In the hours after being elected mayor of Los Angeles, Karen Bass made a promise that will be an inescapable metric of her time in office: "We are going to solve homelessness."
The Democratic member of Congress, who had been on then-candidate Joe Biden’s short list for vice president, envisioned streets clear of more than 40,000 homeless people — a broken city within a city — and the expansion of housing and health services that would repair troubled lives.
"We are going to build a new Los Angeles," she said.
Now, one year into her first term, Bass says over 21,000 unhoused people were at some point moved into leased hotels or other temporary shelter in 2023, a 28% increase from the prior year. Dozens of drug-plagued street encampments were cleared, and housing projects are in the pipeline.
Yet the encouraging figures belie a hard truth: It’s only the beginning.
Billions of dollars have been spent on homelessness in the region, and an array of new programs are in place. But the mayor says it’s possible that the number of homeless people will continue to increase, in part because of evictions and the end of COVID-19 aid for low-income households.
While Bass has made gains, the city’s homelessness challenge can seem insoluble. It requires managing a potentially growing population equal to that of Palm Springs without a computer system capable of efficiently tracking people within it.
"We’ve been building the plane while flying it," Bass told reporters recently, assessing her first year. "This is about inventing something out of air because a system to prevent people from being homeless … has not existed before."
Brian Averill, who heads the Venice Neighborhood Council, praised Bass for her collaborative work with the City Council. Large encampments were dismantled, including a notorious one snaking along the Venice Beach boardwalk, and many former occupants steered into shelter.
But others scattered, and tent clusters remain a common sight in many neighborhoods. Those still on the streets often struggle with severe substance abuse or mental illness, sometimes both.
"We are nowhere near the end of this," Averill said.
Bass took office in December 2022 following the uneven tenure of fellow Democrat Eric Garcetti, whose time in office was marked by soaring homelessness and economic tumult that came with COVID-19, as well as sexual harassment and corruption scandals.
The city of nearly 4 million is contending with its unhoused crisis at a time when leaders also are trying to imagine LA’s post-pandemic future. Once considered in a renaissance, downtown has seen a falloff in foot traffic while demand for office space has slumped, as remote jobs and abbreviated work weeks reorder urban life. The Los Angeles area, once known for meteoric growth, saw its population decline, as did the state.
By the city’s account, roughly 1 in 3 people who entered interim shelter this year drifted out of the system, and in many cases, probably back to the streets. The wait for permanent housing — what advocates argue is the end solution — could last two or more years for those in short-term beds.
Out of nearly 2,000 people who received temporary shelter through Bass’ signature program Inside Safe, a pilot project within broader efforts to bring people indoors, only 255 landed in permanent housing this year, out of about 3,500 total citywide. In some cases, unhoused people have resettled in places cleared earlier by city workers.
A decade ago, the nation’s second-most populous city was spending about $10 million dealing with homelessness. Bass called for a record $1.3 billion this year to get unhoused people into shelter and treatment programs. The spread of homelessness has had cascading effects on property crime and drug overdose deaths, especially from the synthetic opioid fentanyl.
There is no single reason why Los Angeles became a magnet for homelessness. Contributing factors include soaring housing prices and rents that punish those with marginal incomes, and a long string of court decisions has made it difficult for officials to clear encampments.
A Biden administration study released earlier this month found that homelessness is continuing to increase in the country and California, which is home to nearly 30% of the nation’s unhoused population.
One of the biggest challenges is not on the streets of Los Angeles but in City Hall itself – the lack of computer network capable of tracking people and services that would replace a scattershot of city and county systems that don’t work together.
CEO John Maceri of The People Concern, one of LA's largest nonprofits serving the homeless population, called the current system "wildly inefficient."
"Who are these folks, how are they moving through the system, who are they connected to?" Maceri asked, spotlighting blind spots in the data. "All of these need to be understood in real time."
Bass came to office intent on disproving what she characterized as a myth: Homeless people do not want to come inside. Her Inside Safe program is voluntary, and no one is forced into shelter.
On a sunny morning in late October, her trademark program was on display at a freeway underpass on the city’s Westside, where a tightly packed encampment has been standing for four years. Neighbors long complained of open drug use, unsanitary conditions and petty thefts.
Those living in tents were notified weeks earlier that clean rooms with a locking door were available and that the encampment would be coming down. They lined up by buses headed for shelters, their personal possessions stuffed into clear plastic bags by their sides.
Once residents willing to be relocated had been moved, a front-loader’s steel bucket began to crush tents and dump them in a trash truck. The sidewalk was soon clear, and a fence went up to prevent anyone from returning.
Richard Kuebler, who runs a nearby auto repair shop, has for years found discarded needles and human feces around his business that he attributes to the encampment’s residents. A man died on the sidewalk a few steps from his bays. Authorities, he said, typically shrugged.
Kuebler remains dubious about change, but still, he’s thankful that for once, something is being done.
"I’m so happy, I might get a bottle of champagne on my way home," Kuebler said.
As the tents fell, one of those leaving was Noelia Nunez, who said she had been living beneath the underpass for two-and-a-half years.
As with many people who fall into homelessness, the one-time vocal teacher described a traumatic turn: Her father died unexpectedly in 2020, and her life began unraveling.
She talked of her time on the street as a grueling ordeal to safeguard herself and her few belongings. In a shelter, she sees herself returning to simple joys others take for granted — a bubble bath, a locked door, and in time, maybe going back to work.
Getting ready to board the bus, Nunez twirled in delight.
"This is a special day," she said.
Two months later, Nunez remains in temporary housing.