Government officials, organization leaders and community members convened at USC Saturday for the 24th Annual Empowerment Congress Summit to tackle the issues faced by the Los Angeles community in the new year.
The conference was organized by the Empowerment Congress, a coalition of business, community and government leaders who meet throughout the year to tackle important issues. The Empowerment Congress was created in 1992 by then-Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who presented at Saturday’s summit and is now a Los Angeles County supervisor.
Event moderator Chris Schauble, a KTLA news anchor, described the purpose of the summit as a way for attendees to “acquire the necessary resources to fortify the neighborhoods where you live.” Ridley-Thomas called the congress an “experiment in participatory democracy.”
Undergraduate Student Government President Rini Sampath gave introductory and welcome remarks at the main session in Bovard Auditorium, saying, “Politics is more than just catchy slogans or flashy posters. Politics is an opportunity to create social change. The Empowerment Congress has undeniably strengthened our community’s bond.”
The summit speakers focused primarily on the issue of homelessness in Los Angeles. According to Kevin de León, president pro tempore of the State Senate, California is “the nation’s homelessness capital” and Los Angeles is “the epicenter of homelessness in the entire nation.”
“Homelessness is the defining civic issue in the county of Los Angeles, and we need to confront it,” Ridley-Thomas said. “Some of you may think it’s tough to deal with this on a Saturday morning, but think of those who have to deal with this 24/7.”
De León said Los Angeles County contains 40 percent of the state’s homeless population. His office announced last Monday the No Place Like Home initiative, which includes $2 billion toward tackling homelessness across the state. During his summit presentation, de León argued that all levels of government must work together to achieve results.
“We have to do everything in our power to tackle this problem once and for all,” de León said.
Dora Gallo, CEO of an affordable housing nonprofit called A Community of Friends, said she hopes increased awareness of the homeless will lead to action.
“Homelessness has always been a serious problem, but … in the last couple of years, encampments increased 85 percent,” Gallo said. “That’s huge, and that’s why you’re seeing it more. The numbers have gone up slightly—they’re still pretty high—but the visibility is what people are caught off-guard by and what everyone is now reacting to. Which is good, because it’s bringing publicity to the issue and maybe it means that this time they’re going to do something about it and put the money where we need to put it so we can actually make it end.”
Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson took the stage to inform the audience of a proposal put forth by the city’s Homelessness and Empowerment Committee last week. The proposal includes “no less than” $100 million in funding to fight homelessness,” and Harris-Dawson said he expects the city to adopt the proposal in February.
“The only way we get this right is pulling together,” Harris-Dawson said. “We can see a Los Angeles where everybody has a place to lay their head at night, everybody has a bright future, and everybody can live up to the best of their potential.”
Supervisor Ridley-Thomas described a strategy to fight homelessness in L.A. County that includes enhanced crisis response systems, increased affordable housing resources, increased wages and expanded access to living-wage jobs. He said that county workers from across a variety of departments are teaming up against the issue.
Pauley Perrette, an actress from the television series NCIS, was attacked on the street in Hollywood by a homeless man she described as mentally ill. She recounted her experience during the summit and described how her empathy pushed her toward action to end homelessness.
“Anyone can become homeless in a second, from a divorce or the loss of a job or an illness,” Perrette said. “My heart breaks for that man, and for the eyes I was staring into and the soul, and the loss of him.”
Overarching the entire summit was the concept of a strong community, something that presenters felt was especially pertinent during the weekend of MLK Day.
“We can’t waste any time,” Ridley-Thomas said. “No more dilly-dallying. No more bureaucratic games. We have to step up. Don’t celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday if you’re not ready to carry out his dream. We’ve got to explore every single avenue to make sure we stand in our time and do the best we can do.”