TPR Interviews LA City Councilmember Bonin

Following LA City Council’s vote in August to oppose both of the State Legislature’s upzoning bills SB 9 & SB 10, TPR interviewed District 11 Councilmember Mike Bonin for a much needed & nuanced discussion of the intersecting challenges presently driving housing displacement, gentrification, and homelessness in metro Los Angeles. Representing much of the City’s Westside and strongly opposed to trickle-down housing mandates by the state legislature, Councilmember Bonin underscores the systemic challenges undergirding homelessness and lauds recent efforts by the council to ensure equitable access to affordable housing citywide.

TPR: Mike, let’s begin by affording you an unedited platform to share your nuanced position on how, as a Councilmember, the city of Los Angeles ought to deal with the pressing challenges of homelessness?

BONIN: Homelessness is the biggest crisis of our time, certainly of my generation, and it demands an incredibly aggressive response from all levels of government. The city being a big part of it, but the city can’t do any of this alone. This crisis requires us to address multiple different things that all get called homelessness.

I often liken homelessness to cancer in that we use one term to describe all the different ways it manifests. And just like cancer, each type requires a different treatment or intervention with a different prognosis, so too does homelessness. There’s a big difference between somebody who has been chronically homeless for 20 years and someone who recently became homeless because they lost their apartment. So, we need to look at it from very, very different perspectives and figure out what works best in each situation.

For a very complex problem there is a relatively simple common denominator to the solutions, and that’s housing. A lot of people these days will say, “homelessness isn’t a housing issue, it’s a drug issue,” or “this isn’t a housing issue, it’s a mental illness issue.” It’s all of the above. If somebody is homeless and suffering from a mental illness, part of helping them requires housing. If you can successfully treat somebody’s mental illness or addiction while they’re living on the streets, God bless you because that’s a very difficult thing to do, but if you succeed at that, they’re still homeless at the end of it, unless they get housing.

Almost everybody recognizes that we can’t wait for permanent supportive housing for everybody. A larger group of people are now finally coming to understand as they delve deeper into homelessness that permanent supportive housing isn’t the necessary or appropriate solution for lots of forms of homelessness; housing is. But permanent supportive housing, which is very expensive, takes years to build, comes with wraparound services, and is the appropriate solution for people who are chronically homeless, which is 20 or 30 percent of people who are out there. We don’t need that level of intervention for people who are newly homeless.

One of the things I’ve been trying to draw attention to is that we don’t do enough to house people as soon as they become homeless. We have a system that historically views the newly homeless as not homeless enough to qualify for assistance. To extend my cancer analogy, it’s a bit like telling somebody who’s newly diagnosed with lung cancer to come back when they reach Stage IV. At that point, you’re much harder to treat and your prognosis is much more grim.

So, I’ve been pushing for earlier interventions, which are less expensive both in the short run and in the long run to get people off the streets before they have become traumatized, before they may fall into addiction, before mental illness may manifest, before they become victimized by crime, and before they’ve been bitterly disappointed by the system.

And that comes in the form of purchasing hotels and motels, rental subsidies, and housing vouchers. It comes in the form of scattered site master leasing, which the County has done a phenomenal job with. One of the most successful homeless programs in Los Angeles County is one of the least known, and it’s the county’s Housing for Health program, where the Health Department has helped house people in scattered site housing.   

Building off what we just did in Venice, Mark Ridley Thomas and I, joined by Curren Price, have proposed what Mark calls a Housing Now Program, which uses a lot of the money that the city is now getting from the state budget surplus to invest more in these types of solutions and try to find a rapid way of getting 10,000 people off the streets in partnership with the County. I think that has some promise.

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