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Racism is the reason Black people are disproportionately homeless in L.A., report shows

 A protester hands a homeless man a bottle of water.
A protester hands Isaac D., who is homeless, a bottle of water in the 2nd Street tunnel on June 4 in downtown Los Angeles.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

No one can walk past block after block of tents on skid row, or lift the tarps clinging to Hollywood’s freeway offramps, and fail to notice the outsized presence of Black people living on Los Angeles’ sidewalks and encampments.

But despite official acknowledgments that systemic racism is driving homelessness — and a major study on how to address it — the persistent and staggering over-representation of Black people in L.A.’s homeless ranks barely budged this year, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s homeless count report released Friday.

According to a draft report, 21,509 Black people were without permanent, habitable housing during the count in January — 34% of Los Angeles’ homeless population of 64,000 (Pasadena, Long Beach and Glendale do their own counts, bringing the county homeless total to 66,000).

The Black share of homelessness has hovered for years around that percentage point, in a county where only 8% of residents are African American.

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Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent to curb homelessness, the number of people without a home in Los Angeles grew for the fifth time in the past six years, officials announced Friday.

The draft report on the count found that about 16,000 homeless people were white and 23,000 were Latino. The homeless authority says that Black people are four times more likely to be homeless than white people; retired UCLA law professor Gary Blasi, a homelessness expert, said the likelihood for Black people to become homeless is 10 times greater than for white people.

The numbers released Friday predate the coronavirus crisis, which has unleashed a cataract of unemployment and potential evictions that Blasi said could hurl 36,000 primarily Latino and Black households, including 56,000 children, into homelessness.

The deluge would come when the Judicial Council of California lifts an eviction moratorium imposed April 6 and scheduled to last until 90 days after the state’s COVID-19 state of emergency ends. Black and Latino families in Los Angeles will be hit hard because even before COVID-19, many spent much of their incomes on rent, and they are self-employed, rely on informal employment such as street vending or are undocumented and aren’t getting unemployment insurance or other aid.

Los Angeles is starting to address the forces behind the racial disparity in the city’s homeless population. It would be hard to find a purer example than an encampment of black people who live under a freeway in Pacoima.

“If you are Latino you have the highest probability of being unemployed because of this crisis, and Latinos make up half the population in the county,“ said former L.A. city administrative officer Miguel Santana, who is heading a committee to guide the region out of the pandemic crisis. Santana has also led the Citizens Oversight Committee, which oversees Proposition HHH homeless housing bond spending.

“For us, COVID has unmasked the underlying realities that exist within these communities and exposed how significant the disparities are and how our institutions are failing to respond to them,” Santana said. “Homelessness is the most deadly and stark example of institutional failure that exists.”

City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, whose district includes historically Black neighborhoods in Southwest L.A., issued a statement that also drew a line between the pandemic and homelessness.

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“The disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having on Black communities has revived much-needed conversations around the cost of racism in this country,” he said. “We desperately need to reinvest our resources into Black communities to prevent the types of disparities we continue to see when it comes to homelessness.”

He called for passage of a resolution declaring racism as a public health crisis in Los Angeles, but also said the problem “cannot be solved quickly or locally. We need the federal government to acknowledge and address how slavery and systematic racism contribute to these outcomes.”

In a presentation on the count, Heidi Marston, the homeless authority’s executive director, repeatedly said systemic racism is behind the inequities in homelessness. A 2018 report by a homeless authority-appointed commission on Black people without housing called homelessness “a byproduct of racism” and detailed structural barriers in education, criminal justice, housing, employment, healthcare and access to opportunities.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti cited a string of legislation, propositions and educational reforms targeting Black and Latino communities that he backed to help address the imbalance but said the city, and the homeless services system, can’t fix the problems on their own.

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“I don’t think that we’ll see huge percentage changes by asking people at the end of the line to clean up every wrong that’s happened along the line,” Garcetti said.

But Santana and Pete White of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, a skid row anti-poverty group, said government hasn’t mustered sufficient urgency and political will to root out homelessness policy failures.

White, a member of the LAHSA commission on Black people and homelessness, said the way authorities prioritize people for homeless housing disadvantages his community. “It doesn’t check for the fact that African Americans still have problems talking about our mental health issues,” he said.

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The commission found it took longer for Black people to get housing, and less time for them to be evicted for breaking rules, White said. Authorities have never invested to bring the capacity and infrastructure of nonprofit agencies in South Los Angeles to levels seen in Santa Monica and Venice, despite the neighborhood’s large Black homeless population, White said.

Those groups don’t lack “the passion for doing everything they can to take care of folks,” White said. “They don’t have the infrastructure to do the bureaucratic things asked of them by government sources.”

Earlier this year, local officials launched Project Roomkey to place thousands of homeless people in L.A. hotels and motels to shelter them from the pandemic.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s goal was to lease 15,000 hotel rooms to house homeless people vulnerable to the coronavirus. But only half are occupied, records show.

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The selection process for the rooms appeared to be shorting Black and Latino people, Santana said, so the homeless authority changed its methodology and brought the numbers into alignment with the region’s racial makeup, Santana said.

“But that was done in the interest of the general public, not of people experiencing homelessness,” he said.

“At this point there’s a big failure on the part not just of LAHSA,” White said. “It’s a failure of political leadership to activate things.

“We are duty bound to move now, not to try to study it some more, not to figure out the best way forward, but to make some definitive steps in fulfilling the goals we have,” White said.


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