California mayors call for more state leadership on homelessness crisis

Pedestrians share the sidewalk along Arcadia Street with homeless camps in downtown Los Angeles.
Pedestrians share the sidewalk along Arcadia Street with homeless camps in downtown Los Angeles.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

With California gripped by a homelessness crisis, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and mayors of three of the state’s other largest cities called Friday for a statewide effort to remove obstacles to affordable housing and give cities more help in getting people off the streets.

The issue was the focus of a panel discussion in Sacramento that also included San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

“There must be a statewide strategy and approach,” Steinberg said during the forum hosted by a group of nonprofit media organizations.


Schaaf and Garcetti said that there is momentum to tackle the homelessness problem and that they are hopeful because Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom has made housing and homelessness issues a priority.

“Is there the will there? Absolutely,” Garcetti said. “Because any caring Californian knows that this is the issue, and it is everywhere in our state.”

California had, by far, the most homeless people of any state —134,000 — in 2017, according to the last annual estimate by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. A quarter of the nation’s homeless live in the Golden State, the report found.

About 23,000 people are living on the streets in Los Angeles, Garcetti said, calling the problem “the greatest moral and humanitarian crisis the state faces.”

Schaaf was highly critical of the state’s current approach to homelessness, using an expletive as she angrily recounted how an Oakland police officer recently had to save a woman who was living in her car when she went into labor and gave birth.

“This is a fundamentally broken system that needs to be reimagined from the get-go,” Schaaf said. But, she added, “I am full of hope. There is more political will, more political courage than we have ever seen in California at this moment.”


Faulconer, the only Republican mayor on the panel, said the state can remove red tape delaying housing construction. And he called for the Legislature to restore redevelopment programs with the ability to use some property tax revenue to build affordable housing.

“This is a statewide problem,” he said.

Steinberg said the current, cumbersome system for getting funding and planning approval of shelters makes it unlikely there will be permanent shelters soon for the thousands of people left homeless by the recent Camp fire in Butte County.

Despite the failure of a statewide initiative on rent control, Garcetti said the issue of making sure people can afford rents should not go away.

“It is still absolutely a problem,” Garcetti said. Steinberg and Schaaf said the state can do more to prevent rent gouging.

The mayors also said more needs to be done on mental health issues in California. Garcetti predicted Los Angeles County will take advantage of a new state law that allows authorities to force severely mentally ill people into treatment through conservatorships.

Garcetti was asked by moderator and CALmatters reporter Laurel Rosenhall whether his ability to make progress on the homelessness issue will be a factor in his decision on running for president in 2020. “No, not at all,” he said.


“One thing I will say is this better be a national conversation,” he said of homelessness. “If one of us were president, or a mayor were president, or somebody struggling with this were president, this would be a priority in this country.”

Garcetti said he is seeing a change in public attitudes about affordable housing, with people supporting his efforts to provide more clustered housing around transit corridors and stations.

“We are seeing all these millennials and others who are not working for a developer, who are not ginned up by City Hall, turning out to public meetings now saying, ‘Densify the city. I want to have something I can afford,’” Garcetti said.

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