More than half of America’s homeless populations are Blacks, despite making up only 13% of the general population.
We may have left slavery behind, but segregation practices and near-slavery policies continue to deny African American communities the rights to good living and socio-economic opportunities in the most systemic ways possible.
The True Cause Of Homelessness
Perhaps the earliest examples of how race, poverty, and criminalization of homelessness can be traced to the vagrancy laws and Southern Black codes that allowed authorities to arrest anyone unemployed.
The Great Depression further worsened this, followed by the 1950s and 60’s regulations to decrease crowding and enhance living conditions alongside the deinstitutionalization of mental health patients, ultimately leaving many vulnerable people homeless.
Later, in the 70’s disinvestment in public housing and other housing programs further forced many low-income people into perilous conditions. It is a given fact that housing programs such as HUD have never reached 50% of their 1978 budget.
Dismantling the welfare state, which consisted of reducing public assistance for families, alongside restrictions on work requirements for food stamps, have further stumped many households.
Deindustrialization also created a ‘service’ class of people living from paycheck to paycheck, further widening economic inequalities.
Many more forces since the 1980’s such as mass incarceration, the AID’s crisis, drug epidemics, and increasing medical costs, have further locked many, especially Blacks and Latinos, out of better job opportunities and housing markets.
Further compounding the causes of homelessness are gentrification cycles; coupled with strict zoning laws which have further made it impossible for lower-income people to find better housing in places with job opportunities.
Many past beneficiaries of some ‘affordable’ housing structures lament the state of disarray. Many government-owned complexes are in deep need of renovation as situations ranging from rodent infestations, hazardous wiring, mold, to faulty heating systems are the order of the day.
Nevertheless, many of the individuals subject to such living conditions fear that renovations may also lead to a cycle of gentrification and displacement, which has been the case throughout history.
Redevelopment and gentrification activities instituted by cities where low-income neighborhoods are declared blighted and demolished to pave the way for projects that generate higher property taxes and other revenues, has further exacerbated an even higher shortage of housing affordable to low income working families, the elderly poor, and the disabled.
The lack of space for new affordable housing alongside the sprawl of single-family homes has led to community displacements, high housing costs, and the growing numbers of super commuters – people who commute a significant distance to work each day because they cannot afford to live nearby.
Temporary Solutions Are Not Enough
Californians spend a larger share of their income on rent than any other household across America.
About 2.5 million low-income households are cost-burdened as they spend over 30 percent of their income on housing. Within these numbers, 1.5 million low-income renters in California spend over half of their income on housing. Yet, in some cities, the numbers are even higher.
In L.A alone, at least 600,000 inhabitants spend over 90 percent of their income on rent. This of course stems from all of these different contributing factors we outlined above. However, the lack of affordable housing remains a core contributor to the cause of homelessness.
Will creating more affordable homes solve this issue of homelessness? The short answer is no, considering that the most affordable housing in California is still unaffordable to the homeless and/or unhoused! As long as the systematic disparities persist as it relates to housing options, homelessness will continue to be America’s most prominent human rights issue.
We had seen what happened to communities of color in the past when housing was seen as a commodity. During the foreclosure crisis, over 42% of homes were purchased by investors who flipped properties for the highest profit, further increasing housing instabilities.
Now history repeats itself as the COVID-19 pandemic exposes and worsens the situation of many.
Many low-income Black households work in many industries that have suffered the brunt of the economic recession that COVID-19 has brought to light. Therefore, many who could afford even the worse housing structures before now are at the brink of homelessness.
Emergency shelters are no longer enough. Physical distancing, which is a requirement to reduce COVID-19 cases, makes it impossible for emergency shelters to accept the number of families previously allowed.
The coronavirus has also forced many without homes or even access to emergency shelters to live in the only ‘home’ they have, that being tent encampments, riverbanks, freeways, and sidewalks.
The Fight Begins From The Root
Even so, we must realize that homelessness is a product of racism and detailed structural barriers in criminal justice, education, housing, employment, healthcare, and access to opportunities.
Therefore, we should no longer consider emergency services, such as hot meals, shelter beds, and psychiatric counseling, as acceptable temporary solutions. They are not enough and will never be.
We have a responsibility to assess the real causes of racism and homelessness in our country. It is essential to reinvest resources (political and monetary) into our communities, especially communities of color, to prevent the disparities we continue to see regarding homelessness.
When we deal with the real causes of California’s perpetual housing crisis, then we say goodbye to homelessness in the state.
It should not be forgotten that the lack of better pay is also a contributing factor to homelessness. America’s Black communities predominantly work in low-paying jobs, so they cannot afford the rents in areas where their workplaces are located.
Therefore, combating homelessness demands a multifaceted approach that will equally require all government arms, and charitable organizations alongside individuals like you and I. We must come together to make homelessness a thing of the past.
Indeed, it may seem as though homelessness is someone else’s issue, but it affects us all. Homelessness leads to crime and safety issues, blight, unavailability of healthcare resources, and puts a strain on the use of tax dollars. So no matter how apart it seems we are from its consequences, we all face the consequences.
The question is, how are the Black Elected Officials, Black Policymakers, Black Faith Leaders, and Black Advocates stepping up to address this issue on behalf of the Black Homeless population in California? Where is our collective agenda and what exactly is our plan? In so many policy areas we aren’t moving the needle, or making measurable impact because we don’t have a collective agenda or a sound plan.