Agonafer Appointed to Key Role in Fighting Unhoused Crisis

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass names KPSOM Assistant Professor to Deputy Mayor of Homelessness and Community Health

February 13, 2024

KPSOM faculty member Etsemaye Agonafer

KPSOM faculty member Etsemaye Agonafer

As part of an ongoing strategy to confront the unhoused crisis in the city of Los Angeles, today Mayor Karen Bass announced the appointment of Etsemaye Agonafer, MD, MPH, MS, Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine (KPSOM) Assistant Professor of Health Systems Science, to oversee the city’s fight against homelessness.

“Being appointed as the City of Los Angeles’ Deputy Mayor of Homelessness and Community Health is both an immense honor and a profound responsibility,” said Dr. Agonafer. “As a physician, this role symbolizes a pivotal opportunity to humanize the homeless crisis and underscore that housing is health.”

Bass committed to tackling the city’s homeless issue shortly after being elected in December 2022 and her administration has helped transition more than 21,000 unhoused people into interim housing during her first term. Still, the number of unhoused Angelenos is expected to increase this year, in part due to the end of COVID-19 aid for low-income households , rising rent and housing prices, and additional factors that contribute to this challenge.

While previous administrations have had deputy mayors for homeless issues, Dr. Agonafer is the first ever appointed as Deputy Mayor of Homelessness and Community Health and is the first physician to tackle homelessness as a deputy mayor.  She will take a leave of absence from the school to serve in her new role where she will focus on improving the coordination, integration, and delivery of social, general health, and behavioral health services for the unhoused or those in interim and permanent housing at risk of becoming homeless. Dr. Agonafer will develop and lead a team responsible for the coordination of stronger housing and health outcomes for persons experiencing homelessness. These efforts are in alignment with Bass’ commitment to tackling this crisis and providing life-saving services to the unhoused.   

Dr. Agonafer said she is most excited about the potential “to allow for bold transformational change [in solving] homelessness through collaborative efforts that are centered in love, empathy, and a focus on communities’ assets and needs.” 

When asked what keeps her up at night regarding the new undertaking, she candidly explained that like her patients, it’s the stories filled with hurt, pain, and sometimes the joy of the individuals and communities she serves. As a physician, she understands the rippling impact that housing has on individuals and their loved ones’ overall health and well-being. “My hope is [that] this opportunity, like the others on my journey, amplifies the voices and experiences of those I serve in a way that makes them more visible to others,” said Dr. Agonafer.

Dr. Agonafer grew up in Los Angeles and has a longtime passion for addressing health disparities, particularly within vulnerable communities. She was a 2021-22 White House Fellow at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, then served as Community Health Advisor to Mayor Bass in May 2023, bringing lessons learned in Washington back home.  

“Becoming a physician, conducting community-engaged research, teaching, etc., are only the foundation of fulfilling the purpose to serve and improve the lives of underserved communities that I come from, and made me who I am,” said Dr. Agonafer. “My upbringing as a child of Ethiopian immigrants instilled in me a sense of consciousness of various perspectives and a sense of responsibility to serve beyond my own ambition. The patients I care for and the communities I partner with further fuel this passion as the narratives they share shine a light on complex problems like homelessness that plague our society as a whole.” 

KPSOM leaders expressed pride and excitement in learning that Dr. Agonafer will lend her expertise to the city of Los Angeles. 

“Dr. Agonafer was a critical contributor in the development and delivery of the Healthcare and Social Systems and the Community and Population Health curricular domains,” said KPSOM Founding Dean and CEO Mark Schuster, MD, PhD. “We are excited that all of Los Angeles will now benefit from her talents and her commitment to improving the lives of individuals and communities while advancing health equity.”

“She’s been a genuinely innovative bridge-builder between medical and community systems of care, particularly those that address medical, social, and structural drivers of health for unhoused persons, veterans, incarcerated individuals, and other often marginalized groups,” added Paul Chung MD, MS, KPSOM Chair of Health Systems Science and Acting Director of the Health Equity Research Core. “Her academic training and professional experience – ranging from her community-partnered intervention work to her collaboration with community clinic affiliates and partner organizations – all play a pivotal role in addressing the needs of communities. We applaud her appointment to this critical position.”

When faced with the soaring number of unhoused individuals within the City of Los Angeles and the 10 percent annual increase in unhoused persons unveiled in the 2023 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, Dr. Agonafer first thought of the untold stories of those 46,260 people whom she says, “are much more than their housing status – they are a life with a journey, someone’s child, sibling, friend, and loved one.” Secondly, Dr. Agonafer reflected on the impact that their housing status has on their overall health and well-being. 

“Every person, regardless of their circumstances is, first and foremost, a human being deserving of respect, boundless compassion, and the full spectrum of opportunities to thrive,” she added. “With this unwavering belief, collaborative efforts, and innovative strategies, my contributions to the work will move towards making Los Angeles a city where homelessness is not only addressed but transformed into a pathway for renewed hope, stability, and health. Also, my sincere hope is that my contributions inspire Angelenos to acknowledge humanity when they walk by an encampment and be the neighbor [who] plays a role [in solving] homelessness.” 

Many factors contributed to Dr. Agonafer’s readiness to take on this role, including her tenure at KPSOM’s Department of Health Systems Science and her work developing and teaching a novel curriculum alongside colleagues who helped frame her prior experiences. Her other accomplishments and endeavors include raising funds for disparities in Ethiopia and Eritrea by launching a clothing line inspired by her heritage; co-founding a foot health clinic serving unhoused persons in Greater Los Angeles; leading quality improvement projects in diverse healthcare systems; studying the closure of a major tertiary hospital in South Los Angeles; producing a compilation of videos featuring veteran narratives; spearheading an academic-community coalition in South Los Angeles; and studying the implementation of the Whole Person Care Medicaid waiver in Los Angeles.

“Throughout these experiences and even during my time … as a White House Fellow, little did I know that my joy had a title – a health systems science practitioner who uses creative problem-solving, engagement, and leadership skills to fulfill my commitment to spearhead efforts that achieve health equity for all,” said Dr. Agonafer.