Living through Covid-19 while Black and homeless

LOS ANGELES (News4usonline) – Not too many people do what Luther Keith does. Keith walks the streets among the homeless, passing out clothes and serving the unhoused with hot meals. This has been an everyday occurrence for Keith for over two decades.

 On a weekly basis, Keith donates his time and feeds hundreds, sometimes thousands.

“That was my mission back in 1999, [that’s] to feed the homeless,” said Keith. “I started doing this on Avalon and Imperial Highway back in 1999 when I was at Locke High [School].”

At the time of his calling to help out those on the streets, Keith was a security officer for Locke High School in an area previously known as Watts, which is now encompassed inside of the boundaries of South Los Angeles.

A longtime gang interventionist, Keith has a strong presence on the streets of South Los Angeles. Working as the head of security for the renowned Drew League, a pro-am summer basketball league that has become home in the offseason for many NBA players, and keeping the peace among warring gang factions, Keith is a doer and not a talker when it comes to helping others.    

Gang interventionist Luther Keith prepares to serve the homeless on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, California. Keith has been feeding and clothing the homeless in Los Angeles since 1999. Photo credit: Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

Feeding and clothing the homeless is not for the faint of heart. Driving through downtown Los Angeles one can encounter many things. First, the many skyscrapers silhouettes that outline the Southern California skies make for a breathtaking view.

There are local hotspots and eateries that pop up on just about every block of the downtown area that make it chic or trendy to wine and dine.

STAPLES Center, the place that the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers call home, is snuggled in the midst of all of this hustle and bustle. Right across the street sits the Microsoft Theater, where live concerts from some of the biggest names in the music and entertainment industries are constantly on display as artists come and pay a visit when they’re in town performing.  

Then there is Skid Row which is the direct antithesis to everything that is glamorous and modern in the downtown area of the second-largest city in America.

Though it is located in the downtown area of Los Angeles, a person would have to go through nearly two miles of designated parking lots and clumps of buildings and go past the city’s Los Angeles Fashion District before encountering humanity at its worse.

Skid Row is a proliferation of tents, gangs, hustlers, prostitution, gambling, and drug activity. The streets are blackened by the large amounts of trash and debris that have settled on them. The air space is almost inhalable. Assaults and robberies can happen about as quickly as you snap your fingers.

Navigating through Skid Row and other parts of downtown Los Angeles can be a dangerous place to walk or drive. The Covid-19 pandemic has magnified the danger alert to an even greater level. Keith is not too concerned about it. That’s because as a devout Christian, Keith arms himself with the faith weapons he’s been given on his sleeves.

These are the antidotes to any negativity he may encounter when he’s out and about doing what he’s called to do. 

Registered nurse Angelo Bautista, right, administers a COVID-19 vaccine to Tyrone Valiant, 73, at a vaccination site set up in the parking lot of the Los Angeles Mission in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. The vaccine was administered by Los Angeles Department of Health’s Housing for Health division for selected individuals, including homeless seniors. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

“Prayer, faith and just doing God’s mission work,” Keith remarked. “If you ain’t got faith and you’re scared…if you’re scared, go to church and pray. I got God. God got my back. So it was the faith and the men at church who helped the most. We know we’ve got the virus. First, it was the Coronavirus. Now, you’ve got the Delta virus. Mask up, keep your hands clean and stay equipped. Read some ]Bible] verses.” 

What is even more extraordinary about how the pandemic has played out among the homeless are the people living on the streets. Whatever your mode of transportation is-cycling, driving, walking, or public transportation-what you encounter is a sea of Black faces.

For a clearer picture of this narrative, the number of Black people living unhoused is almost unconscionable. California has over 39 million people living in the state. Black Americans make up just six percent (5.79%) of the population, according to the World Population Review.

In Los Angeles, Blacks account for 8% of the city’s 3.9 million people. In Los Angeles County, which includes the City of Los Angeles, Black people make up the same 8% of the county’s 10 million residents. However, when it comes to the unhoused, Blacks disproportionately represent more people than any other ethnic group.

According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, Black Americans take the lead in homeless numbers, accounting for nearly 40 percent (38%) of those living on the streets in the city. That’s a 16 percent jump from 2019.

Seeing all of these Black faces on the streets is heartbreaking for Venus Johnson. For the last four years, Johnson, who works as a caregiver and is the founder of the Star Status Cowboys Connection Fan Club, has assisted Keith on his trips in feeding the homeless.

It has been an eye-opening experience for her. It has also been painful, she said. 

Black Americans make up 38 percent of the homeless population in the City of Los Angeles, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Photo credit: Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

 “I cry,” Johnson said. “I’m getting emotional now because we have so many people who are successful, we have these millionaires, people who are established who can help and to see that we’re living in one of the richest places and we have this many people…our people are basically suffering down there and have gone unnoticed. It hurts. It hurts like hell. And that’s one of the reasons why I do what I do because I love our people and we need help.”

Citing the closures of homeless shelters and local thrift stores at the beginning of the pandemic, Johnson believes Covid-19 has placed an even greater burden on the unhoused.

“The shelters, they started closing down and they stopped accepting stuff,” Johnson said. “Where there were people who wanted to help and give, they were like, ‘We can’t take it.’ So now these people can’t get the things that people have bringing them that they need…In the thrift stores and stuff, [it’s] the same thing. They stopped accepting, they stopped giving. But God is good because Luther and I found another avenue.”

Though Johnson and Keith have been able to pour out their generosity to help unhoused individuals by hitting up local food banks, churches and accepting donations from friends and family members, the picture in Los Angeles has turned from bad to something unfathomable. Skid Row is no longer the only place that homelessness has rocked Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, and for that matter, Southern California.

Outside of the mystic backdrop of beaches and skyscrapers are homeless encampments set up along freeways, parks and outside of businesses. The homeless issue has gotten so bad in Los Angeles that it took a ruling by a federal judge to put the onus on elected officials to fix the homeless problem.

In this Feb. 4, 2021, file photo, Jeff Page, right, also known as General Jeff, a homelessness activist and leader in the Downtown Los Angeles Skid Row Neighborhood Council, walks with U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter, middle, and Michele Martinez, special master on the issues of homelessness, after a court hearing at Downtown Women’s Center in Los Angeles. Carter, a federal judge overseeing a sweeping lawsuit about the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles on Wednesday, May 26, chided the city and county of LA for their slow progress in providing shelter for thousands of unhoused residents who live near freeways. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

Judge David O. Carter gave the elected officials representing the City Los Angeles and Los Angeles County a sharp rebuke for failing to properly address the homeless crisis. The judge issued a memo ordering those living on Skid Row to be housed by this fall.

“There can be no defense to the indefensible,” Carter wrote in a 110-page ruling in the court case LA Alliance for Human Rights v City of Los Angeles. “For all the declarations of success that we are fed, citizens themselves see the heartbreaking misery of the homeless and the degradation of their City and County. Los Angeles has lost its parks, beaches, schools, sidewalks, and highway systems due to the inaction of City and County officials who have left our homeless citizens with no other place to turn. All of the rhetoric, promises, plans, and budgeting cannot obscure the shameful reality of this crisis—that year after year, there are more homeless Angelenos, and year after year, more homeless Angelenos die on the streets.” 

The system of homelessness has become a Black problem with long-rooted institutional checks and balances in place playing a significant role behind the scenes, said Heidi Marston, director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

“I want to be very clear, homelessness is a byproduct of racism,” Marston said. “We continue to see that Black people are overrepresented in our homeless population and that Black African Americans are four times more likely to become homeless than their white counterparts.”

Being homeless and Black in the middle of the Covid-19 is not just a Los Angeles thing. The numbers are just as staggering nationally. Much like the population-to-homeless ratio in Los Angeles, unhoused statistics for Blacks across the country are alarming.

According to the 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, a report backed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 39 percent of the people who are homeless nationwide are Black. The AHAR report, released this past January, also concluded  that Blacks with families and children (53 percent) are in far greater numbers to be homeless than any other ethnic group surveyed.

People walk away with food being distributed from the back of a van on skid row Friday, March 20, 2020, in Los Angeles. California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the state’s 40 million residents to stay at home indefinitely. His order restricts non-essential movements to control the spread of the coronavirus that threatens to overwhelm the state’s medical system. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

According to a 2020 U.S. Census study, Blacks are just 12 percent of the general population in the country, a sobering reality to the vast homelessness numbers this group represents. There are several contributing factors as to why many Black people can be found on the streets or are unsheltered, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

The main causes, poverty, rental and housing discrimination, lack of access to quality health care and incarceration, are nothing new. When it comes to re-entering back into society after being incarcerated, Black women are more likely than anyone else to be homeless, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. That’s including Black men.

A New Way of Life Reentry Project, founded by Susan Burton, does its best to address the needs of these women once they leave jail or prison.

“A New Way of Life and similar programs offer people released from jails and prisons an opportunity to live in a safe, welcoming, structured, and supportive environment where both staff and other residents understand the challenges that convicted and formerly incarcerated people face, and are able to offer a clear path forward,” said Pamela Marshall, co-director of A New Way of Life Reentry Project.

“Having stable, safe and affordable housing improves an  individuals’ abilities to reduce stress; to heal from trauma or addiction; to manage a health or mental health condition; to find and maintain employment; to protect, uplift and support children and other family members; to attend school and/or job training programs; to avoid violence and system contact,” Marshall added.

Based in South Los Angeles, A New Way of Life Reentry Project has 10 homes to accommodate women coming from jail or prison. Marshall said once these individuals put incarceration in the rearview mirror, trying to live and function in normalcy, can be overwhelming.  

“Imagine living in a jail or prison cell where your every movement, every minute, every meal and every decision has been made for you and you are suddenly released with $200 or less, without a state ID, social security card, medical or birth documents, into a world where the technology, bus routes, culture, and communities have advanced far into the future leaving you without direction or understanding and you have also lost all contact with family, friends or a place to stay,” Marshall said.

While A New Way of Life Reentry Project has a more structural way of helping those once locked up to stay off the streets, Keith keeps things pushing with his charitable outreach, bringing encouragement and food to fill the bellies and minds of the homeless. And he does it without fear.  

“If you ain’t equipped and know how to do this…they got gangs down there,” Keith said. “Folks are scared to go down there.”