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News Brief: Homeless Crisis In LA, Netanyahu Primary Challenge, Zambia

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

For the third straight year, the number of homeless people in the United States overall has increased. This is even though most states are seeing declines in homelessness.

NOEL KING, HOST:

So what is going on here? We can see the answer in some new data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Here's what's notable. Some states have seen their numbers jump by a lot, including California, where homelessness is being called a crisis.

GREENE: And we have Erika Smith with us. She's an assistant metro editor for the Los Angeles Times. She's been covering LA's homelessness crisis. Welcome.

ERIKA SMITH: Thank you.

GREENE: Could you just describe, first off, what homeless people in Los Angeles are facing right now?

SMITH: Yeah. The situation here is not - it's not good. I mean, for years, a lot of homelessness used to be confined mostly to the downtown area - mostly skid row, some neighborhoods around Hollywood, some parts of Venice. But in recent years, notably the last three, it started to spread into different neighborhoods. And we have people living under bridges and underpasses. We have encampments increasingly pushing into kind of wildland areas, which has affected wildfires.

We have people kind of living in despair throughout the city. And it's really noticeable this time of year right now. For example, it's raining right now. And so it's going to be probably a miserable couple of days for the folks that are out in the streets because their belongings are going to be wet. Their tents are going to be wet. And there's just not enough shelters for people to sleep indoors. And it's really apparent this time of year.

GREENE: So how did we get to this point in the city?

SMITH: Well, I mean, this has been years in the making. I mean, it's - I think people have started to pay attention a lot more in the last three to four years for obvious reasons. But the reality is this is, you know, years in the making of California not building enough housing. We are tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of units behind what we need to basically house people here just for population growth - not even people moving into the state.

Because of that, there's a supply and demand issue. So rents are rising fast, and wages are not. And so basically, what you have now is a lot of people in Los Angeles County who are kind of living on that edge where they can't afford to make rent or can barely afford to make rent. And when they can't, they end up on the streets. And from there, it's kind of a slippery slope, you know, that kind of goes further and further downhill.

And so I think that right now, we have a number of people who are getting housed. We have about 130 people, rather, that are housed every day, but another 150 become homeless, and mostly - our advocates say mostly because they can't afford to live - to stay where they live. And rents are just going up and up and up. And there doesn't seem to be an end in sight.

GREENE: So you have this - I mean, obviously, the urgent, short-term problem is to find people safe shelter. And then the long-term issue is finding more housing. That's a lot, obviously. So what - how is the city addressing this to combat this?

SMITH: Well, a couple of years ago, a number of residents in the county and city also approved a couple of ballot measures - one that would fund affordable housing and one that would be for services. And it looks to the average person like there's no housing that's being built, and that's not entirely true. Reality is that it takes a long time to build anything in California. And a lot of the money has already been set aside and is going towards projects. But these projects have been delayed for, in some case, several years.

And so you have all of this money that taxpayers have spent. It's being spent in the appropriate ways, for the most part, from what we can tell at the Times. But it hasn't actually come to fruition and actually been - shown up. So it's - kind of looks like we're not doing anything. But the reality is there's actually quite a bit being done. It just hasn't shown up.

GREENE: So there is a feeling that maybe five, 10 years out, I mean, things could improve. It's just a matter of waiting and setting your expectations right.

SMITH: Yeah. I think that that's probably true - hopefully less time than that, though.

GREENE: All right. Erika Smith, the assistant metro editor for the Los Angeles Times, who covers the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles, which has been getting worse. Erika, thanks for your time this morning.

SMITH: Yeah. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right. Today, Israel's embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing his most serious primary challenge in years.

KING: That's right. Members of the Likud Party will choose between him and a former cabinet minister. Netanyahu has been campaigning on his close relationship with President Trump. And he is the front-runner. But he's also under indictment for corruption. So what does it mean if he does win?

GREENE: And let's turn to NPR correspondent Daniel Estrin, who is in Jerusalem. Hi, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So we talk about whether Netanyahu can cling to power as prime minister. This is just clinging to power of his own party. I mean, who has been stepping up to challenge him?

ESTRIN: Well, just one man has the guts to run against Netanyahu, and his name is Gideon Saar. He's a former cabinet minister. He's a younger face. You know, many senior party members do quietly hope to succeed Netanyahu, too, but it seems that they think that the path is to remain loyal to Netanyahu and not challenge him.

But Saar has been cultivating supporters for years. And he has this very simple campaign pitch - three words, only Saar can. And he's saying Israel has reached a dead end. Netanyahu could not deliver an election victory after two elections this past year. Why should we expect him to win the third election being held in March? That's his message. So Saar is saying he's the only one who can keep the party in power.

And he does have a point because the centrist party Blue and White is willing to break the political deadlock in Israel and enter a coalition with the right-wing Likud just as long as Netanyahu isn't the party leader. So Saar is hoping he can do the trick.

GREENE: So is Saar's message resonating? You've been out to the polls, right?

ESTRIN: Yeah. I was at a polling place in Jerusalem this morning. I only found one person who I think was voting Saar. She seemed too nervous to say it out loud. Nearly everybody else I met was supporting Bibi Netanyahu. Listen to this voter, Deborah Adlit. (ph)

DEBORAH ADLIT: He's not only the best, he's just the only one that can really take Israel to the next step.

ESTRIN: And why not Saar?

ADLIT: Gideon Saar - I think that he can be after Bibi - after Bibi time. But it's not - it is still Bibi time.

ESTRIN: It's still Bibi time, she says.

GREENE: Still Bibi time.

ESTRIN: Yeah, his base loves him. He's is expected to win this primary. But, you know, you hear in this voter's voice that Netanyahu is not going to last forever. Saar is waiting in the wings. He could come after Netanyahu. So even if Saar gets only, like, 30% of the vote today, that will be a strong message that there could be a new Likud leader in the making. It could indicate that, you know, the seemingly invincible Netanyahu may see his support slipping in the party.

GREENE: I mean, you say seemingly invincible, but he is still facing indictment - right? - even if he does win this primary. So, I mean, I know we've asked this question before. How long can he remain as prime minister, do you think?

ESTRIN: Yeah. That's the big question. No one knows. It's an unprecedented moment in Israeli politics. You have a sitting prime minister facing criminal charges. He has some lifelines. He could ask parliament to grant him immunity against prosecution. And these party primaries are also a lifeline. He has to show he has strong support in his party. He's going to national elections. He wants to look strong and try to still hang on.

GREENE: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Daniel, thanks so much.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right. Interesting moment in diplomacy. The State Department has recalled the U.S. ambassador to Zambia after the president of that southern African country asked for his withdrawal.

KING: Ambassador Daniel Foote is a career foreign service officer. Last month, he criticized a court ruling that sentenced two Zambian men to 15 years in jail for having sex with each other. Now, that led to a fight between Foote and Zambian officials.

GREENE: And let's hear the latest now from NPR's East Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta, who's been following this. Hi, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: So Zambia is not a place we hear from all that often. I mean, can you just briefly give us a sense of this country?

PERALTA: So we're talking about southern Africa, and Zambia is a little bigger than Texas. And the reason we don't hear a lot about it is because it has been a functional democracy. Since the '90s, there have been peaceful transfers of power. And there hasn't been much drama.

But things seem to be changing. The economy isn't doing so great because the price of copper, which Zambia has a ton of, has dropped. And activists say this particular government is tending more authoritarian. This episode with the American ambassador, they say, is an example of that.

GREENE: OK. So what exactly did Ambassador Foote say that angered the government this much?

PERALTA: Yeah. So as you noted, it started last month when a court sentenced two men to 15 years in prison for having sex with each other. And the ambassador said he was horrified. The Zambian government told him to mind his own business. And then Ambassador Daniel Foote - he unloaded. I mean, I have seen few diplomatic statements as pointed as what he released. He said the U.S. has saved more than 1 million lives in Zambia just with its HIV programs.

And then he went on to accuse the government of being hypocritical, of being corrupt, of outright stealing millions of dollars intended to go to important welfare programs. And he accused the government of stifling dissent. He said everyone should also just stop pretending that the U.S. and Zambia have cordial relations. He wrote - and I'm quoting here - "the current government of Zambia wants foreign diplomats to be compliant, with open pocketbooks and closed mouths."

GREENE: Oh, so this went much farther than his criticism of this homophobic court ruling.

PERALTA: Yeah, for sure. And that was part of the reason the Zambian president, Edgar Lungu, essentially declared the ambassador a persona non grata. And the U.S. had to pull him out. Today, I spoke to Fumba Chama. He's an activist and a musician. And I asked him what it says about his country that someone with as much leverage, as much power as an American ambassador can be forced out in this way. And he tells me this is much bigger than the U.S. Let's listen.

FUMBA CHAMA: I think we as a people have lost the battle, because I'll tell you what Ambassador Foote was doing was giving a voice to so many of us that are scared to say what he said.

PERALTA: So what he says is that Zambia just lost a powerful voice at what he says is an urgent moment for a country that is moving in the wrong direction.

GREENE: And lost that voice because the Trump administration has recalled the ambassador, which is what the government of Zambia asked for. What happens now? Is there a chance he could go back?

PERALTA: Well, I mean, look; the U.S. has significant interest in Zambia. They're sending half a billion dollars a year in aid. So I think what we can expect is that a new ambassador will be named. And both sides will try to live with each other.

GREENE: NPR's Eyder Peralta reporting from Nairobi, Kenya, following that situation in Zambia. Eyder, thanks a lot.

PERALTA: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.