Recently, the LA Times has made a concerted effort to highlight L.A’s deplorable treatment of the city’s homeless, frustrated perhaps by the city’s inability to follow through on effective solutions to homelessness. If you have been reading the Times over the past few months, you may have noticed a series of stories with titles such as: “California’s housing crisis reaches from the homeless to the middle class – but it’s still almost impossible to fix,” “Southern California has the resources to solve homelessness. It chooses not to,” “Billions of dollars to help California’s homeless population are piling up – and going unspent” and “Homelessness in L.A,: A national disgrace that must be fixed.” The message is simple: the number of people without housing in L.A. is drastically increasing and there is little to no political willpower to solve the issue.
Measuring just how bad homelessness is in the LA area depends on how you define “homeless,” but one number says it all–75 percent. Over the past six years, the official homeless population has surged 75 percent, from 32,000 to 55,000. When including homeless counts from Glendale, Long Beach and Pasadena the total number is closer to 58,000.
Demographically, L.A.’s homeless population is racially skewed. According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) in 2016, Black Americans and Native Americans are disproportionately represented among L.A.’s homeless. Hispanic or Latino, Asian and White populations are underrepresented. Population trends among the homeless are similarly irregular. From 2016 to 2017 the amount of Hispanic or Latino and Black persons without housing grew by 63 percent and 28 percent, respectively. Their White counterparts experienced a 2 percent reduction.
Homelessness also disproportionately impacts members of the LGBTQ+ community. LGBTQ+ youth are particularly susceptible. According to the Williams Institute, the leading causes of homelessness among LGBTQ+ youth are familial rejection, eviction and physical, emotional or sexual abuse at home. Of the estimated 4,100 homeless youth aged 13 to 21 in L.A. between 800 and 1,660 are members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Recent history is littered with L.A.’s failure to adequately confront this growing epidemic. Housing is an essential feature and L.A. is one of the worst cities in the nation at providing housing for the homeless. According to the LA Times, fewer than 30 percent of shelters in L.A. County are open for year-round drop ins. At max capacity there are only enough beds to serve one in every three homeless persons. In fact, the Times reports that while the homeless population grew by 20 percent from 2009 to 2017, the total shelter bed count shrank by 33 percent. However, housing those without shelter is just one portion of a more dynamic and difficult issue — the housing crisis.
The rising cost of living in major cities across the nation has coincided with the growth of economic inequality in the U.S. Subsequently, affordable housing has become a major political issue, especially in a city such as L.A., which has become notorious for pricey housing and bourgeoisie taste. A 2017 study by Zillow Research reported that a 5 percent increase in median rent in L.A. would send roughly 2,000 people onto the streets. In 2015, median rent in L.A. increased by 4.2 percent. Moreover, the study drew a direct correlation between percent increases in the median rent and the number of people experiencing homelessness.
So, both institutional and systemic oppression and the skyrocketing costs of living have a substantial responsibility for the homelessness epidemic. Municipal and county government actions display the inability for local communities to find solutions to the ever-growing number of people unable to afford housing. Most plans for the homeless take the “leaf blower approach,” passing short-sighted and careless legislation to “deal” with those living on the street. Ordinances outlawing camping or the distribution of food to homeless people are just two examples of laws designed to make homeless life more and more difficult. They effectively criminalize those living without a home. Consequently, those who cannot afford housing are pushed from place to place. In the past, such policy has been considered par for the course. Recently, however, legal and social advocacy for homeless people has gained traction in the courts. A situation developing in Orange County highlights just this.
After receiving complaints about homeless encampments along the Santa Ana River trail, Orange County mass evicted some 700 homeless persons to be relocated in motels and shelters across Orange County. The problem is there is a chronic shelter shortage. Many homeless folk were given motel vouchers, but those vouchers have expiration dates. Orange County officials agreed to extend motel stays “on a case-by-case basis,” but also warned that the county decision was “not a blanket extension.”
Popular opinion is unsympathetic. The Times recently reported on a shelter proposal that faced such severe backlash from Huntington Beach residents that the idea was abandoned within two days. One of the most affluent counties in the U.S., the County of Orange is now mired in logistical issues that are preventing the construction of more shelters and the acquisition of additional low-income or transitional housing.
Los Angeles must face its habitual mistreatment of individuals living on the street. Reform starts with a shift in discourse about homeless folk. Language gives definition to social issues and characterizes the framing of solutions. Dominant discourse paints homelessness as an aggregate condition of individual failure. How many of us have heard that people lose housing because of addiction, laziness, criminality, mental illness, disability or because of a personal failure? I know I grew up hearing that. The truth is that an intersection of structural features linking race, class, gender, sexuality and identity construct the condition of homelessness. As a society we would do well to cut out the rhetoric and consider the root causes of homelessness.