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Los Angeles mayor declares a state of emergency over the homelessness crisis

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Los Angeles, the city's new mayor, Karen Bass, has declared a state of emergency over homelessness. It's her first official act as city leader since being sworn in Sunday.

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KAREN BASS: I will not accept a homelessness crisis that afflicts more than 40,000 Angelenos and affects every one of us. It is a humanitarian crisis that takes the life of five people every day.

SHAPIRO: Anna Scott covers housing for member station KCRW in Los Angeles. Hi, Anna.

ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So this is a humanitarian crisis, but it's not a sudden or new crisis. What's the reasoning behind declaring a state of emergency?

SCOTT: Part of this at this point is about making a statement. Bass wants to signal that she's willing to use the bully pulpit of her office, I think, to call for solutions to this crisis, which is definitely something that the former mayor, Eric Garcetti, was criticized for not doing. Also, though, you just heard Bass say more than 40,000 people are experiencing homelessness in the city. She points out in her written declaration that that's more people than were displaced during the Northridge earthquake here in 1994. And the rate of people dying on the streets in LA has grown very dramatically over the last decade, a 200% increase. That's due to a number of things, including heart disease, overdoses from drugs like fentanyl and even homicide. So for all of those reasons, Bass is calling homelessness an emergency, and LA's city council members agree with her. They approved this declaration yesterday.

SHAPIRO: Beyond the statement, what does it actually do, and what are the limitations as well?

SCOTT: Yeah, I will start with what it doesn't do because that is more clear. It doesn't bring in any money. So LA is not going to get millions of dollars from FEMA like it would if there were a hurricane, for example. It doesn't mean the city is going to get an army of social workers or any new resources, really. But it does give Bass some power to lift red tape around things like building affordable housing and shelters or investing in services and resources without going through a competitive bidding process like you would under normal circumstances. But we don't know yet how she plans to use these powers.

And one big question is how far she's going to go. Is she going to push projects through in different city council districts, for example, that maybe don't want new affordable housing or new shelters? That was, again, a criticism of the previous mayor, that he really let the 15 city council members each have their own approach to homelessness. So one thing I'm watching for is whether Bass is going to have a more unified strategy, which she has promised, and if these emergency powers are going to help her do that.

SHAPIRO: What are you hearing from advocates for unhoused people in LA? How are they responding?

SCOTT: A lot of people are taking a wait and see to see when more details come out. But I have definitely heard concerns that this could lead to a lot of enforcement against people camping on the streets, which might put them out of sight but isn't going to solve homelessness because the truth is, no mayor is going to fix LA's serious affordable housing shortage, which built up over decades, in a year or even in an entire four-year term. And that lack of affordable housing is at the root of the homelessness crisis. So it makes some advocates nervous to hear big promises about cleaning up the streets quickly because where are people going to go?

SHAPIRO: Has the mayor said what her next step on this front is going to be?

SCOTT: Yeah. So she is expected to come out any day with a more detailed plan on homelessness called Inside Safe. We expect to see her lay out her whole strategy and how she's going to use these emergency powers. She did promise on the campaign trail to move about 17,000 people off the streets during her first year or so. Very tall order, and we'll see.

SHAPIRO: That's housing reporter Anna Scott of member station KCRW. Thanks a lot.

SCOTT: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anna Scott