Black is the Face of Homelessness

Race, homelessness and one city councilman’s commitment to make a difference.

“There is a lot that happens around the world we cannot control. We cannot stop earthquakes, we cannot prevent droughts, and we cannot prevent all conflict, but when we know where the hungry, the homeless, and the sick exist, then we can help.” 

–Jan Schakowsky

God Bless America. It is home to the world’s largest economy, the playground of millionaires and billionaires. America leads the industrialized world in so many ways. It is also the land of sidewalks and park benches, doorways and underpasses, where the largest homeless population in the developed world gathers each evening for refuge and relief.

The issue of homelessness in America is not just about economics, although that is an important component, but is also an issue both deeply and profoundly tainted by race. The data speaks for itself.  African Americans are only 12.6 percent of the country’s population and yet account for more than 40 percent of its homeless population.

Sadly, California holds the dubious distinction of having the largest percentage of the nation’s chronically homeless—36 percent. The next closest state, and a distant second, is Florida with only seven percent. In addition, 24 percent of the nation’s homeless veterans live in California. The state is in a homelessness crisis and it faces a daunting and herculean challenge to find meaningful ways to mitigate this issue.

Yes, California has a major ‘homelessness’ problem; however, all is not equal across the state. Los Angeles is dealing with homelessness, particularly among African Americans, that many might consider of biblical proportions.

Estimates of homeless people by state, 2015

homeless_people_by_state_2015

Credit: The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress

States with the highest and lowest rates of unsheltered homeless people, 2015

rates_unsheltered_homeless

Credit: Homelessness in South Los Angeles

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, Los Angeles City and County has the highest number of chronically homeless individuals in the nation. In addition, it has the highest rate of unsheltered homeless.  Between 2014 and 2015, Los Angeles experienced a 55 percent increase in chronically homeless individuals—the largest increase in the nation.

The magnitude of the homelessness issue in America is disheartening; in California it is overwhelming; but, in Los Angeles it has reached critical mass.

However, the homeless in Los Angeles are not without a champion who is working aggressively on their behalf—Los Angeles City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson.

In February, the Councilman published a seminal work—a position paper on Homelessness in South Los Angeles. The paper pointedly highlighted a sad reality, “The current homelessness crisis is decades in the making. For nearly 60 years, policies at every level of government have contributed to a disappearing social safety net, the loss of affordable housing, the rise of mass incarceration, the reduction of middle class jobs, and the destruction of public mental health care.”

The demographic trend in homelessness in Los Angeles is the unfortunate baseline for homelessness in both the state and nation. According to the report, throughout the city and particularly in South Los Angeles and along skid row—“Black” is the face of homelessness. In Los Angeles, Blacks are only nine percent of the city’s population and yet account for 47 percent of the homeless population.

Harris-Dawson and the city’s Homelessness and Poverty Committee identified 60 strategies they believe will help alleviate the magnitude of the issue.

Race and homelessness in Los Angeles

Credit: Homelessness in South Los Angeles

Sheltered and unsheltered persons in 2015

Credit: Homelessness in South Los Angeles

 This week in an exclusive interview, champion for the homeless and Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson shared openly with the Black Voice News about this grievous issue and what motivates him to keeping fighting the battle for change.

“I’ve spent years working in South Los Angeles focusing on joblessness, poverty, and lack of public services,” he explained. “I am dedicated to the issues facing working families of color in South LA, which has made the challenge of addressing homelessness a valuable one.”

The more he engaged with this crisis he added, “I saw time and again that the face of homelessness was a Black one, and saw first-hand institutionalized racism amplifies the effects of economic inequality.”

The councilman believes it is of vital importance to raise the issue of homelessness in South Los Angeles and the particular need to focus on Black Homelessness. “The Committee,” he said, “Wanted to take a comprehensive approach to dealing with homelessness in Los Angeles.”

According to Harris-Dawson, “These wide-ranging approaches provide the city with a foundation to address many of the issues facing homeless individuals. From there, we needed to determine which strategies are short-term and which are long-term that will take time to develop.” He believes the short term strategies will provide a bridge while working to create more housing and provide services necessary for long term stability to the homeless in Los Angeles.

The Councilman also believes the committee’s efforts to end poverty and homelessness in the Black communities of Los Angeles can be used as a model/best practice in other communities. “The unprecedented coordination among the City and County provide us an opportunity to impact homelessness on a scale that Los Angeles has not yet seen.  As the City continues to garner the resources needed to impact homelessness, I want to lift up the issue of race and work on solutions to problems that impact Black homeless individual and families.”

He expounded, “For example, the long legacy of discriminatory policing and sentencing has substantially impacted the Black community. Many people exiting prison and jail do not have a support system to house them as they re-enter society and try to find a job. Many did not have stable housing before their incarceration, and many will struggle to find employment with their conviction history.” He concluded, “Those who have paid their debt to society should have an opportunity to create a life without facing high barriers and finding themselves on the streets.”

Homelessness in South Los Angeles

Credit: Homelessness in South Los Angeles

However, there is much to be said about the national support needed to attain these goals. “Federal and state intervention are necessary if we want to see lasting change,” he said. “Decades of disinvestment and conscious policy decisions have rolled back anti-poverty programs, criminalized the poor, and left local governments without the resources needed to make an impact.”

Harris-Dawson continued, “Issues like Section 8 vouchers, public mental health care, economic development and affordable housing funding, re-entry funding, food stamps, and social service funding all come from federal and state governments. Without increases in these sources of funding, Los Angeles is limited in the impact it can make.”

The councilman stressed how federal, state, and local policies and resources can be coordinated and leveraged to create an indelible impact in the lives of 44 thousand living on the streets.

However, it is also important to recognize members of the community can play a major role in helping to create change on this issue.  “Community members must stay engaged with the issues we are hearing during committee, call their elected representatives—local, state, and federal to discuss how this issue affects them and their communities,” he stressed and added, “We need to have these difficult conversations within our communities—whether that is at the dinner table, in our churches, in our unions or among our friends—community voices drive change. With community pressure and political leadership there can be a change.”

The Councilman also wanted Black Voice News’ readers to know while it is his intention to support the strategies created within the Comprehensive Homeless Strategic plan for Los Angeles, there are additional social, economic, and housing policies at the local, state and federal levels that require amending in order to provide an actual progressive and sustained approach to balancing the needs of African Americans that are already homeless, as well as, those on the brink of homelessness.

Demographic characteristics of homeless people, 2015

Credit: The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress

There is one hard reality however; the twin issues of poverty and homelessness have plagued African Americans since emancipation. As a result, it is difficult to see the possibility of a sustainable solution.

To this dilemma the Councilman replied, “The city does not have the resources to solve homelessness or poverty.”  He then went on to stress what the city does have. “We do have the opportunity to make an impact on the lives of thousands of homeless individuals and families in Los Angeles. As a city, we need to focus on garnering resources to create sustainable solutions and work in collaboration with other cities in LA County to create regional solutions.”

The City Councilman ended his position paper on homelessness with the discerning thought, “Only by building a comprehensive policy model will we be able to see a quantitative change in the number of homeless individuals on the streets. Whether that model results in changing our land use policy, ending discrimination on the basis of payment, enforcing laws against discrimination on the basis of race, or addressing the ways in which institutional racism magnifies joblessness, poverty and lack of housing, we also need to see a qualitative change in the nature of housing and discrimination in the city of Los Angeles. We need to lay the groundwork to make Los Angeles a place where housing is affordable and homelessness is unacceptable.”

The same must also hold true for the state, the nation, and ultimately the world.

Feature photo credit: The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress

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