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Opinion Los Angeles’s anger at its homeless is what’s driving Karen Bass to run for mayor

"I made a very difficult decision to not run for reelection because of the [homelessness] crisis in my hometown," said Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) during an interview last month about her run for mayor of Los Angeles. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post)
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In her campaign to become the next mayor of Los Angeles — and the first Black woman elected to the post — Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) says there’s only one issue she hears about from constituents: homelessness. In fact, this “crisis in my hometown” is the reason she’s leaving Congress.

“In our city, to have 40,000 people unhoused, living in tents all around the city and people dying because of that, was enough to bring me home,” Bass told me during an interview in Studio City earlier this month. But what’s equally troubling to her is the anger she’s hearing about the homeless.

“The thing that is frightening to me is that there is a level of anger in our city. People are tired. They’re upset with local elected officials, who they feel haven’t done enough,” said Bass, a former speaker of the California Assembly now serving her sixth term in the House. “And some people are now beginning to feel like they just want to see these people out of their neighborhood and don’t really care what happens to them.”

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Bass has seen this movie before. In 1990, at the height of the crack epidemic and increasingly punitive laws and violent police tactics, Bass and other activists in South Los Angeles formed “Community Coalition” to give residents a voice and a role in finding solutions to the area’s problems. The institutional dynamics that plagued L.A. then are at work again now, which is why the anger Bass talks about is so troubling. Look at the statistics on who “these people” are.

African Americans are just 9 percent of the population of the city of Los Angeles, but they make up the largest share (38 percent) of its homeless, according to the most recent data. Disturbingly, the overwhelming majority of unhoused people have lived in Los Angeles County for more than 10 years before becoming homeless.

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“In many neighborhoods, people who are living in alleys or living outside actually lived on [that same] street before, inside. You have people that are unhoused for economic reasons, people who literally work full-time or go to school full-time, and they’re living in their cars or they’re living in tents,” Bass said. “You have people who were formerly incarcerated. But our harsh sentencing laws locked people up for extreme amounts of time, and then [legislators] passed laws that continued to punish them once they got out. So they can’t get a job. They can’t get a place to live.”

This explains why Bass views homelessness as a public health and humanitarian crisis worthy of a public-emergency declaration. She lauded the 2016 voter-approved Measure HHH, which provided $1.2 billion in bond money to build 10,000 units of housing for the homeless. But she decried the red tape that has slowed progress.

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“The county of Los Angeles has 88 cities. It is so easy to build in other cities. But when it comes to the city of Los Angeles, it’s difficult to build,” Bass said. “Those bureaucratic hurdles can be overcome, and viewing it as an emergency is one way to do that. So I want to look for the red tape and cut it.”

In the decade I’ve covered Bass, she has never seemed happier. And a lot of good things have happened to her, from becoming chair of the Congressional Black Caucus to being seriously vetted for vice president. But there’s a twinkle in her eye when she talks about tackling homelessness. “I’m running to solve the problem, but I’m also running to stop what I feel is a real rightward push in our city,” she said.

“I’m flashing back to the city in 1990 when it was crack, Crips, Bloods, 1,000 homicides. People were angry, and laws were passed that cast the net too wide and impacted the entire community. I feel we’re on the verge of that again,” Bass told me during a subsequent conversation. “My concern is that anger leads to just-arrest-them-all policy that does not solve the problem.”

As mayor, Bass would have a mandate to do whatever it takes to ameliorate, if not solve, the housing problem in Los Angeles. With a lifetime of work in the city, she would bring the experience and gravitas needed to get it done. All she has to do is get elected in November. And that requires voters to have the good sense not to let anger override common sense in meeting the challenge of homelessness.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj. Subscribe to Capehart, Jonathan Capehart’s weekly podcast

Podcast conversations with Rep. Karen Bass

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“We are watching an administration attempt to systematically reverse or destroy everything we fought for for the last 60 to 70 years.” (2019)

‘I’m now a political therapist’: Rep. Karen Bass on hosting town halls in the Trump era. (2017)