Black, homelessness, and living in Los Angeles County

LOS ANGELES, CA-Black people face three key issues that the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) found to be excoriating their paths to homelessness. Those issues, structural racism, discrimination, and bias have served as an indirect avenue for African Americans to become the largest ethnic group to represent the homeless population in Los Angeles County.

The situation has become so dire that LAHSA put together a committee (Ad Hoc Committee on Black People Experiencing Homelessness) just to address this very topic. This reaches housing, employment opportunities, mass incarceration, and child welfare services, according to a LAHSA report that was released in February. It is an epic battle to tackle on several fronts, Los Angeles Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said.

“This report is a critical first step to address the collective failings of systems and institutions that de facto and de jure-have been designed to deliver the painful disparities that affect so many of our brothers and sisters,” Ridley Thomas said. “Hard work lies ahead to counter this tragic inheritance. If our region is to prosper, it is not only a moral imperative, it is an absolute economic imperative that all who call Los Angeles home are able to attain their full measure of dignity and self-worth.”

homelessness in Los Angeles County
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Men make up 67 percent of the homeless population in Los Angeles County, according to a report released by the Los Angeles Housing Services Authority. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

The Numbers Don’t Add Up

Black workers have higher unemployment rates, earn less money than their white peers, and face a huge deficit in work callback opportunities. Adding to this dilemma is the fact that blacks make up 30 percent of those behind bars in county detention centers and have seen homeownership dip down drastically to numbers before the Fair Housing Act became law.

Blacks make up 9 percent of the population in Los Angeles County. When it comes to homelessness numbers in the county, African American dominate the percentage. According to the Black People Experiencing Homelessness report recently released by LAHSA, African Americans make up 40 percent of those living on the streets.

It is a staggering number to comprehend, one that both city and county officials are trying to put a thumbprint on the driving forces behind those statistics. The breakdown in those numbers in all five Los Angeles County supervisorial districts show a clear disparity in the numbers.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who oversees the Fourth District, which includes San Pedro, the Port of Long Beach and the Port of Los Angeles, has the second least amount of homeless people throughout the county. From 2017-18, Hahn and the Fourth District saw a drop in the homeless count, falling by one percent.

At last count from LAHSA, there are over 6,000 (6,052) people experiencing homelessness in Hahn’s district. The county’s Second District in which Ridley-Thomas oversees has the largest number of people who are homeless. According to LAHSA, there are more than 16,000 (16,561) people dealing with the homeless situation, that includes those who are sheltered and unsheltered.

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Downtown Los Angeles where the homeless population thrives in makeshift tents and other temporary shelters on the streets. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

Watts, Compton, Venice, and Koreatown are among the areas that Ridley-Thomas oversees. There are 52, 765 people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County, according to LAHSA’s report on the state of homelessness in the county. Men account for the largest portion of those living in the streets-sheltered or unsheltered, making up 67 percent (35, 436) of the homeless population.

“Homelessness is the greatest issue facing Los Angeles and racism is amplifying the impacts of economic inequality and housing access,” said Los Angeles City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson. “Now is the time to directly address the root causes of homelessness and racism remains one of the biggest causes.”

The Root Causes of the Homeless Problem 

The report released by LAHSA suggests that one prominent factor lingers at the heart of the matter and backs up what Harris-Dawson said: housing discrimination. The LAHSA report, which was unveiled at a homeless summit at the California African American Museum (CAAM) in February, was put together by a committee challenged to find the underlying factors that have contributed to greater numbers of homeless blacks.

To that end, the 26-member committee, which features representatives from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office, St. Joseph Center, Sanctuary of Hope, Los Angeles County of Health Services, Abode Communities, and the Southern California Health & Rehabilitation Program, came to the conclusion that structural racism plays a major part in the growing numbers of blacks on the streets.

“I will repeat what I have said before: Homelessness is the defining civic issue in the County of Los Angeles, and we need to confront it,” Ridley-Thomas said. “We are facing a moral crisis, and a moral crisis demands a moral solution.”
“Instead of averting our eyes, we must see it and know it, and then we must move to address it and overcome it,” said Ridley-Thomas. “We are doing many things right, but we are not doing enough of it. The fact of the matter is we have to radically scale up all our approaches.”

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African Americans account for just 9 percent of the population in Los Angeles County, yet is the largest demographic group representing homelessness in the county. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

The committee’s report indicates that the lack of enforcement of the Fair Housing Act has allowed landlords, real estate companies as well as banks to pretty much do whatever they want when it comes to approving and/or denying whom they want to do business with.

As a result, black home ownership has dropped five times as the number of whites, according to the LAHSA study. Besides that, African Americans are likely to deal with higher interest rates and denied more frequently than white applicants.

“We have long understood the painful reality that a disproportionate number of African Americans are caught in the grip of homelessness and we have to be more intentional about how to confront and end this crisis,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said. “This report puts the spotlight where it needs to be, and helps us focus our efforts on the individuals, families, and communities that need the most help.”

Finding the Solutions 

With the release of the report, the summit, which lasted for several hours, brought out raw emotions at times as panelists such as Race Forward President Glenn Harris, Los Angeles County Mental Health Commissioner with Lived Experience Reba Stevens, and Jaqueline Waggoner, the Ad Hoc Committee Chair, sought out solutions to the report’s findings.

The committee’s report suggests that because there is a 50 percent callback gap between blacks and whites for employment this is a contributing factor in the homeless matter. The report outlined that along with this problem of lack of employment opportunities, rent in Los Angeles County jumped 32 percent from 2000 to 2015, thus creating a vacuum of homeless problems.

And because landlords cannot be forced to accept Section 8 housing in California, this creates a different type of vulnerability for people seeking shelter or places to live. According to the LAHSA, 76 percent of all Section 8 housing requests are denied.

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The growing visibility of the homelessness problem in Los Angeles County could potentially pose itself as a public safety concern. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

“Only by acknowledging and naming the painful truth about how our systems and policies have created these unjust racial disparities can we do the hard work together to reverse them,” said Kelli Bernard, chair of the LAHSA commission.

The revolving door of the criminal justice system is partly to blame as well for the homelessness population, according to the report. Blacks make up 30 percent of the people in Los Angeles County jails. Being in and out of the criminal justice system lend a hand to the homelessness problem as those incarcerated face an uphill battle to find and keep employment and find housing.

So, the solutions to these issues are outlined in the report as well. Some of the recommendations the committee is advocating for is to eliminate structural bias, allow people to have fair access to housing, fair access to employment, close the housing gap (affordable housing development), and expand re-entry support for incarcerated individuals.

In 2017, residents voted for a tax measure that helps ease the homeless situation, giving a thumbs up in approval for $3.5 billion in the next 10 years to address the problem. Waggoner said the committee’s report is the start of something long overdue in addressing the homelessness issue.

“This report is a launching pad for a new level of collaboration,” Waggoner said. “It reflects a diversity of voices, including people who have experienced homelessness, service providers, and community members, and creates a blueprint for change. This is just the beginning of the work, and we will keep applying a racial equity lens to our systems and policies as we move forward.”

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