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Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg emerges as figure in L.A. homelessness debate

A man gathers belongings at a camp on the beach
After being instructed by a park ranger to move his encampment, Tom Otterbach, 66, gathers his belongings along Ocean Front Walk in Venice on May 18.
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

As Los Angeles is roiled by a humanitarian crisis on its streets, one of the city’s richest residents, Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, has begun meeting with local officials to understand homelessness better and to offer some ideas about how he might help.

In recent weeks, Katzenberg has discussed the issue with several members of the Los Angeles City Council, as well as aides to Mayor Eric Garcetti, raising questions about how he might influence homelessness policy and whether he intends to bankroll efforts to get people off the streets.

It’s partly been a listening tour for Katzenberg, who has deep pockets and has donated to countless politicians at the local, state and national level. But he also came with a message, according to three people who spoke with him: People are angry about what’s playing out on the city’s streets and want change.

“I think it goes without saying that the visibility of homelessness is a real thing, and it’s something that clearly sparked his attention,” Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority Executive Director Heidi Marston said. “I know this issue is something he’s been interested in for a while, based on our discussions. But seeing ... the conditions of the streets is part of the reason, I think, that he engaged.”

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Marston has met with the businessman twice in recent weeks and said he was eager to learn about L.A. County’s complex system to deliver care to its neediest. Katzenberg plans to go out with one of her agency’s outreach teams in the coming weeks, she said.

Council members are fast-tracking a measure barring people from sleeping, lying or storing possessions near parks, libraries and other public facilities.

Several of Katzenberg’s meetings have taken place during the run-up to the council’s recent decision to impose new anti-camping rules, which would allow the city to remove encampments that are near key public facilities, such as libraries and homeless shelters, once offers of housing have been made.

During at least one meeting, Katzenberg suggested that the city not tackle every location at once, but rather focus on regulating the sidewalks that surround schools and parks — areas where children are present, said Councilman Paul Koretz, who met with the film producer Friday at his City Hall office.

Koretz agreed with that idea, saying limits around schools and parks make more sense than targeting areas around freeways.

“I think it is intuitively more important to allow children a safe place to play in parks and a safe path to get to school,” he said.

Four people who met with Katzenberg told The Times that he also wanted to know why so many tents now line the city’s sidewalks and what could be done to deliver additional resources to unhoused people.

‘It doesn’t matter what part of the city that you’re in — the travesty of this is undeniable, for all of us.’

Jeffrey Katzenberg

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In some meetings, Katzenberg urged council members to act quickly on enacting limits on where people can sleep, according to two sources with knowledge of those conversations.

“He wanted to be helpful on homelessness and then it quickly turned to ‘tents down,’” said one elected official who met with Katzenberg and asked to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly about a private conversation.

Katzenberg has met or spoken with at least six of the council’s 15 members — Nury Martinez, Mark Ridley-Thomas, Mike Bonin, Nithya Raman, Paul Krekorian and Koretz — and is planning to sit down with Councilman Bob Blumenfield. He also attempted to schedule a meeting with Councilman Gil Cedillo, an aide told The Times, and asked to meet with at least one member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Katzenberg asked for an introductory meeting with Martinez, the council president, to discuss her priorities in office, said Sophie Gilchrist, a Martinez spokeswoman. During their June 18 meeting, Martinez and Katzenberg talked about homelessness broadly but did not discuss the anti-camping measures that were proposed by the council this week, she said.

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“They did not discuss specific policies that he wanted to have approved, nor did he push for that ordinance,” Gilchrist said. “The concerns that this specific [proposal] would address have been raised by the council president for quite some time. “

In an interview Wednesday, Katzenberg told The Times that the lessening of pandemic restrictions is the reason he began meeting again with experts on a subject that he’s been passionate about for years.

Katzenberg said he is acutely aware of what he doesn’t know, which was why these meetings in the last two months were so important. He also said public officials need to show they are making progress to residents who have taxed themselves in addressing the crisis.

“When we came out of shelter in place, the landscape had dramatically changed,” he said. “It is undeniable. It doesn’t matter what part of the city that you’re in — the travesty of this is undeniable, for all of us.”

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Katzenberg has been a powerbroker in Hollywood for decades. The former chairman of Walt Disney Studios, he co-founded Dreamworks SKG, later selling it to NBCUniversal for $3.8 billion. He then teamed up with former California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman in 2018 to start Quibi — an effort “to remake the business of short-form video” — which shut down in fall 2020. He is now managing partner of WndrCo, a holding company that buys and develops consumer electronics companies.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, left, and Meg Whitman pose in front of windows
Jeffrey Katzenberg, left, and Meg Whitman at their startup, Quibi, which has since shut down, in Los Angeles in 2019.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Katzenberg was worth an estimated $900 million in 2016, according to Forbes. He sold his Beverly Hills mansion last year for $125 million.

In recent decades, Katzenberg was a top donor and bundler to both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns. He gave heavily to the campaign of President Biden, raising more than $700,000 at one fundraiser.

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A plan for how to solve Venice’s homeless crisis has emerged from behind-the-scenes talks among a coalition of Venice activists, city officials and deputies of the area’s city councilman.

Contribution records show that Katzenberg also has been giving locally, donating $50,000 in 2017 to the campaign for Measure H, which raised taxes to pay for social services that help Los Angeles County’s unhoused.

A year earlier, he contributed $100,000 to Garcetti’s campaign for Measure M, the half-cent sales tax to support public transit and transportation programs.

In 2013, Katzenberg put more than $101,000 into the effort to elect Wendy Greuel — who worked with him at DreamWorks — as mayor. Last year, he donated $800 to Ridley-Thomas’ City Council campaign.

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Ariana Drummond, a spokeswoman for Ridley-Thomas, said the two met two weeks ago and discussed a “wide range of issues related to the homelessness crisis and economic recovery.”

“The councilmember appreciates Mr. Katzenberg’s interest in leaning into the issue — and applauds both his financial investment and sweat equity to advance the health and wellbeing of our unhoused Angelenos,” she said in a statement.

Raman confirmed she had met with Katzenberg but declined to comment on what they discussed. Bonin declined to comment.

Several people who met with Katzenberg weren’t sure exactly how he planned to tackle the crisis — whether through his philanthropic efforts or through backing political candidates and ballot measures.

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Greuel, chair of LAHSA’s board of commissioners, has been introducing Katzenberg to people working on homelessness in the region in recent weeks. She said he’s still trying to understand the complicated dynamics that lead people into homelessness and where he can be the most help.

“Having worked with him in the past, Jeffrey can pick up the phone and help advocate. He can get others to help contribute and advocate,” she said.

Koretz said that during his meeting, Katzenberg offered to help raise money to address homelessness once city leaders have coalesced around a program that needs targeted funding.

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“If we come up with something where we could use a few dollars and had something to target, he seemed to be willing to put his own resources in,” he said.

Times staff writer Doug Smith contributed reporting to this article.


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