The view from skid row of Bass, Caruso homelessness promises

Many years ago I asked a homeless man one night on Skid Row if he had seen a guy pushing a violin and cello around in a shopping cart. I told him I had teamed up with a nonprofit organization that was trying to get my musician friend a place to live.

The man was skeptical. Those pushing shopping carts are usually unwilling to go inside, he told me.

That might have been a generalization, but in the case of my friend Nathaniel, he was right.

Along with a distrust of strangers and an aversion to new surroundings, Nathaniel’s reasoning was that the cart containing all his belongings would not be allowed in an apartment building. A psychiatrist explained to me that a cart and its carefully stored belongings can represent order, balance and control. Neither of these would be given up easily.

That experience comes to mind when I hear Los Angeles mayoral candidates Rick Caruso and Karen Bass make promises that are almost certainly unachievable. Caruso says he will house 30,000 people in 300 days; The bass number is 17,000 in 365 days. As for perspective, an ambitious plan to keep all hands on deck to accommodate 15,000 people at the height of the pandemic fell far short of its goal.

Interestingly, I keep seeing my name in a Caruso ad saying I called the Bass plan “unconvincing.” That was 10 months ago before Caruso entered the race. At the time, the candidates were very promising but short on detail and innovation, and I wrote, “Don’t overpromise, don’t underdeliver.” With just days before Election Day, that appeal applies far more to Caruso than to Bass .

In my conversations with social workers and the homeless, I’m aware of the obstacles to rapid housing planning — people won’t give up their pets, they refuse to be separated from friends or loved ones, they don’t want to give up certain possessions, they’re in the Claws of the raging drug epidemic, they fear their new quarters will be more like a prison than a home.

And there is a lack of trust in big political promises.

“We hear you … but our eyes are wide open,” said Quincy Arnaz Brown, who runs a safe-haven ministry under a tent on Skid Row and is known as Pastor Blue.

The community certainly needs a hand, he said and wanted to believe the candidates. And yet …

“Let’s not love in words and sounds, but in deeds and in truth,” said Pastor Blue. “So you can have that conversation, but we’ve heard it before.”

After a long period of homelessness, Pastor Blue moved to the freight container village near Chinatown in August. But before that, he was one of many who have turned down the opportunity to move to emergency shelter or temporary housing. This is worth noting because at one point, Caruso’s evolving plan called for 15,000 people to be placed in tiny homes and another 15,000 in some sort of shelter.

Emergency shelters have undeniably saved many lives in Los Angeles. But the curfews and other rules aren’t working for many people, Pastor Blue said. He told me that the vast majority of Skid Row residents he knows have either an addiction, a mental illness, or both. These conditions would further complicate any massive attempt to quickly transport thousands of people indoors.

Ron "pepper" Brown calls himself Mayor of Skid Row. "I voted for Caruso" he said.

Ron “Pepper” Brown calls himself Mayor of Skid Row. “I voted for Caruso,” he said.

(Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times)

Ron Brown, known as Pepper and calling himself Mayor of Skid Row, lives in the same Chinatown container village as Pastor Blue.

“People want to go in, but they don’t want to go in dorms and they don’t want to go in gyms with … a bunch of army cots where you don’t have privacy and you don’t get any sleep,” Pepper said.

I spoke to him across the street from Para Los Ninos, an educational and social service nonprofit whose main donors — Caruso and his wife Tina — are written on the wall outside. Pepper had told me a few weeks ago in Bass’s presence that she had his voice.

But he has now gone to the other side and said he had already cast a vote.

“I voted for Caruso,” Pepper said, arguing that his candidate has invested in the community for years and will continue to do so, in part by using his skills to convert abandoned and underutilized buildings into permanent housing.

Both candidates understand that all types of housing are in short supply, from temporary to permanent. On the plus side, Bass and Caruso have each been exploring modular homes and other options that cost a lot less than what’s in the pipeline and take less time to build.

Is there reason for optimism?

Yes actually. The “mansion tax” on the city’s ballot would raise hundreds of millions of dollars annually for homelessness prevention and housing. And in a few years, the new statewide CARE Court program, despite some shortcomings, will offer mental health care to people in crisis.

But even if Bass and Caruso can pull off the miracle of creating thousands of new units in a year or less, there’s still a lot more standing in the way of achieving their goals.

Not enough outreach staff or psychiatric and drug rehabilitation services, most of which are beyond the mayor’s control. Not enough emergency beds for the seriously ill. Insufficient aftercare to prevent the newcomers from walking out the back door onto the street. Not enough money to pay for everything. Not enough consensus or coordination among city, county, state, and federal officials.

It all tumbles from the sky and lands on the new mayor’s desk on Day 1.

Heidi Marston, former director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, said one obstacle to finding housing is that so many homeless people lack basic identification documents. Some progress has been made, she said, but the next mayor would do well to step up efforts.

“They could build hundreds of units tomorrow, but they’ll take four to six months to fill,” Marston said.

“By and large, it’s like hitting a brick wall,” she said, because people don’t have DMV IDs or Social Security and Medicare cards that would help them get medical care and benefits that are needed Payment of rent could contribute.

Or keep them alive.

“There is so much trauma in people’s lives,” said Dr. Susan Partovi, a street medic with years of experience. She kept a log of her most medically vulnerable patients and lost far too many of them. “You can die, you can be imprisoned. So much can go wrong while waiting for an apartment.”

dr Coley King of the Venice Family Clinic is another street medic I’ve spent time with, and he reminds us that homelessness isn’t just a local problem — socioeconomic forces have wreaked havoc across the US for years, but LA certainly is Epicenter.

We need more attention to the mental and physical health of people on the street, King said, and a more consistent system to guide them to recovery with teams of medical clinicians and outreach workers.

“They need better pay, more respect, support and better morals,” he said, telling me the work is tough and a matter of life and death. “We need more units throughout the system from top to bottom. That can be a detox bed, to a permanent apartment with some transitional solutions along the way.”

There has already been a lot of good work, King said.

“I’m not dissatisfied with the direction of the effort,” he said. “I’m dissatisfied with the set-up and the consistency.”

So yes, let’s definitely proceed with more urgency and, as Pastor Blue says, focus on actions rather than words. But let’s not underestimate the complexity of a decades-old challenge.

It took me and a team of professionals a full year to gain the confidence of the man with the violin and cello and convince him to move into the house.

Seventeen years later he’s still under one roof, as are the violin and cello, and he wakes up every day to what he calls the music of the gods. The view from skid row of Bass, Caruso homelessness promises

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