By Sikivu Hutchinson
Once upon a time, L.A. was billed as the fount of the "California Dream" of endless sunshine, single family homes, and suburban living. Sprawling, hyper-segregated, and over-policed, for many black Great Migration-era transplants streaming into the city from the 1920s on it nonetheless promised to be a respite from the concrete urbanism of the East and the Jim Crow ruralism of the South. Now, as black homeownership becomes increasingly endangered and black homelessness rises, racial apartheid in L.A. has reached its zenith. In late May, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) glowingly reported that the number of homeless residents in Los Angeles has declined, but it is cold comfort for African American communities that are feeling the brunt of the crisis.
According to LAHSA, the number of people living on the streets in L.A. County has dropped 3 percent, down from 55,058 last year to 53,195. There was a 5 percent decrease in the city of L.A. The numbers of chronically homeless and homeless veterans decreased, while the numbers of youth homeless residential placements increased. The number of homeless folk living in vehicles, trailers and motorhomes also increased. These last two stats provide a dark window onto the complexities of homelessness in a county where the deepening wealth and poverty gap is gutting communities of color.
Over the past year, construction for new building complexes has sprung up on L.A.’s streets seemingly overnight. The majority of these complexes mix “market rate” units with a token number of affordable units. In a rising tide of NIMBY-ist backlash, homeowners’ groups across the city have fought even the most modest proposals for homeless housing and shelters. Some have attempted to block them by arguing that these developments potentially violate California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) conditions. A proposed shelter in Koreatown was challenged by homeowner advocates on the grounds that there had been no community review or vetting process. Developments in Venice have been contested by homeowners claiming they will lead to falling property values. Far too often, affluent communities attempt to mask their thinly veiled paternalism and racism with “reasonable” concerns about congestion and livability.
The ubiquitous tents and shambling motorhomes that dot L.A.’s side streets are simply the most glaring symbols of the city’s spatial apartheid. Homelessness among less visible populations such as queer, trans and gender non-conforming youth, black women, elderly women of color and undocumented women, as well as sexual and intimate partner violence victims, have exploded. These communities have complex intersectional needs that are often unaddressed by mainstream public policy and intervention. For example, increases in L.A. County’s population of homeless elderly women (already viewed as expendable in a relentlessly sexist, youth-focused dominant culture) challenge traditional models of homelessness, trauma, and aging. According to the Downtown Women’s Action Coalition, “50 percent of homeless women were over the age of 50 and 88 percent were people of color, with the majority identifying as African-American. The number of immigrant women has also increased over time.” Because women of color have been excluded from higher wage jobs with defined benefits elderly women of color are more vulnerable to becoming chronically homeless. High rates of sexual and intimate partner violence victimization among African American women, coupled with the lack of a social safety net and criminalizing drug and prostitution policies, also drive gender disparities in homelessness (36% of L.A.’s homeless are domestic violence victims). Further, the intersection of the wage/wealth gap and homelessness among older African American and Latinx women has been exacerbated by worsening residential displacement due to the economic recession, gentrification, predatory lending, and chronic unemployment in traditionally affordable communities of color like South and East L.A.
The City of L.A. has designated over $400 million to combat homelessness, with $275 million drawn from County Measure HHH funds. Under the terms of HHH “developers are allowed to build up to 120 units without conducting an environmental review, provided the projects meet zoning requirements.” $238 million of the City’s total allotment will be used to build 1,500 new housing units and $36 million will go to shelters and other facilities. Construction for temporary housing centers will be funded with $20 million from Mayor Eric Garcetti’s proposed 2018-19 budget. The infusion of county and city dollars is a necessary first step, but Garcetti’s rhetoric about solving the homeless crisis is undercut by deplorable scenes of “normalized” human suffering in the sprawling 24-7 tent city that has become L.A.’s streets. In light of the crisis that has unfolded on his (and the County supervisors’) watch, his showboating for a presidential run in 2020 is farcical at best and an outrage at worst.
The failure of political, economic, and moral leadership around homelessness in L.A. has given rise to a California nightmare in which having a stable place to live is even more of a first world luxury and crucible for the city’s racial caste system. Securing desperately needed services, housing placements, and health, wellness and trauma care for the city’s growing African American female and women of color homeless populations must be a non-negotiable priority in local government's new funding regime. And if the community doesn't demand it, Measure HHH and its millions won't make a dent in redressing the city's racist, sexist heritage of sunshine and segregation.