Karen Bass as a community organizer. Source: Politico

“I do not accept our homeless catastrophe and I never will. I will not accept 5000 unhoused children. I will not accept profoundly mentally ill individuals suffering in full public view alone. I will not accept hundreds of people dying on the streets every year.” Karen Bass said during a campaign speech. The US House Representative was born and raised in Los Angeles, educated by LA’s own California State University Dominguez Hills and University of Southern California. After 14 years of serving in public offices, representing Los Angeles in Sacramento then DC, Karen Bass is ready to come home and serve her communities. 

And her hometown is in a state of crisis. Between 2016 and 2021, homelessness increased by 42% despite repeat pledges from elected officials to end the humanitarian disaster. Housing prices continue to rise steeply, locking millions out of homeownership, opportunities to build wealth, and basic housing stability. Families were already cutting back on basic necessities to afford rent even before the pandemic. Today, approximately 241,000 families in LA County are behind on rent – under the threat of homelessness. 

It should be made clear that our housing and homelessness crises disproportionately impact Black and Brown communities and households of low-income. 

A few decades ago, Karen Bass dealt with a crisis that especially impacted minority communities. She grew up in the neighborhoods of Venice and Fairfax in the 1950s and 60s, then still working-class and affordable. She spent her teenage years watching the civil rights movement unfold on television – “I couldn’t wait to grow up,” she told the LA Times. And by Middle School, Karen Bass was volunteering for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign. She went on to earn multiple degrees in health sciences and social work. 

By the mid-1980s, the crack cocaine and gun violence crisis was gripping poor neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Similar to the housing crisis, while the impact of the crack epidemic was felt throughout our city, the acute trauma was localized and concentrated in poor communities of color. Karen Bass was working and teaching as a physician assistant at the time. She couldn’t just accept the despairing state of her community without doing something about it. In 1990, along with other community leaders, Karen Bass founded Community Coalition.

Source: https://cocosouthla.org/

Community Coalition is a social justice organization created by leaders from South LA for South LA communities, and Karen Bass’s background in healthcare lent itself well to the group’s mission and approach: provide care and aid to people with addiction, not criminalization; advocate for policy interventions that help hold communities together, not tearing them apart. Under her leadership, Community Coalition successfully lobbied for policy change and won millions in funding to invest in affected communities. 

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Today, Karen Bass recognizes some of the most troubling signs of our homeless policy failing because of this experience responding to the crack and gun crisis. And just like decades ago, she was not going to simply accept the status quo and repeat unproductive interventions. Karen Bass broke convention when she championed care instead of criminalization to treat addiction and poverty, and she is capable of doing it again in addressing homelessness. 

In fact, the US House Representative clearly recognizes her strength and plans to leverage valuable insights gained from this experience to craft homelessness solutions. She stated to AHLA’s endorsement committee:

“Homelessness is a humanitarian, public health, public safety, and economic crisis. I remember the last time LA felt this way — in the 1980s, I worked as an ER nurse and physician assistant and witnessed firsthand the crack cocaine and gang violence crisis that was gripping Los Angeles. It required an urgent response. I wasn’t in elected office at the time but I brought people together and launched the Community Coalition, empowering communities in South LA to demand more and demand better.

With somewhere around fifty percent of unsheltered individuals either suffering from severe mental illness or substance use, both medical issues, my life experience and medical background uniquely qualifies me to tackle these issues head on. We cannot clear encampments unless we simultaneously address the medical needs of those outside.”

Her recently unveiled platform on homelessness indeed put care and treatment front and center. 

And more importantly, Karen Bass recognizes that “subsets of the homeless population find themselves unhoused for very different reasons”, and that ultimately, there need to be new affordable homes to rehouse the unhoused, and improved overall housing affordability to keep vulnerable Angelenos housed. She reiterated this during last week’s mayoral debate: 

Young people growing up here aren’t sure if they’ll be able to afford to live in the city where they were raised. Families are worried they’re one paycheck away from a tent… Housing affordability is absolutely key. We cannot solve homelessness without it.”

Karen Bass plans to increase housing affordability through investment in low-cost housing, as well as bold and creative policy solutions that will build more homes at all incomes without displacing families. Throughout the endorsement process, we were enthused to hear Representative Bass’s recognition of the deep-seated roots of our housing crisis and her broad support for progressive policies that will increase the housing supply.

Where she most stands out from the field, however, remains her tested experience responding to a severe crisis and her capabilities to galvanize a broad coalition. Despite having dealt with a crisis before, Karen Bass acknowledges that ending homelessness is no small task, explaining to us that campaigning is just the first part of a greater effort to build public trust and support once in office. Her unparalleled track record of working across a wide range of divides, anchored by her deep relationships in Los Angeles, uniquely positions her to actually translate our shared progressive values into long-overdue action.