A man pushes a cart on the Venice Beach boardwalk in Los Angeles, California. (Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg)

Los Angeles Mayor, Eyeing National Stage, Takes on Homelessness

(Bloomberg) -- Days after visiting the presidential hopeful’s promised land of Iowa, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti laid out ambitious plans to tackle one of his city’s most visible and vexing problems: the tens of thousands of Angelenos without permanent places to live or sleep.

Calling homelessness "the greatest moral and humanitarian crisis of our time," Garcetti used his State of the City address Monday to detail a renewed effort backed by $430 million from the mayoral budget.

His plan calls for the creation of transitional shelters in every council district, a unified command center to boost collaboration between departments and the deployment of “intensive outreach teams” to help people leave the streets for good. To prevent neighborhoods from pushing the problem elsewhere, those that expand short-term shelters would receive funding to clean up areas sullied by homeless encampments.

“We are seizing this moment,” the 47-year-old Democrat said in prepared remarks. “We are fighting to make sure that our children don’t have to ask: ‘Why is that woman sleeping on a bench? Doesn’t she have someone to take care of her?’ The answer is yes. We are going to take care of her. The city of L.A. is going to put everything we’ve got into bringing her home."

Squeezed Out

Homelessness has worsened in big cities across the U.S. in recent years as wealth concentrated in urban centers, elevating rents and squeezing supplies of affordable housing. Nowhere is the problem more evident than in Los Angeles, where nearly three-quarters of homeless people live in automobiles or tents in parks and under highway overpasses. According to the latest count, 34,189 people lacked a permanent place to sleep on any given night last year, up 20 percent from the year prior.

The issue could foil any ambitions Garcetti holds to seek his party’s presidential nomination in 2020. He traveled in February to early voting South Carolina and in August to New Hampshire, where he intends to return next month. During his two days last week in Iowa, where party caucuses wield early, outsize power, the two-term mayor reiterated his commitment to spend this year “listening” and to decide on a run by 2019, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Crucial Test

City homelessness is up 49 percent since Garcetti took office in 2013, having risen every year of his tenure, the newspaper noted in editorials devoted to the topic this year. “All the region’s politicians must step up, but especially Mayor Eric Garcetti -- whose legacy and political future will rise or fall on how he handles this colossal urban crisis -- and the members of the Los Angeles City Council, who have too often allowed political expediency and timidity to guide their actions.”

The effort laid out by Garcetti today builds on city and county voter-approved initiatives to get more people into housing. One, passed in 2016, allocates $1.2 billion in bond money to house 10,000 chronically homeless people over the next decade. An emergency-shelter crisis declaration, passed by the city council last week, intends to fast-track the building of shelters. Garcetti also used his speech to urge sending $1.5 billion from the state budget to cities tackling homelessness. That would help the municipalities of Los Angeles County get almost $646 million dollars this year, he said.

“Homelessness can’t be swept away -- we must give people a place to stay,” he said. “We’re not going to wash down sidewalks only to see an encampment return a few days later. That doesn’t help a single person get off the street, and it doesn’t help clean up a neighborhood for good.”

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