De León proposes a new city department of mental and public health

Mayoral candidate Kevin de León at the opening of his campaign office.
Mayoral candidate Kevin de León is proposing a new city Department of mental and public health to combat homelessness.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Councilman and mayoral candidate Kevin de León wants the city to create its own mental and public health department in an effort to provide more control over Los Angeles’ homelessness response.

The proposal is part of a newly released policy package on public safety and homelessness from the councilman, who represents areas including downtown, Boyle Heights and Eagle Rock. It comes in advance of Tuesday night’s televised debate that will see all five leading candidates take the stage for the first time.

De León was one of five council members who introduced a motion last year asking the chief legislative analyst to explore “the feasibility of establishing a City of Los Angeles Public Health Department.”


Since joining the council in 2020, De León has decried the grinding bureaucracy that is emblematic of the city’s and county’s efforts to get people off the streets. In recent weeks, he has coordinated a large cleanup and clearing of a homeless encampment at a Little Tokyo plaza, which put 106 people into some form of interim housing, according to his office.

Some activists decried and protested the fencing of Toriumi Plaza even as De León billed it as a success.

“I think today was very successful because the overall goal was to secure housing for our unhoused neighbors,” De León said last week. “And overwhelmingly, our unhoused neighbors at the plaza have accepted housing, and that’s a good thing for our community.”

The future of the city’s relationship to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority is also being hotly debated. Some candidates, including Councilman Joe Buscaino, have called for the city to withdraw from county-city partnership. Others, including Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) and City Atty. Mike Feuer, say they want to study the issue more before taking such drastic action.

For his part, De León wants to the city to become its own continuum of care, which is a federal designation that is used to distribute money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Currently, Glendale, Long Beach and Pasadena have their own continuums of care and administer their own homeless counts and services for people on the streets.

The practical effect of this move would be to pull the city out of LAHSA. The county has also embarked on its own soul-searching around this question. Last week, a commission appointed by the Board of Supervisors to examine how to improve homeless services unanimously rejected the option to dissolve LAHSA but recommended it be “streamlined.”

The panel suggested having the agency transition away from providing direct services funded by the county — a majority being outreach — and having a new county entity coordinate those services instead. LAHSA would then focus on its core roles in handling federal homelessness funds, conducting the annual homeless count and managing referrals to homeless housing.

De León’s goal is to have government act faster to help more people, and said L.A. creating its own continuum of care will help with that.

“This will remove the county bureaucracy from our homelessness relief efforts and allow the city to have the resources it needs in order to finally combat this issue,” De León said in the plan released by his campaign.

Much of the policy announcement included proposals he’s been pushing as a member of the City Council — including a plan to create 25,000 units of interim and permanent housing by 2025 and efforts to streamline the development process for constructing homeless shelters.

As the only major Latino candidate, Kevin De León can’t take support from Latino voters for granted.

At a recent forum, he was asked whether 25,000 new homeless housing units were sufficient given that the city must create more than 450,000 new housing units by the end of the decade — and about 185,000 of those should be affordable to low-income and very low-income households.

He said that the 25,000-unit goal would be exclusively for homeless people and is an important start.

“The plan is absolutely necessary to have a coherent vision overall for the city of L.A. as opposed to having 15 different plans as we deal with the issue of homelessness,” he said, in reference to the current response, which many have criticized as balkanized and lacking cohesion. “That plan doesn’t work.”

Regarding public safety, De León has previously said he’d like to keep the number of sworn LAPD officers at 9,700 — which is what the department is budgeted for but is currently well below. He also wants to hire more 911 dispatchers so calls are responded to more promptly.

De León wants to staff each Police Department division with 12 mental health caseworkers who can “be integrated into each division so they will be able to build relationships with homeless individuals in a given area.”

“These mental health professionals will be city employees who are within the same reporting structure as LAPD, so they can be quickly deployed in a mental health emergency or call for LAPD back up,” he said in his policy proposal.