Los Angeles and San Francisco mayors differ on homelessness and crime

Karen Bass and London Breed both made history when they were elected, breaking glass ceilings in their respective cities as the first female mayor of Los Angeles and the first black woman to lead San Francisco.

They share many other similarities as powerful Democrats leading California’s flagship cities: a promise to reduce homelessness; plans to mitigate an opioid overdose crisis; an electorate concerned about crime.

But the way the two mayors approach these urban problems reveals surprising differences between them.

Breed, 49, supported a statewide tough-on-crime ballot initiative that Bass, 70, does not support. San Francisco’s mayor has also worked to toughen criminal penalties against fentanyl traffickers and require drug testing and treatment for some welfare recipients — issues on which the Los Angeles mayor has n did not put a strain on the financial aid supervised by the county.

And they are divided on a high-profile Supreme Court case that could make it easier for cities to clean up homeless encampments: Breed welcomed the high court’s review while Bass warned against a ruling that “could embolden those who wish to criminalize unhoused Angelenos.”

“Homelessness is why I ran,” Bass said during a discussion Monday at Manny’s civic engagement cafe in San Francisco. “The main thing is to get people off the streets as quickly as possible, because people are dying. But the problem in Los Angeles is the massive numbers.

It was the first time the two mayors had come together publicly for a one-on-one conversation. They discussed the challenges they face leading California’s most famous and influential cities.

Karen Bass, Mayor of Los Angeles

“Homelessness is why I ran,” said Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass.

(Josh Edelson / For Time)

About 46,000 people are homeless in Los Angeles, where the population is about 3.8 million. An estimated 8,323 people are homeless in San Francisco, a city of about 808,000.

Breed said the problem in San Francisco is “a little different.”

Although the city has increased its shelter capacity and helped 15,000 people exit homelessness, Breed said, the city faces a dilemma: The number of people who refuse housing or shelter is increasing.

“The biggest problem is fentanyl, it’s drugs,” she said. “That’s been the biggest challenge we’ve had to get people off the streets.”

Political differences in LA and SF

Breed and Bass are at different points in their mayoral terms, which may explain some of their political differences. After six years at the helm of San Francisco, Breed is up for re-election this year in a tough race against four serious challengers.

In contrast, Bass, who called herself a “rookie” on Monday, is still on her honeymoon after winning the November 2022 election.

“There seems to be this kind of pessimistic talk in San Francisco that I don’t think is as fresh in the minds of Angelenos,” said Jason Ward, an economist at Rand Corp. in Santa Monica.

Mayor of London Breed seated and holding a microphone

London Mayor Breed has supported some crime-fighting strategies aimed at combating street homelessness and open drug use in San Francisco.

(Josh Edelson / For Time)

As Breed’s political challenges have mounted over the past two years, she has turned to anti-crime strategies to combat street homelessness, open drug use and other public safety issues she once described in a speech as the “bull…that destroyed our city.”

Bass sought a compassionate approach to dealing with the homeless without losing support from the business community, a strategy that drew praise and criticism. She has not thrown her support behind the heated Los Angeles district attorney race, which pits a so-called law-and-order candidate against the progressive incumbent.

In some cases, both politicians adopt the same model to solve their cities’ problems.

Breed declared a state of emergency in December 2021 for the drug-infested Tenderloin District, and Bass followed suit a year later with his own emergency declaration on homelessness. Both efforts aimed to help get people off the streets and increase access to resources.

Both mayors have rejected calls to cut police funding, even going so far as to add policing funds to their city budgets, despite the objections of some left-wing voters. And they each dedicated much of the last year to combating homelessness by providing beds in temporary shelters, while also investing money in addiction and mental health services.

But it’s their political differences that illustrate the different ways civic leaders are trying to solve some of California’s thorniest problems.

“That’s the great thing about seeing more and more women entering elected office,” said Elizabeth Ashford, a Democratic strategist and board member of California Women Lead, an organization that works to elect more women. “People are going to have to rise and fall on their own merits as leaders. »

As Black women, both mayors said their identities shaped their experiences as politicians.

Bass said Los Angeles’ black population is “pretty small” (about 8 percent), and because of that, she thinks people misjudge it.

“I don’t mind being underestimated,” she said. “They won’t see it coming!”

London Breed and Karen Bass sitting in front of an audience

San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass discuss their cities’ challenges at Manny’s Café in San Francisco.

(Josh Edelson / For Time)

Breed echoed the same obstacles that led to San Francisco, where the black population is less than 5 percent.

“I’ve had to have some very difficult conversations with a lot of very privileged people in this city who feel comfortable talking to me like I’m beneath them,” Breed said.

“As African American women leading big cities, it’s different. Everyone wants the mayor to do a good job, but sometimes the challenges we face are different.

Different approaches to fighting crime

Breed earlier this year endorsed a GOP-backed measure proposed for the November ballot that aims to undo part of Proposition 47, a 2014 voter-approved initiative that reduced some theft and drug crimes to crimes. The measure would increase penalties on fentanyl traffickers and organized retail theft rings, and impose mandatory treatment on drug users.

Bass said she does not support efforts to repeal Proposition 47.

She said in a statement to the Times that the law “has its strengths and weaknesses and should be evaluated in the same way that the impacts of any policy should be examined,” although her office did not specify how she thought the policy should be analyzed.

The mayors’ approaches “couldn’t be more different,” said Anne Irwin, director of Smart Justice California, a group that advocates for progressive changes in the criminal justice system.

Bass has “learned the lessons of the tough-on-crime era and accepted the hard truth that it didn’t work,” Irwin said. Breed, she said, has returned to “familiar political rhetoric” that appeases voters in the short term but does not guarantee public safety in the long term.

“That’s why I call it a quick and easy answer,” Irwin said. “But that’s not leadership.”

Although Irwin acknowledged that many San Franciscans want to see a tougher approach on public safety issues, she attributed the decline in voter support for Breed to what she described as an inconsistent and chaotic approach to resolving these issues. problems.

“San Franciscans have seen Mayor Breed over the past several years shift from one approach to another based on the headlines of the week,” Irwin said.

Protesters held signs, including a sign reading: "Stop cutting food"

People outside the event protest San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s proposed budget cuts, including funds for child care programs and food banks.

(Josh Edelson / For Time)

For Breed’s supporters, she’s making tough decisions for a city she loves.

Breed grew up in the Western Addition, raised by his grandmother in a difficult childhood defined by poverty, gang violence and street crime. She told the story of losing a sister to a drug overdose nearly 20 years ago, and her brother served more than two decades in prison for armed robbery and other charges.

“London Breed has a ton of experience being exposed to this kind of life, and I think she responded as she should for the safety of her citizens,” said former Mayor Willie Brown, who is he -even made history as mayor. San Francisco’s first black mayor and, before that, speaker of the state Assembly. “And that’s what we expect from a mayor.”

Bass has spent much of her time in office, as she promised on the campaign trail – focused almost exclusively on the homeless. Under the Bass’ Inside Safe program, which places homeless people in hotels, motels and other forms of shelter, 2,720 people have been moved from street encampments, according to authorities.

She also issued an order that significantly accelerated the city’s approval of residential projects deemed 100 percent affordable. In April, she said more than 16,000 affordable housing units were planned in the city.

Bass grew up in the Venice-Fairfax area of ​​Los Angeles and was a volunteer for Senator Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign when he was 14.

She founded Community Coalition, a nonprofit focused on combating structural racism that has led to neglect in South Los Angeles. A former emergency room physician’s assistant, she served for more than a decade in Congress before being elected mayor.

She sought to strike a balance between helping people access shelters and housing and responding to complaints from businesses and neighbors about tents and drug use.

She largely stayed out of the debate over a policy that gives council members the ability to ban homeless encampments within 500 feet of schools and parks. The law is attacked by the most left-wing members of the city council, who denounce it as a waste of police resources.

Bass, in interviews, suggested the law only displaced homeless encampments, but said she would not seek to repeal it.

The way both mayors are responding reflects the frustrations of their respective cities, said Sam Tsemberis, executive director of the Pathways Housing First Institute in Santa Monica.

“It depends on personal attitudes and values,” Tsemberis said. “And also for politicians, what will work in favor of their probability of re-election.”