BEST OF LAIST

A Groundbreaking Report Goes Deep On Black Homelessness In Los Angeles

Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority employees at the California African American Museum for the release of the report detailing black homelessness in Los Angeles. (Matt Tinoco/LAist)

Homelessness disproportionately affects black people in Los Angeles. Though about nine percent of Los Angeles County's total population is black-identifying, black people make up about 36 percent of the county's homeless population, according to the 2018 homeless count.

It's an overrepresentation born out of a deep history of institutionalized racism in America, and is the focus of a groundbreaking report formally released this week by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA).

The 115-page report, the goal of which is to lay a framework for building a more equitable Los Angeles, spells out in explicit detail how institutional racism stitched into the fabric of Los Angeles' criminal justice, education, and healthcare systems, as well as discrimination in the job and housing markets, conspire to force black people to the street at a rate much higher than Angelenos of other races.

Where roughly one in every 250 white residents are homeless, the rate for black residents is about one in 40.

"If you want to end homelessness, you have to end it for those groups that are disproportionately impacted," said Jacqueline Waggoner, a Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority commissioner and chair of the special committee that authored the report. "What we want is a system that works for everyone. We learned through this process how the system is not working for everyone."

LASTING CHANGE

The report advocates for a fundamental paradigm shift in how Los Angeles is addressing its homelessness crisis: address the inequality that continues driving Angelenos of all races (but especially black residents) to the street. If we don't, the report says, progress will fleeting.

"For lasting change to occur, institutional barriers across agencies and mainstream systems must be dismantled to eliminate the racial disparities and systemic racism affecting Black people experiencing homelessness," it says.

The report is the result of a year-long collaborative process by Waggoner and others on LAHSA's Ad Hoc Committee on Black People Experiencing Homelessness. The committee was modeled after another that reported on women and homelessness in Los Angeles. Its findings are based on extensive engagement with black Angelenos who are or have been homeless.

That feedback, collected in a series of listening sessions and focus groups, was used to craft 67 specific policy recommendations the committee says would be meaningful steps towards undoing systemic racism in Los Angeles' public institutions and private markets that contribute to homelessness.

The recommendations underscore how much work remains to be done if L.A. is ever going to alleviate in its homelessness crisis. Among the recommendations: eliminating discrimination against renters with housing vouchers, strengthen links between the faith and homeless service communities, increase resources for foster children when they are emancipated, and implicit bias training for workers in the homeless services industry.

There's virtually no institution that isn't implicated in the report. On the justice system, for example, the report highlights how approximately one-fifth of L.A. County's jail inmates are homeless.

THE ROLE OF IMPLICIT BIAS

The report also goes deep on implicit bias and shortcomings in the homeless services sector. Besides things like high staff turnover and overburdened caseworkers, the report calls out industry workers who "may have the academic qualifications, but not the requisite life experience or expertise" needed to guide and empathize with people who are struggling to survive on the street quite literally from one day to the next. It advocates staffing more people who have themselves been homeless.

The report also calls for more rigorous analysis of tools used by homeless service workers for implicit bias and other shortcomings.

"Scoring components often [lead] participants to feel they need to provide false information or make higher acuity claims—such as mental health issues or substance abuse—in order to be prioritized for scarce housing resources."

That is, homeless people being evaluated by outreach workers may play up mental health or substance abuse issues because it means they'll be placed higher on the list for public assistance. (According to the most recent homeless census, about 26 percent of L.A.'s homeless report having a serious mental illness, 15 percent report a substance abuse disorder, and 10 percent report both.)

Besides analysis of the current system and recommendations for how to make it better, the report includes powerful testimonials by black and brown Angelenos who have been homeless.

READ THE FULL REPORT