In mid-December, Karen Bass was sworn in as mayor in Los Angeles, the first woman mayor in city history. Leaders across the region were quick to express support when Bass declared a state of emergency related to homelessness and launched the Inside Safe program, with the intention of moving people off the street and into temporary housing in city-leased properties. These actions, taken during the new mayor’s first week in office, signaled her intention to ensure a path to housing for the unhoused. In LA County, nearly 70,000 people experience homelessness.
Bass’s office will have to contend with structural and jurisdictional peculiarities that limit her reach in a region that is notoriously difficult to govern. One such peculiarity is the makeup of a place that is often referred to collectively as “Los Angeles,” but is actually a mashup of smaller cities with their own governing bodies.
The City of Los Angeles is the largest municipality in Los Angeles County, but it encompasses less than 4 million of the region’s nearly 10 million residents. The rest live in cities like Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and Culver City, all of which have their own mayors and city councils that govern independently.
For Bass and her stated goals, this presents an imposing obstacle. Houselessness is a regional issue and, despite wide recognition of the challenges associated with truly addressing the problem, local governments tend to work in silos and arrive at very different conclusions about how to address homelessness within their respective borders. This problem is illustrated by the story of one long-standing encampment that straddles the border between the City of LA and Culver City.
An Underpass in the Middle
The people who live under the 405 Freeway underpass on Venice Boulevard have faced a lot of scrutiny from the surrounding housed community. In 2020 and 2021, a series of tent fires and violent crimes thrust the encampment into the spotlight. Local news coverage focused on issues of safety and cleanliness in the neighborhood, with one article going so far as to be titled “A window into the nightmare of living next to the 405 underpass.” Public discourse focused on clearing the encampments, with debate centering on services for folks who are displaced versus enforcement. Yet the reality of this particular situation has proven much more complex than whether to force residents to relocate or not.
This encampment, one of the largest on LA’s Westside, is a lineup of structures and tents filling the sidewalks on both sides of a busy thoroughfare. In the middle of the road, a small median serves as a de facto border, with Los Angeles to the north and Culver City to the south. People living on either side of the underpass reside in different cities and are subject to different policies instituted by their local governments.
Contention over this flared in 2019 when LA officials accused Culver City of pushing unhoused people beyond its borders and into Los Angeles. At the time, the Venice Boulevard encampment existed only on the LA side of the underpass; the Culver City side was completely devoid of tents. LA City Councilman Mike Bonin told the Los Angeles Times that other cities in the area were actively “compelling” people to move across the street to the LA side to sleep.
Culver City officials denied the claim, but soon after, people began camping on the southern end of the street. The episode illustrates a reality that exists in LA County. Even as cities work independently to provide services to their unhoused residents, their success remains inherently dependent upon the policies and actions of surrounding communities.
A Newly Elected City Council
In December 2022, this fact made itself clear during a special Culver City Council meeting called to discuss the drafting of an “anti-camping ordinance” within municipal boundaries. Couching the decision in assurances that it would not lead to sweeps, a majority of the newly moderate council voted in favor of the city manager drafting an ordinance modeled after one adopted in nearby Santa Monica. An ordinance banning tent encampments was recently introduced to the council, and is likely to be voted on in an upcoming meeting, according to Knock LA.
The decision to draft an ordinance came after lengthy discussion of topics like the encampment on Venice Boulevard, and is seemingly at odds with the direction Bass is hoping to move the city of Los Angeles in. Despite the existence of a no-camping ordinance in LA, known locally as 41.18, Bass has distanced the city’s homelessness efforts from the increasingly infamous policy.
With Inside Safe, Bass spent her first weeks in office focused on identifying sources of housing for people living on the street. The Culver City Council’s approach, however, is to begin by drafting the framework for no-camping enforcement while providing assurances that housing will come in the future. For dissenting Culver City Council member Freddy Puza, this approach amounts to placing the cart before the horse.
A Point of Contention
Opposition to the Culver City Council’s decision came pouring in from a wide swath of the community. At the meeting, housed and unhoused residents, members of community action networks, and county officials expressed concern about the new council’s approach to homelessness. During public comments, a member of Culver City’s Advisory Committee on Housing and Homelessness noted that the council’s decision was made without consulting the committee’s members. He approached the podium to oppose the action and said that the advisory committee “never gave a recommendation to explore a no-camping ordinance.”
The first public speaker of the night was Victoria Gomez, a representative of LA County Supervisor Holly Mitchell’s office. She outlined the supervisor’s official position and expressed Mitchell’s belief that “removing and displacing people does not solve the problem.” She noted that those in LA County government have learned firsthand that no-camping ordinances are ineffective at addressing the challenges associated with homelessness. In response, Culver City Council member Dan O’Brien denounced the “chastising,” placing blame on the county for not committing sufficient funds to this issue in the past.
The exchange made it clear that while the Los Angeles region as a whole faces a housing emergency, responses are far from uniform across individual governing bodies. Beyond the promise of cooperation, jurisdictions have little ability to sway policy in surrounding cities.
For Bass to have any hope of achieving her ambitious goals, she will have to make regional political pendulums swing in the same direction. As it is, their differences continue to play out on the street, where people’s fates can be decided by which side of the underpass they shelter under.