Column: There’s no way California can solve homelessness without supporting reparations

Lawmakers speak in front of a podium inside the state Capitol.
Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) speaks about a package of reparations legislation at a press conference at the state Capitol.
(Sophie Austin / Associated Press)

It’s hard for some Californians — maybe many — to wrap their heads around the idea that the homelessness we see on our streets has any connection to slavery.

We are California, after all, supposedly a “free” state. We like to think of ourselves as far away in both ideology and from the brutality that built the South — although slavery was common during our Gold Rush era, ensnaring not only Black people, but also Latinos and Indigenous communities.

But researchers at the respected UC San Francisco Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative have no doubts that the historical trafficking of 12 million Black people to American shores is directly tied to the Black poverty and pain on our West Coast streets today.


“The overrepresentation of Black people in the homeless population arises from 400 years of anti-Black racism entrenched in the structures, institutions, ideologies, and social norms of American life, starting with slavery,” the researchers said in a study released recently.

Instead of a cohesive strategy to compensate Black people for slavery, lawmakers are pushing a confusing list of bills on which they don’t all agree.

Feb. 2, 2024

That’s a fierce bit of truth-telling that may shock those who haven’t been paying attention to discussions about reparations — the need to make right the wrongs of systemic racism and compensate Black people for the lasting harms of slavery. But for those who followed California’s reparations task force and for most Black Americans, the findings are hardly groundbreaking.

Slavery turned into Jim Crow laws and lynchings in the South. To escape, Black people fled to the North and, yes, the West. Yet, upon their arrival, redlining and a refusal to invest in Black communities led to generations of state-enforced poverty and a lack of housing that builds wealth and stability.

Poverty became an excuse for surveillance and criminalization — including violent over-policing, child protective services breaking apart families and the mass incarceration of Black men. And here we are, with Black Americans in such an economically and socially precarious situation that a single misfortune can end in homelessness.

“This didn’t just happen by accident and it didn’t just happen because there were a few bad people. This was organized,” said Margot Kushel, head of the Benioff initiative and one of the authors of the study, which recommends that reparations in the form of cash payments are needed to combat homelessness in the Black community.

“This is the strongest case for reparations, right?” she said. “That feels like a conversation that, if we are being honest, we need to have.”


It’s certainly the case being made by California’s Legislative Black Caucus. Last week, the members gathered in Sacramento for a news conference to formally announce 14 bills they plan to introduce and back this year, in hopes of turning the recommendations of California’s reparations task force into actionable laws and policies.

“This is a massive undertaking, so you can expect a package year after year until our work is done,” explained Assemblymember Lori D. Wilson (D-Suisun City), chair of the Legislative Black Caucus. “Some will be systemic in nature. Some will require direct investments in people or communities. All will require the support of the Legislature and the governor.”

One of the initial bills calls for a formal apology from the state, another demands compensation for land seized in racist acts of eminent domain like Bruce’s Beach, and another would ban involuntary servitude, namely in prisons where inmates are often forced to do work for pennies an hour.

All draw a direct line between the dire conditions currently faced by millions of Black Californians — including homelessness and housing insecurity — and the baggage of decades of discrimination. The members of the Legislative Black Caucus were clearly tired and unmoved by the many excuses that have been given for why reparations can’t become a reality.

“Our state needs to address those harms,” Wilson said matter-of-factly.

“America’s wealth was built by the forced labor of trafficked African people and their descendants, who were all bought and sold as commodities,” said Assemblymember Akilah Weber (D-La Mesa). “America’s government at all levels allowed or participated in exploiting, abusing, terrorizing and murdering people of African descent so that mostly white Americans [could] profit from their enslavement.”

“This Legislature allowed slave owners to bring their enslaved property so long as they arrived here before 1850,” said Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), scoffing at the frequent pushback that reparations aren’t owed because California wasn’t a slave state. “Then the California State Supreme Court said slave owners are OK, as long as they only stay temporarily. That’s not freedom.”


But it was perhaps Assemblymember Corey Jackson (D-Perris) who best summed up the case for reparations — the same case made by Kushel and born out by her team’s research.

“We have to understand that the era of the colorblind society is a failure,” he said. “If you can’t see us, you can’t serve us.”

The fantasy that race doesn’t matter, embedded into law via Proposition 209, is one reason why California has been spinning its wheels on homelessness. It likely will continue to do so — spending billions of tax dollars — until lawmakers and the governor start addressing the causes and policy decisions affecting those most likely to end up on the street.

While Black people make up about 7% of California’s population, they represent 26% of those without permanent homes, according to data pulled from the California Statewide Study of People Experiencing Homelessness . This will come as no surprise to anyone who has taken a stroll through Skid Row.

Yes, we need more housing. And yes, we need more services.

But what of the roughly 75% of those Black unhoused Californians who are men, many of whom came directly out of a long stay in county jail or a stint in prison? They were released with maybe a couple hundreds bucks from the state and few if any options other than a quick slide into homelessness.

It’s a demographic Kushel points out should be easier to help because we know who they are and where they are before they become unhoused. We just choose not to do it.


What of the 80% of the Black people living on our streets who simply lost their housing? They were hit with an illness, for example, or a job loss, discrimination from landlords unwilling to rent to those with poor credit or complicated histories. Half are over the age of 50, facing their senior years without shelter.

And what of the fact that most of the Black people living without homes came from extreme poverty? Those who had a place of their own, their name on a lease before losing shelter, made about $1,200 a month. Those who were living off the grace of others were earning only about $960 a month.

Not all Black people are poor, of course. Far from it. But because of the lasting harms of slavery and discriminatory housing policies, poverty is still disproportionately predictable among Black people — and not just in California.

The median white family had $184,000 in wealth in 2019 compared with just $23,000 for the comparable Black family, according to the study. And, throughout the pandemic, the racial wealth gap has actually increased, for a difference that now tops $240,000.

Unsurprisingly, home ownership numbers are just as bleak. Census data from 2023 found 75% of white households owned their homes. Just 45% of Black households owned theirs — up just 3% from 1960, when it was legal to discriminate against Black homebuyers in California.

While many elected officials have been wringing their hands about the nexus of addiction, poverty and homelessness, it’s worth noting that Black people were statistically less likely to report abusing hard drugs than other demographics, despite the stereotypes and the criminalization.


That so many Black people were forced into homelessness without the extra push from substance abuse struck Kushel as another example of just how precarious Black existence can be. “It takes less to tip them into homelessness,” she said.

Members of the board gathered to put forward a resolution that takes responsibility for the history of discrimination against Black San Franciscans.

Feb. 16, 2024

To counter this, the UCSF researchers are proposing cash payments as one possible solution.

Kara Young Ponder, the study’s lead author, said most homeless Black Californians told the researchers that ongoing payments of less than $500 a month (similar to a guaranteed income) or a one-time, lump-sum payment of $5,000 or $10,000 could get them into housing. The latter is about what’s necessary for the deposit and first month’s rent on an apartment.

But beyond the simple need for money shared by all homeless people, Young Ponder said that Black people also reported facing anti-Black bias within the system of homeless services — less help in every area from housing coordinators to medical providers.

“They are still being treated differently than people of other races,” Young Ponder said, making the cash payments a critical way of “circumventing” discrimination.

In the context of reparations, the idea of cash payments has been controversial — to put it mildly. A poll conducted by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and and co-sponsored by The Times found that California voters oppose such payments by a 2-to-1 margin for Black people whose ancestors were enslaved.


“It has a steep uphill climb, at least from the public’s point of view,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll, said after it was released in August.

With a state budget deficit that could soon hit $73 billion, there are financial constraints, too.

Wilson acknowledged this is one reason why she and other Black lawmakers decided to forgo asking for cash payments now. But the bigger reason, she said, was the lack of public knowledge about why reparations are even necessary and fears that a bill asking for the most unpopular form of it would fail, dealing a blow to what is fast becoming a national movement.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” Weber said. “I am a Californian born and raised. And I thought all these issues happened in the South, I had no idea of the things that California had done.”

But members of the Legislative Black Caucus have not ruled out a bill asking for cash payments in the future. That California’s laws and policies have systemically oppressed Black people economically is undeniable, they say — and they are right.

Kushel, Young Ponder and their fellow researchers at the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative are only the latest to prove that Black people have been purposefully excluded from wealth and stability, and that reparations may be needed to fix the hardship that has caused. The only question is when Californians are going to start believing it.

“America’s original sin is the genocide and enslavement of human beings,” said Jones-Sawyer. “America’s second greatest sin is watching it happen, and pretending that it never did.”