African Americans are overrepresented among Los Angeles’ homeless population.
Black people are only 9 percent of LA County’s population but make up more than a third of the homeless population. According to statistics from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, African Americans account for 36 percent of the homeless population.
Dr. Melina Abdullah, a member of Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles, said the reasons for this are complex.
The effects of decades of racism have impacted African Americans’ earning and wealth, she said. As a result, they have fewer resources to handle emergencies such as being laid off or gentrification.
A report by the Institute for Policy Studies pointed out the glaring wealth gap. According to the 2016 study, the average white family had more than $600,000 in household wealth. Black families only had $85,000.
“Black people have a much lower level of household wealth than anyone else,” she said.
She said the effects of mass incarceration also plays a role. Being imprisoned means many black people don’t qualify for services such as housing aid. Upon release, they often find themselves on the streets.
Black people also face declining earning power as wages fail to keep pace with the cost of living. Abdullah said they’re facing a rental market that practices unbridled capitalism. She pointed out that most apartments are owned by corporations that demand an increase in yearly profits.
Affordable Housing vs. Corporate Greed
Corporate greed is making housing unaffordable for many people. Gov. Gavin Newsom has threatened to take legal action over California cities that have failed to control skyrocketing rent.
Oregon recently became the first state to pass a rent control law.
According to Abdullah, many people are being priced out of the market.
“South LA used to be affordable for black people,” said Abdullah. But now a one-bedroom apartment is about $2,000.
“Who can afford that?” said Abdullah. “These astronomical rents are driven by corporate greed.”
A report by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA)’s Ad Hoc Committee on Black People Experiencing Homelessness brought up many of these same issues.
“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,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas in a press statement. “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.”
Priorities Must Shift to End Homelessness
There are solutions to homelessness, but Abdullah says the powers-that-be simply don’t have the political will.
For example, she said there are many empty properties in downtown that could be turned into low-cost or affordable housing. The simple solution to homelessness is to take people off the street and put them in housing. Finland has largely solved its homeless problem by offering long-term stays in public housing combined with counseling. According to Juha Kaakinen, chief executive of the Y-Foundation, an organization that provides housing to the homeless, Finland is one of the few European countries where homeless numbers are falling.
“It is always more cost-effective to aim to end homelessness instead of simply trying to manage it. Investment in ending homelessness always pays back, to say nothing of the human and ethical reasons,” said Kaakinen in a Guardian article.
According to Abdullah, a lot of this comes down to what the government is willing to spend money on. For example, the city of Los Angeles currently spends almost half of its budget on police. (Police are often the first responders when it comes to complaints about homeless people.)
Abdullah said that money could be better spent elsewhere on services such as mental health and affordable housing. Black Lives Matter-LA wants to put this issue on the 2020 ballot with the Reform Jails and Community Reinvestment Initiative.
Government, Civic Activists Must Work Together
Abdullah said government and civic activists are going to have to get creative to solve the homeless issue.
“Why couldn’t we have a guaranteed housing system?” said Abdullah.
She added Black Lives Matter-Louisville have had success getting people off the streets by buying abandoned houses and offering them to the “unhoused.” According to Insider Louisville, there are more than 4,000 abandoned homes in the city.
“These are the kinds of ideas we’re working towards,” said Abdullah. “The big thing for us is to reallocate public resources.”
Apart from being an eye-sore, homelessness can eventually become a health issue. There have been outbreaks of communicable diseases, such as Typhus, in homeless populations in Los Angeles and San Diego.
Finding housing for the homeless can become a security issue. Either the government deals with the problem or must suffer the health consequences and public complaints.