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Nithya Raman, Kevin De León got more homeless people off the street. Will that sway voters?

By Dakota Smith, Los Angeles Times
Published: March 3, 2024, 5:31am

Nithya Raman won a spot on the Los Angeles City Council four years ago by promising to ease the city’s homelessness crisis.

Now, the council member points to her work reducing the number of people living on the street in her Silver Lake-to-Reseda district as she runs for reelection.

Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority data show “unsheltered homelessness” dropped 7% in her district over a two-year period. The term includes anyone living in the open or in a tent or car.

Councilmember Kevin de León is also waging a reelection campaign and sending out mailers announcing that homelessness dropped in his district.

Unsheltered homelessness dropped 7% in his Northeast L.A. district last year, according to unofficial LAHSA results.

Raman and De León aren’t viewed as friends or political allies. But both are in the same boat: waging a tough reelection campaign while touting progress in their districts on homelessness.

Such a message can bolster a campaign in a city where polls show that homelessness is the No. 1 issue. Political consultant Brian Van Riper said voters will also weigh the city’s success on how they feel walking around their neighborhoods and whether there are signs of homelessness.

“Voters vote as much on feeling and emotion as they do on statistic and fact,” said Van Riper, who is not involved in the race.

Two factors make it hard this election year to track City Hall’s progress on the crisis.

Some City Council district boundaries were changed significantly following the city’s 2021 redistricting process.

At the same time, the L.A. Homeless Services Authority, the city and county agency that oversees homelessness, didn’t release council district-specific homelessness numbers in 2023.

Unsheltered homelessness grew 15% in Los Angeles in 2023 compared with 2022, according to LAHSA. Since the 2015 count, overall homelessness has increased by 80% in the city.

Jason Ward, an economist at the Santa Monica-based Rand Corp., a nonprofit research institute, has been studying homelessness in Hollywood, Skid Row and Venice since 2021.

He said it’s “probably reasonable” to deduce that the number of citywide encampments has declined given the various programs underway, including Mayor Karen Bass’ Inside Safe program, which places people into hotel and motel rooms.

“Even in Skid Row, there’s a moderation and a flat pool of people, rather than an upward trend,” he said.

On a windy morning in May 2023 two staffers from Raman’s office joined homelessness outreach workers to visit a series of ragged tents along the L.A. River’s concrete banks.

The group was there to introduce themselves, part of the process of trying to coax people to move into shelters.

The program, launched with state and federal funds, is one of the ways that Raman’s office has moved more than 500 people in her district into shelter, according to her office.

More than a dozen major encampments in Raman’s district, including a corridor of RVs along Victory Boulevard in Reseda, were cleared, according to her office.

Monthly community events for the unhoused hosted by Raman’s office offer haircuts, showers, and access to identification cards and shelter.

Raman, who chairs the council’s homelessness committee, said the work by her team shows that the city “can actually address street homelessness, which is what most Angelenos are concerned about, far more effectively than we have been in the past.”

Former Councilmember Mike Bonin said that many council offices have outreach teams but Raman’s staff acts as “housing navigators.”

“She has folks who are out there who are building relationships over time and figuring out what sort of housing people need,” Bonin said.

The 7% drop in the unsheltered homeless population in Raman’s district was in 2022, compared with 2020. (LAHSA didn’t conduct a count in 2021 because of COVID-19). At the same time, the sheltered population more than doubled during that period.

Raman’s office credits the increase in sheltered population to more beds being offered by her district. Those in shelter, such as motel rooms, are still considered homeless by the city.

LAHSA’s 2022 numbers didn’t take into account the city’s recent redistricting process that affected Raman’s district. She lost some 40% of her constituents as Hancock Park, Park La Brea and other neighborhoods were removed, and Encino and Reseda were added to her district.

Post-redistricting, LAHSA’s unofficial 2023 data showed that Raman’s district again saw a 7% drop in unsheltered homelessness compared with 2022’s count. But given the dramatic change in her district boundaries, it’s difficult to compare the two years meaningfully.

The 2023 figure comes from raw data collected by LAHSA that was reviewed by The Times. The districts led by Raman and De León were among six districts that saw drops in unsheltered homeless populations, according to that data.

LAHSA didn’t release official council district-level data in 2023 because of concerns that the numbers weren’t precise, said LAHSA spokesperson Ahmad Chapman.

Raman’s challengers in Tuesday’s primary — Deputy City Atty. Ethan Weaver and software engineer Levon “Lev” Baronian — both offer voters a different approach on homelessness.

Both said they would enforce Municipal Code 41.18, the city’s anti-camping law, which allows police to regulate where people can sit and sleep and is opposed by Raman.

Weaver has also criticized Raman’s handling of encampments around Cahuenga Boulevard and the Los Feliz Bridge Home shelter. Neighbors have complained about safety and sanitation at both locations.

He also wants a phased withdrawal from LAHSA. The agency, which is governed by a 10-member board, was “designed to fail,” he said. “If you talk to any of our council members, they will tell you that they cannot give direct orders to this bureaucracy.”

Raman has argued against a pullout from LAHSA, saying such a move would jeopardize federal funding meant to help the city’s unhoused population.

Since taking office in 2020, De León has opened three tiny home villages — in Eagle Rock, Highland Park and Boyle Heights— converted two motels into temporary housing in El Sereno, and completed a 77-bed shelter for women and families in Boyle Heights.

More than 2,000 beds have been created in his district, according to his office.

De León said he pursued housing options even as he was the target of recall attempts, some of them driven by opposition to his push for interim homeless housing.

“I’ve built [homeless] housing in every part of my district and I’ve built different types of housing because there’s no single solution to the crisis,” De León said in an interview.

Tommy Newman, vice president of public affairs at United Way of Greater L.A., said that Northeast L.A. has historically lacked shelter options, so it’s “good to see” De León’s push to add beds.

On a recent morning, the council member inspected an alley in an industrial area of Boyle Heights where his office was seeking to get people into housing.

De León and Los Angeles Police Department Senior Lead Officer Johnny Altamirano described how thieves hire unhoused people living in tents to strip copper wire.

The thieves pay people with crystal meth, a cycle that keeps the unhoused people in this area “drugged up,” said the councilman, who wants more L.A. County resources to help homeless residents battle drug addiction.

In campaign mailers, De León says homelessness declined in District 14, which takes in Skid Row and part or all of Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, Eagle Rock, El Sereno and Hermon.

The unofficial 2023 data from LAHSA show that the unsheltered population in the district dropped 7% last year compared with 2022.

De León spokesperson Pete Brown said LAHSA provided numbers to the council member’s office showing a slight decrease in District 14’s overall homelessness last year. LAHSA’s Chapman said that data was imprecise.

Some of the seven people challenging De León in the primary point to LAHSA’s 2022 data.

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Unsheltered homelessness rose that year 38% compared with 2020, said one of the candidates, Assemblymember Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles.

“Clearly, whatever the incumbent has been doing isn’t enough,” Santiago said.

Another candidate, tenant rights attorney Ysabel Jurado, proposes community resource centers to offer sanitation, healthcare and social services for unhoused people.

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