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LA's mayoral candidates have big plans to fix homelessness. Can they follow through?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn our attention to the race for mayor in the city of Los Angeles. Both candidates in the running there are making promises about reducing the city's huge homeless population, more than 41,000 people by last count. But as Anna Scott from member station KCRW reports, those promises might be hard to keep.

ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: Ask anyone on the street in LA what issue they care about most, and chances are you'll hear something like this answer from Adele Wallace.

ADELE WALLACE: Everywhere you go, you see tents on the street. It really breaks my heart because it doesn't have to be that way.

SCOTT: The two people running to become LA's next mayor say they agree. On one side, Karen Bass, who already represents parts of LA as a U.S. representative.

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KAREN BASS: In Los Angeles, we have an absolute emergency with tens of thousands of people sleeping on our streets every night.

SCOTT: When Bass talks about solving homelessness, she emphasizes her ties to the Biden administration and the socioeconomic issues behind the crisis. The other contender, Rick Caruso, is a billionaire real estate developer. He talks more to voters who are fed up.

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RICK CARUSO: And then you have the amount of drugs that are on the street, the amount of waste that's on the street, the smell in the area.

SCOTT: This is Caruso in an ABC7 news segment. But as different as they sound, there's overlap in what Caruso and Bass say they'll do. They both say they'll make it easier to build new, affordable housing, ask the Biden administration for more low-income rental vouchers, expand the city's shelter system, things outgoing mayor Eric Garcetti says he's done, too.

ERIC GARCETTI: I know it's election time, and people should put really bold goals forward, but homelessness isn't going to turn around in a year.

SCOTT: Some promises, Garcetti says, like dramatically expanding LA's shelter beds, would cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

GARCETTI: There's no cavalry. And the mayor of Los Angeles is not some all-powerful being.

SCOTT: That's not a great campaign slogan. Still, unhoused advocates say LA's next mayor could do plenty of things better than the current one, like leading LA's 15 city council members, who have 15 different approaches to homelessness. Tommy Newman is a vice president with the United Way of Greater LA.

TOMMY NEWMAN: I think that the mayor has a lot of deference to the city council. I've heard both candidates talk about the need for the mayor to push and do more.

SCOTT: Yet the economic forces driving homelessness in LA and other large cities are bigger than any mayor, according to Margot Kushel, a physician who directs a homelessness research center at UC San Francisco.

MARGOT KUSHEL: The underlying drivers of homelessness are the lack of deeply affordable housing, income inequality and structural racism. It's going to be hard to solve this problem without effort from the federal government.

SCOTT: Standing outside the tent she lives in Koreatown, Maria Dimitriou told me what she'd like to ask the mayoral candidates.

MARIA DIMITRIOU: This is California. It's one of the richest states in this country. Why is this happening, this homelessness?

SCOTT: When she lost her apartment just blocks from here, she had few options.

DIMITRIOU: It wasn't because I didn't want to pay my rent or because I was - I fell into drugs or - no. I lost my job.

SCOTT: For many voters, the crisis is about much more than tents on sidewalks, says Lora Spangler, who has a home.

LORA SPANGLER: I mean, if I didn't own my house and I wasn't an old lady, there was no way in - can I say hell?

SCOTT: Oh, yes (laughter).

SPANGLER: ...That I would be able to live here, you know?

SCOTT: It's a reminder for every voter of the chasm between many people's incomes and housing costs in LA For NPR News, I'm Anna Scott in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anna Scott