A homeless man sleeps on a bench in Palisades Park.

By Va Lecia Adams Kellum, Ph.D.

Homelessness touches every community and every population in Los Angeles County: no one is immune. Black people, however, are disproportionately affected, representing 40% of the Country’s population experiencing homelessness in 2017 while making up 9% of the total population. As Black History Month begins, it is important to recognize that along with honoring leaders and profound figures from our past, the country must also reckon with a legacy of entrenched inequality. Institutional racism effects nearly every corner of our society—from education and the criminal justice system, to housing and access to economic opportunities. The continuing impact of our country’s long history of inequity and racism is a primary cause of the epidemic of homelessness among Black people.

Recognizing this disparity, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) formed the Ad Hoc Committee on Black People Experiencing Homelessness last year. The term “Black” was chosen intentionally in naming this committee as a term that is inclusive of African Americans as well as Black Africans and others who identify as Black. The committee’s mandate was to gain a better understanding of the factors contributing to this crisis and to make specific recommendations on how to eliminate disparities within the homeless crisis response system that disproportionately impact Black people experiencing homelessness. The larger purpose, of course, is racial equity, which the Committee defines as “the condition that would be achieved if one’s racial identity no longer predicted, in a statistical sense, how one fares.” In other words, to foster a society where being Black does not predispose a person to homelessness, harm, and/or poverty.

Beginning in spring 2018, the Committee held meetings throughout LA County to hear testimony from Black people with lived experience of homelessness. The Committee also sought input from service organizations and other community members who could provide insight. The organization I lead, St. Joseph Center, hosted two of these meeting – one at our South LA office and one on the Westside. At every convening, people shared candidly about their own experiences facing homelessness in LA County. Feelings sometimes grew raw as men and women described how systems designed to help people had instead disappointed and failed them. The same theme emerged repeatedly: racism. We simply cannot escape the role that racism plays in causing and perpetuating homelessness.

The Ad Hoc Committee also examined systemic issues and determined that the mounting affordable housing crisis, paired with persistently low and stagnating wages, often exacerbates homelessness, and particularly affects Black people. The disproportionately high rate of incarceration among Black people also creates a revolving door that only makes the plight of homelessness for Black Los Angelinos more challenging. Even the range and quality of services that are available to Black men, women, and families plays into this complex problem. Since the quality of shelters can vary greatly, Black people from poorer neighborhoods often end up in ill-equipped shelters. Living in sub-standard conditions can be very traumatic, and only deepens this community’s challenges.

The Committee’s report contains 70 recommendations, from improving cultural competency to changing how agencies respond to people of color experiencing homelessness. One suggestion we can all put into practice is caring. When the committee asked of community members, “What might have kept you from becoming homeless?” participants in different words, said the same thing: “Having someone who cared about me.”

Systemic change is never easy or fast. It will require support not only from funders, policymakers, service providers, and community partners, but also from all of us as individuals. During Black History Month, while we recall the visionaries from the past, let us also embrace the change we need in the present to make our community more fair, equitable, and just for everyone.

 

Va Lecia Adams Kellum, Ph.D. is President & CEO of St. Joseph Center.

 

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