‘A Sea of Black Mens’ Faces’: LA’s Black Homelessness Crisis
Black unhoused people are one of the largest groups facing homelessness. But Los Angeles’ red tape and rapid gentrification calls into question its resolve for racial equity amid those struggles.
Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of the L.A. chapter of Black Lives Matter, said she’s outraged over the state of Black homelessness.
“I feel a tremendous amount of sadness when I think about how we came here as enslaved people and how they attempted to dehumanize us then,” Abdullah said. “It's the same process of dehumanization. That they would treat dogs better than they treat Black people who are living unhoused.”
Abdullah considered that one of the greatest atrocities of our time is that people are living in tents.
“If this were not the United States there would be an international outcry,” she said.
Black people are 8% of L.A.’s population, but represent 34% of people experiencing homelessness, according to a 2020 count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). The number of unhoused Black people could rise when LAHSA conducts the 2022 count this month.
A Matter Of Budget
Abdullah said choices made by elected officials is why the Black homelessness crisis exists. She’s outraged about the billions of dollars allocated by the city of L.A. for the police budget each year.
“We can solve homelessness with half that budget,” Abdullah said.
The LAPD budget for FY 2021-2022 is roughly $3 billion, which includes operating and other costs like pensions and benefits. The LAPD has $8.9 million allocated for services related to people experiencing homelessness, compared with $14.1 million last year. In Nov. 2021, the Los Angeles Police Department Commission voted to approve a 12% budget increase for FY 2022-2023 to boost staffing levels and cover salaries and overtime. Los Angeles will spend $801 million this year on the homelessness crisis.
Abdullah acknowledged that some people dislike the “Defund the police” slogan. But she insisted it’s always coupled with reimagining public safety.
“That means investing billions of dollars that really create safe communities, mainly permanent supportive housing,” Abdullah said. “If we took billions spent on the LAPD and put it into permanent supportive housing, we could house everyone in this city.”
The responsibility of Black people is to make the demands and do what is necessary to make sure our folks are housed.
Abdullah said every Black person living in the city should be worried about homelessness and the impact of the city’s current anti-camping law known as ordinance 41.18.
“If 41.18 says it's a crime to sit, sleep and store things on the sidewalk, what does that mean for my children who are on the sidewalk and waiting for the bus,” Abdullah said. “What does it mean for Black people carrying laundry that doesn’t fit into the size of the specifications the ordinance offers?
“The responsibility of Black people is to make the demands and do what is necessary to make sure our folks are housed,” she said.
A Century of Racist Policies
Mark Vestal is co-author of the 2021 UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy report, ‘Making of a Crisis: The History of Homelessness in L.A.’. He said a century of racist housing policies led to discrepancy in homeownership among Black residents.
“The Great Depression sets us up for the system we have today,” said Vestal. “A fragmented jurisdiction between city, county, state and federal government that's not really working.”
Vestal said that even when the government tried to integrate homeownership assistance, it ended up being predatory.
“Black folks were segregated in inner cities and subject to predatory mortgage markets and home buying schemes that continued to suck Black dollars and wealth from bank accounts for decades,” Vestal said.
We are at this moment where there are over 60,000 in L.A. County and the majority are Black people and living in Skid Row. That's entirely unprecedented in the country.
L.A. City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, whose district includes the neighborhoods of Baldwin Hills, Crenshaw and West Adams, said his family “paid a financial price for being Black after slavery.”
Harris-Dawson is referring to a story his grandfather, a real estate broker, told him as he was preparing to write him a check for college. In the late 1950s, there were tract homes built in what is now known as Culver City that his grandfather could afford, but was not allowed to purchase due to restrictive covenants. Harris-Dawson said if his grandfather had been allowed to purchase the home, it would have paid for him and his cousins to go to college.
Harris-Dawson didn’t end up unhoused, but the racist housing policies his family dealt with offer a window into how systemic racism plays out today among Black unhoused people who may also come from families who were shut out of economic opportunities or do not have a familial safety net.
Mental Health, Reagan And The Super Bowl
Johnnie Raines, a 75-year-old Black man who lives in Leimert Park, was taking pictures with his cell phone of what looked like the aftermath of an encampment fire in Leimert Park Village. There was debris everywhere.
He wanted to send photos to his local city council district office.
“I don’t want to see it the next time I pass this corner,” Raines said. “I'm not saying it was created by homeless folks, but it has all the ingredients.”
Raines has lived in Leimert Park since he was 10 years old. Over the years, Raines has become a stalwart member of the community and believes a lot of the problems with Black homelessness can be traced to undiagnosed mental health concerns going back to the Reagan administration.
“We used to have standing mental health institutions in the state that weren't penal institutions so they could go and get it taken care of,” Raines said. “If you go four or five generations with untreated mental health issues, of course you’re going to have an abundance of them…and they are fertile ground for homelessness.”
Vestal from UCLA explained that, by the 1980s, there was a lack of federal support for the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and a mental health crisis that led to an explosion of homelessness. The transformation, he said, included increased investment into incarceration instead of housing and services and police became the front line of the mental health crisis, especially in Black communities.
“So we are at this moment where there are over 60,000 in L.A. County and the majority are Black people and living in Skid Row,” Vestal said. “That's entirely unprecedented in the country. This group of Black folks are occupying some of the most valuable real estate in the country and they refuse to be moved. They've been holding onto that containment plan, to claim that space downtown for unhoused people.”
Vestal said when Reagan cut the HUD budget by 80% during the 1980s, the “manufactured” crisis pushed states, cities and counties to respond to that loss of federal support that led to the rise of nonprofits along with a near complete federal disinvestment in building affordable and public housing.
“It wasn’t the plan of the Reagan administration to have this robust system at the state level, it was advocates that pushed for local services,” Vestal said. “But it was a bottom up movement and that happened through nonprofits that ended up rising to the challenge and innovating and pushing for policy innovations to get funding.”
Vestal said those policies led to the city contracting nonprofits and religious organizations to outsource the homelessness crisis because there wasn’t a clear consensus that the government was responsible for people experiencing homelessness.
And for Raines, city officials should currently focus on using empty city-owned buildings, like a nearby library that’s been closed for 20 years, which could be repurposed as a stop-in mental health service, referring to the L.A. City Controller’s report that listed 27 city-owned vacant lots that could be used for immediate interim housing solutions or services.
The L.A. resident said Mayor Garcetti hasn’t made it clear to those who report to him that homelessness should be their number one priority.
“The city council as a collective has power, but the mayor can say: ‘I don't want to see this anymore,’” Raines said. “If we got money to spend on the Super Bowl and the Olympics, why not more money for people? If it takes reopening mental health facilities, do it.”
Bureaucracy And Classism
Veronica Lewis is the director of the Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System (HOPICS). She has served on countless commissions to share what she has learned about the reasons Black people are overrepresented in the unhoused population. For her, this group continues to fall out of permanent housing at “alarming” rates compared to other populations.
“People haven’t cared about Black men living in squalor until we saw them in their communities living in squalor,” Lewis said. “Every time I go downtown, the sea of Black mens’ faces is so heartbreaking.”
The resources Lewis is primarily referring to is money which she says should be targeted to combat Black homelessness. But she says Proposition 209 makes that difficult.
Every time I go downtown, the sea of Black mens’ faces is so heartbreaking.
Prop 209, or the California Civil Rights Initiative, is a 1996 ballot amendment that effectively banned affirmative action in California and prohibited state governmental institutions, in part, from giving preferential treatment based on race, sex or ethnicity. There was a measure on the Nov. 2020 ballot to repeal Prop 209, but it failed. Mayor Garcetti signed an executive directive in June 2020 to study and promote racial equity in city departments.
“We have spent countless hours and millions researching data to look at how we are disproportionately disadvantaged,” Lewis said. “I want investment that moves Black people. If we really want to have true conversations about equity and move the needle and repair and close the gap, then I see no other way than to target resources.”
Bureaucracy is a point of consternation for many nonprofits like HOPICS, who are navigating a disjointed system of care.
“Bureaucrats are gonna bureaucrat,” Lewis said. “It's so pervasive. We understand the concept of one stop shops…why haven’t we figured out how to create these spaces and be consistent throughout our region.”
Lewis said long standing racism and systemic injustice has led Los Angeles to what she calls “the moment of reckoning.”
Lewis recognizes that thousands of lives have been saved because of voter approved measures like Proposition HHH, a fund to build permanent supportive housing, and Measure H, a sales tax used to fund homeless services. But for her, the process for getting that housing built quickly is another obstacle.
For councilmember Harris-Dawson, the problem comes from racism that sometimes hides behind classicism, like when near-vacant hotels didn’t want unhoused people staying alongside their regular guests during the pandemic.
“You know, Los Angeles has the position, spoken or unspoken, that Black people are pox on their house,” Harris-Dawson said. “The more common position is Black people have these problems, if only they would just improve their behavior. Then there’s another group of people who say Black people need help, but I don't want to do anything that will make me uncomfortable or make me have to give up something.”
Harris-Dawson also sees a more dangerous problem: People understand that Black people need help, but they don’t know what to do, which becomes an excuse to do nothing.
Incarceration and Homelessness
State Assemblymember Isaac Bryan, who represents neighborhoods that include Culver City, Baldwin Hills, Ladera Heights, and parts of South L.A. and Inglewood, has seen the struggles of unhoused people close up: his brother used to be unhoused in Sacramento.
Bryan said it’s something he doesn’t forget when he’s walking into the state capitol and talking about funding for homelessness.
“Because of the conditions [Black people] face being unhoused, being disproportionately incarcerated, having our kids disproportionately suspended and expelled from schools, having our neighborhoods changing more rapidly than others, having a higher rent burden than other communities, there’s a constellation of issues of failures impacting Black Los Angeles and Black Californians,” he said.
Bryan said more people should understand the effect incarceration has on the Black unhoused population. He said in 2010, there were 1 in 10 arrests by the LAPD of someone who was unhoused, but today it's nearly 1 in 4, while overall arrests have gone down.
We have to center people who are unhoused in the conversation. We center affluent neighbors, businesses, and a lot of people except for those on the streets.
“Arrests of unhoused people are going up counter to that trend,” Bryan said, citing data from Million Dollar Hoods, a research group at UCLA focused on policing and incarceration. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, although Black people are 8% of the population in L.A. County, they made up 29% of jail population, despite overall jail populations decreasing at the beginning of the pandemic.
Bryan said there is not one bill that will fix everything, but focusing on helping people who were incarcerated re-enter society helps.
“When people get out of prison, they are given $200 and we say ‘good luck’ when they need so much more,” he said, adding he is working on getting a bill passed that will establish a housing and workforce development program for people who are released from jail or prison.
The bill would allocate $200 million from the state to get people into housing.
“When they come home we don't provide housing or economic opportunity,” Bryan said. “In fact, we set up barriers that will lead to people falling into the street or housing insecurity.”
Involvement To Bring Solutions
Bryan said elected officials should be listening to people closest to the issues such as unhoused people, activists and advocates.
“The people closest to the problem are often closest to the solution,” he said.
For him, that’s the way to deal with the many obstacles Black people face while experiencing homelessness
“To pull out tens of thousands of unhoused Black people, incarcerated Black people, it will take all of us and some really strong allies,” Bryan said. “We have to center people who are unhoused in the conversation. We center affluent neighbors, businesses, and a lot of people except for those on the streets.”
L.A. City Councilmember Curren Price said when he sees Black unhoused people on the streets he sees himself.
“It is an area of conflict, but you can’t be paralyzed by that,” he said, adding that people need to have a better understanding of the challenges that come with solving the homelessness crisis.
But Price has hope.
“I gotta be positive, I gotta be optimistic, but I know we are dealing with people's feelings and emotions,” Price said. “It will be hard. It takes time.”
Sidnick Wilson, a 40-year-old Black woman, has been unhoused for three years and lives in Price’s district. She said she’s tried getting help before and outreach workers had previously been in touch, but she was overwhelmed by the bureaucracy and has resorted to just “sucking it up.”
Wilson was on the fence about going to the safe-camping site.
“I’m not willing to take just any place,” Wilson said. “People who have money just don’t stay anywhere either.”
Black people experiencing homelessness often feel pushed aside. Wilson compared it to being out of sight, out of mind.
“It makes me feel like if we look around, there won't be Black people here anymore…and it’s sad,” she said.