that the city suffered. Our housing trust fund was cut at its lowest level by almost 80 percent. But we're stepping up and saying, look, this is a problem that we know - actually, we have the model that works. Here in Los Angeles, we developed a housing first model that's actually been exported from Los Angeles with great success in cities like Salt Lake City that have made tremendous strides. That model started here. We've just never funded it enough. And we've never deployed the people out there to really, you know, engage with the homeless population. We have 36 outreach workers for the County of Los Angeles, and there's 45,000 homeless people. That ratio just doesn't work.

RATH: Looking at Skid Row specifically, the LAPD has implemented what's called the Broken Windows Policy in policing - means cracking down on things like jaywalking, camping on the sidewalks. Do you plan to continue that approach?

GARCETTI: Well, jaywalking is, I think, separate from some of the other policing efforts that have been done. But one of the things I've said is we can't simply criminalize homelessness. But we've fought on the streets with - against homeless advocate; a battle that is losing for both of us. When they win, and we can't clear a sidewalk, no more person has been housed.

RATH: So your talking about legal battles between homeless advocates and the LAPD?

GARCETTI: Absolutely. We've been sued every single time Los Angeles comes up with a new policy to clear the streets. And that can be very frustrating for businesses that have, you know, dozens of homeless people camped out. Advocates have, rightfully so, taken us to court and saying, well, if there's no housing for them, where else do you expect them to be? We're trying to change that paradigm by saying we will provide that housing and those outreach workers, and then, in turn, it is fair for us to be able to make sure that we have clean rights of way.

RATH: Mayor Garcetti, your first term ends in 2017 in two years. How do you think voters should judge whether or not you've succeeded on this at that point?

GARCETTI: Well, you know, I'm wary of trying to declare success on homelessness. And a lot of people said, hey, as a mayor, don't talk about homelessness, don't take on this challenge. You can never solve it. You can never declare victory. There's no votes there. People just want the homeless cleaned up and moved from the community. You know, very complicated things drive people to be homeless. But if we can say the number is going down, and if we can say that we're housing, permanently, a record number of people, each one of those lives is a life transformed. And that's well worth the work, and I hope that folks will look at that as the record of what we've accomplished.

RATH: That's Los Angeles mayor, Eric Garcetti. Mayor Garcetti, thanks very much.

GARCETTI: You're very welcome. Thank you.

RATH: So that's the mayor's plan, with an emphasis on permanent supportive housing for homeless people in Los Angeles. And for more on the city's homelessness initiative, I'm joined the studio by Reverend Andy Bales. He's CEO of Union Rescue Mission, which provides shelter and services on Skid Row. Reverend Bales, thanks for joining us.

REV ANDY BALES: Thank you.

RATH: So could I get your reaction to the mayor's plan? Do you think it's the right approach?

BALES: I'm thrilled that we're making a down payment on making a huge difference in homelessness. And I really heard from him in the interview. He's decided to ignore those who say don't deal with homelessness. I'm happy about it. I just think there needs to be some guidance on encouraging the mayor on how that money is spent.

RATH: And what would that guidance be from you?

BALES: Well, let's take the $100 million. I would assert that six years ago when the city shifted all the resources to Housing First and Home for Good, emergency shelters lost support, transitional housing lost support. And the resources went to the few and housed the few, but they left the many out in the cold. So I would actually say that my hope is it's going to be a multipronged approach.

RATH: And can you talk about what you're seeing with the people you work with right now? How are conditions on Skid Row right now?

BALES: Skid Row has doubled in number of people on the streets in the last - I would say one year. There is complete lawlessness. And we're not talking about jaywalking. People are smoking crack. They're smoking spice. They're doing whatever they want to do. And that is kind of the big attraction of Skid Row. When you come to Skid Row, you can do anything you want to do. And the police have backed off, and except for serious, violent crime, they hesitate to intervene. So it's almost impossible for a person in a wheelchair like me to navigate without going into the streets.

RATH: You mentioned the fact that you're in a wheelchair. This is something that's been held up as an example of how bad conditions are on Skid Row. You developed an infection in your foot. We visited with you about a year ago, and it's become even worse since then. Can you tell us how that's gone?

BALES: Right. So what happened is I did a water walk on Skid Row, and I had a wound on my foot, but I had a boot on, so it was somewhat protected. But I have low immunity because of a kidney transplant. I did a water walk on, I think, a Thursday or Friday. By Monday, as I flew out to Raleigh, I couldn't stand in line in the Southwest. And by the time I arrived home, I had a super-high fever, and I had a blood infection all the way to my waist. And my doctor quickly said - he asked me where I worked. I told him, and he said you got this from Skid Row.

RATH: Reverend Bales, you've worked on Skid Row for quite a while.

BALES: Nearly 11 years, yes.

RATH: Yeah, and I'm curious how confident you are that this latest initiative will overcome the impediments that you've seen to fixing this problem.

BALES: Well, I think it all depends on the heart of LA. Is this the time where the heart of LA is going to wake up and say we will not tolerate. We will have a holy indignation of any precious person remaining on the streets of Skid Row. It's time. The city is stepping up like never before. I have very high hopes in the leadership of the city. I have very high hopes in our city to live up to being the city of angels, to live up to our name.

RATH: Andy Bales is the CEO of Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row in Los Angeles. Reverend Bales, thank you.

BALES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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