HOMELESSNESS: Deepening, Dynamic and Dangerously URGENT

By Mark Ridley-Thomas

“God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas speaks at the 2019 Empowerment Congress Summit “Transforming Communities” with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the background.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Governor Gavin Newsom with Skid Row homeless encampments in the foreground and the downtown Los Angeles skyline in the background.

As you approach downtown, the skyline provides a stark illustration of the income and wealth gap in our region. Mere steps away from dozens of cranes looming above the gleaming towers of downtown, we find human beings living in utter squalor, subjected to unspeakable living situations. This jarring juxtaposition is visible in too many corners of our region, from Culver City to Claremont, and from San Pedro to Santa Monica.

In a County as prosperous as Los Angeles, and a State as wealthy as California, homelessness is a moral crisis which will define our civic legacy in the eyes of future generations. Los Angeles County’s most recent Homeless Point-in-Time Count estimated, that on any given night, over 58,900 people experienced homelessness, many of them families with young children.

Even more troubling is the fact that in Los Angeles, three-quarters of the people experiencing homelessness are sleeping in places not meant for human habitation – on any given night, 44,000 people are living on the street, on sidewalks and in vehicles.  These unhoused neighbors are elderly residents who couldn’t keep up with the rent, veterans returning from active duty, working parents with young children who are priced out of all available housing.  When you and I go to sleep tonight, we must remember that there are thousands bedding down in alleys, in makeshift shelters and in tents where there is no safe sleeping! 

This crisis is evident across California, as the most recent Homeless Point-in-Time Count results starkly illustrated in county after county.  From 2017-2019, the number of people experiencing homelessness increased from one end of the state to the other: 17% increase in San Francisco, 42% increase in Alameda, 19% increase in Sacramento, 64% increase in Kern, 45% increase in Ventura, and 43% increase in Orange County. From 2018-2019 there was a 12% increase in Los Angeles, 23% increase in San Bernardino, and a 21% increase in Riverside County—yes, in one year!

Source: Hub for Urban Initiatives

We are faced with a crisis that has been building for decades, driven by declining incomes and rising housing costs. From 2000-2015, the typical monthly rent in Los Angeles County increased 32%; however, the typical renter’s monthly income decreased 3% during the same period.  According to the California Housing Partnership, Los Angeles County needs over half a million (516,946) more affordable rental homes to meet current demand, and renters in Los Angeles County need to earn $47.52 per hour or $8,237 a month – more than 3 times the local minimum wage – to afford the median monthly asking rent of $2,471.

This means preschool teachers, medical assistants, emergency medical technicians, paramedics, nursing assistants, construction workers and many others with full-time jobs cannot afford to live in Los Angeles County.  Working families, adults, retired seniors and young people entering the job market are finding that the only housing choice affordable to them is their car or a recreational vehicle.

Demographics of Homelessness for the Second District
TOTAL: 19,123

Source: Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority – 2019 Homeless Count

Measure H to the Rescue

The problem is particularly acute in Los Angeles County’s Second District, which, over the last 10 years, has consistently accounted for nearly a third of the County’s homeless population.  As Supervisor of the Second District, I feel a moral imperative and political responsibility to immediately aid those who are still living on our streets, while recognizing that addressing this deeply entrenched problem will require going upstream.  This is why I championed Measure H, a 10-year sales tax generating an additional $355M annually dedicated to providing homeless services to combat this crisis head on and intensively.  Thanks to the generosity and compassion of the voters, who opened up their hearts and their wallets, Measure H was approved by 70% of the voters in March 2017, but it was only intended to be a “first step” in our fight against homelessness.

Measure H has allowed us to scale up existing good practices, like ensuring that formerly-homeless persons are connected to services, such as mental health services, medical services and substance use services.  We have ramped up our street outreach to more than 800 workers (from less than 50 workers just two years ago), including multidisciplinary street outreach teams that include nurses, substance use counselors, mental health clinicians and people who have experienced homelessness (peer counselors).  In the first 21 months of Measure H, outreach workers have newly engaged 15,890 people living on the streets.

We now have a baseline of over 16,000 interim housing beds, including but not limited to shelter beds for families, specialized bridge housing for women and young adults, and recuperative care beds for people experiencing homelessness that are being discharged from hospitals and clinics but still need ongoing medical care.  Last year alone, twenty-five thousand people were brought indoors into interim housing with services and over 21,000 people were transitioned out of homelessness.

A mere three months ago–May 2019, the Board of Supervisors approved $460 million for the third year of Measure H funding.

But in spite of all our great strides, which depends on intense collaboration among multiple public agencies and nonprofit organizations serving vulnerable and housing-insecure populations across the County, we still saw an increase in the homeless population this January.  For every 133 people we house every day, an entirely separate group of 150 people fall into homelessness each and every day. Regretfully, we are losing the battle at this rate.

Declaration of State of Emergency is Critical and the Right to Housing is Essential

We have to urgently accelerate our efforts because we are faced with an unmistakable State of Emergency.  In Los Angeles alone there are 58,900 reasons that compel us to act, and to act now.

It is at this point that our understanding of the right to housing is fundamentally linked to the Declaration of a State of Emergency. Homeless advocates and service providers have rightfully turned the heat up regarding what has often been referred to as the “right to shelter.”  For many it means “warehousing” but it is not what is intended by Mayor Darrell Steinberg or me. Instead, our intent is to express utter impatience with human beings languishing and even dying on the streets of California.

Perhaps a clearer way to understand our sense of urgency may be to appreciate the grounding of our perspective and advocacy. Consider the following:

The right to housing is recognized in a number of international human rights instruments. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the right to housing as a part of the right to an adequate standard of living.  It states that:

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

Let the constructive conversation begin in earnest as time is of the essence.

Yes, the call was made three years ago when there were 115,000 people in California–47,000 of whom languished in Los Angeles. Our cry fell on deaf ears in Governor Jerry Brown’s Administration and in the California State Senate. At that time only the California State Assembly stepped forward. Now that the crisis is objectively worse with a 14% increase in the same State that has risen to be the 5th largest economy in the world, it could not be clearer that extraordinary intervention is warranted.

Our critique should in no way be confused with the pejorative assessment of President Trump who bellowed, “Nearly all of the homeless people living in the streets in America happen to live in the state of California.” He then hurled a classic Trumpian nasty: “What they are doing to our beautiful California is a disgrace to our country. It’s a shame!” And then he insultingly adds, “Look at Los Angeles with tents, and the horrible, horrible disgusting conditions. Look at San Francisco, look at some of your cities.” Do you think he’s willing to do anything to be helpful?  I don’t!

Significant legal research is underway as to whether an emergency declared at the local or state level would be best or most effective.  In the meantime renewing the call to access at least $1 billion from the Special Fund for Economic Uncertainties is a critical start. This is in addition to the recent significant allocation made by the Newsom Administration through this year’s budget process. This could jumpstart implementation of statewide re-housing efforts, including street engagement, service triage, crisis housing, permanent housing navigation, rental subsidies, case management, and other innovations and interventions. We must have State agencies and personnel help provide housing assistance to homeless encampment hotspots and to set up emergency command posts and triage sites for the coordination of homeless service delivery. This collective action is critical if we are to get people off of our streets and into venues that honor their dignity and worth as human beings.

We must also get ahead of this crisis by preventing more individuals and families from falling into homelessness in the first place.  We need executive orders and legislation to stabilize the rental market by preventing price gouging in the marketplace and preventing renters from being evicted without just cause.

Finally, we should call forth a “Strike Team” to develop long-term and short-term plans to confront this unrelenting crisis with an emphasis on empowering and tasking local jurisdictions to sustain the work once the state of emergency is lifted.

Local Empowerment and Accountability is Key

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas joins Governor Gavin Newsom, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf at the Henry Robinson Multi-Service Center transitional housing facility in Oakland, California before announcing the Statewide Task Force on Homelessness. Photo by Michael Short / Board of Supervisors

Speaking of local jurisdictions, LA needs to identify available land, vacant properties and other assets that can be converted immediately into “safe sleeping zones” and temporary housing with services.  That’s to ensure that 44,000 people don’t have to default to the sidewalk as a real estate solution in Los Angeles County.

We need to triple our local rental assistance funds so that we can move even more people from tents into affordable places to live.  We need to ensure that people who have been stably housed for decades do not suddenly find themselves without recourse when their rents skyrocket from one month to the next.  I’m talking about the 86-year old woman with her 62-year old autistic son who was evicted from her home after 20 years because her new landlord raised the rent beyond her income capabilities.

Further, we need to examine and overturn any barriers that prevent us from expanding our housing solutions, including innovative models like prefabricated homes and unlocking the potential of spare bedrooms.

Thankfully, we have a strong ally at the State level in the person of Governor Gavin Newsom.  He has stepped up by providing an unprecedented $650 million statewide for a variety of homeless programs.  He has also created a statewide task force on homelessness and supportive housing, to which he has appointed strong leaders and experienced advocates from across California to unapologetically confront this vexing issue.

Hard work lies ahead.  It will require nothing less than a data-driven, community-centered, public reckoning at all levels. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it and I embrace it: “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” That struggle is urgent now and we must gather the courage and the compassion to act accordingly.

Mark Ridley-Thomas is a Los Angeles County Supervisor and was recently appointed Co-Chair by Governor Gavin Newsom to the Statewide Task Force on Homelessness and Supportive Housing.