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In Los Angeles, the Poor People’s Campaign Makes a Powerful Case for Housing as a Human Right

From skyrocketing rents to the lack of public toilets on Skid Row, women who’ve experienced poverty and homelessness offer valuable insights for policymakers--but are they listening?

Saturday’s two-hour event, which interspersed the women’s testimony with song, prayer, and calls to action, laid bare the human cost of L.A.’s housing crisis. (Photo: Poor People's Campaign)

Saturday’s two-hour event, which interspersed the women’s testimony with song, prayer, and calls to action, laid bare the human cost of L.A.’s housing crisis. (Photo: Poor People's Campaign)

When Silvia Hernandez first immigrated to California over two decades ago, she worked tirelessly to support her family. After holding jobs in sweatshops, factories, and housekeeping, she pursued a cosmetology license and began doing hair professionally. She was well aware that the “place where I was coming from and my skin color” meant she “had to work harder than other people if I wanted to make money.

But when she became sick and was unable to work, the life she’d built fell apart. Following an eviction, she applied for “all the housing programs available” and sought out medical care, but “the system didn’t give me any other choices but to go to Skid Row,” the 50-square-block area of downtown Los Angeles that is home to several thousand unhoused people. There, she heard similar stories from numerous other women--mostly Black and Latina--and realized she “couldn’t stay as a witness anymore without doing something.” Today, Silvia directs her energy toward advocating on behalf of the Skid Row community “to make our struggles visible, to fight for our rights, and to win.

Last Saturday, SIlvia told her story before a crowd of around 100 at the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), an organization located on Skid Row that works in partnership with people in poverty to build political power and hold elected officials accountable. LA CAN’s model focuses on organizing Skid Row residents, undertaking “participatory action research” to identify community needs, and advocating for stronger housing and anti-poverty policies. The event was co-hosted by LA CAN and the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC), the revitalized, multiracial movement to end poverty that has been hosting events and engaging in direct actions around the country since its relaunch earlier this year.

The event, one in a series of “Poor People’s Hearings” the PPC is co-organizing nationwide, focused on the experiences of homeless women and children. According to the 2018 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, women and girls account for 31% of the nearly 53,000 homeless people in L.A. County; 9% of those experiencing homelessness are children. The Homeless Count finds that the number of unhoused women in L.A. dropped by about 4% from 2017 to 2018--the first drop in four years. At the same time, 9000 people newly became homeless last year, and overall homelessness increased a staggering 49% in the five years prior, coinciding with Democratic Mayor Eric Garcetti’s term in office.

Analyzing the 2015 Homeless Count numbers, UCLA law professor emeritus Gary Blasi found that homelessness among white Angelenos had decreased 30%, while Black homelessness went up 35%.

The overall numbers also mask massive racial disparities and troubling trends. Analyzing the 2015 Homeless Count numbers, UCLA law professor emeritus Gary Blasi found that homelessness among white Angelenos had decreased 30%, while Black homelessness went up 35%. In 2015, 1 in 47 Black women in Los Angeles were homeless.

What’s more, other evidence suggests these statistics could very well be an underestimate. The Los Angeles Unified School District reported that 71,727 of its students were “homeless-identified” in 2016-2017, meaning that they lacked a “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” These students are among the more than 300,000 school-age children without permanent housing across the state, who comprise around 23% of the homeless students in the country. Over the past few weeks, the L.A. Times has been reporting on some of these families, and the “hidden” homelessness of the L.A. suburbs: families living in garages without running water, shuffling their belongings from one motel room to the next, or sleeping six people to a room.

Saturday’s hearing underscored how these kinds of precarious living situations have become the norm for hundreds of thousands of families across L.A. County--even if they’ve yet to become “unhoused” on the streets, the term for homelessness favored by housing rights advocates (in the words of Pastor Cue, a Skid Row faith leader who participated in the event, “I like to say ‘houselessness’ ‘cause Skid row is home for a lot of us”).

Across L.A., median rents have outpaced median incomes for decades, while families in gentrifying neighborhoods have been effectively evicted by rent hikes as high as 80%.

For Noemi Flores, a single mother of three who’s been working at McDonald’s for six years, the recent increases in the minimum wage have made a difference, but were quickly surpassed by increases in rent and food costs. Her experiences reflect a broader dynamic: across L.A., median rents have outpaced median incomes for decades, while families in gentrifying neighborhoods have been effectively evicted by rent hikes as high as 80%. Even much smaller rent increases can make a difference between stable housing and living on the streets. According to a 2017 study, a 5 percent rent increase is associated with 2000 L.A. families newly becoming homeless.

Even among those who’ve secured one of the few remaining spots in public housing (L.A. provides just 14 public housing facilities, compared to 326 in New York), for some, staying there has required struggle--and the stakes are high. In 1996, Ana Hernandez learned that the public housing community where she lived was scheduled for demolition. Only after 36 families organized to fight back, eventually forming the organization Union de Vecinos, did the city back down. As Hernandez recounted, the Housing Authority told the families that they could get Section 8 vouchers after their homes were demolished, but failed to mention that the vouchers had expiration dates, and that some landlords would refuse to accept them. Although California is one of the few states to prohibit “source of income” discrimination, the courts have clarified that this does not apply to Section 8. According to a recent study from the Urban Institute, 76% of landlords in L.A. refuse to even consider Section 8 tenants.

Overall, the primary causes and consequences of homelessness for women and children in L.A. are the same as those facing all low-income Angelenos: skyrocketing rents, the lack of permanent affordable housing, and a broader community that expresses concern about homelessness, but seems to prefer above all that the problem be rendered invisible.

Overall, the primary causes and consequences of homelessness for women and children in L.A. are the same as those facing all low-income Angelenos: skyrocketing rents, the lack of permanent affordable housing, and a broader community that expresses concern about homelessness, but seems to prefer above all that the problem be rendered invisible. In 2016, voters approved Measure HHH, a $1.2 billion bond funded through property taxes to build 10,000 units of permanent, affordable housing. As of October 2018, however, just 615 units had been funded, falling far short of the 1000 units promised per year. In the meantime, more immediately impactful and complementary approaches to the housing crisis have met with popular resistance and political apathy.

For example, over the past few months, residents of wealthier neighborhoods have rallied against a proposal to build temporary shelters in all 15 City Council districts, voicing concerns about safety and the impacts on their property values. In others, “hostile architecture”—such as park benches with dividers that discourage sleeping, or large new planters on areas of the sidewalk frequented by unhoused people--is on the rise. In the midterms, a ballot measure that would have allowed California cities to enact reasonable limits on rent increases failed, following a massive disinformation campaign funded almost exclusively by corporate landlords. Smaller victories at the local level--including recent rent freezes in Glendale and L.A.’s unincorporated neighborhoods--signal that momentum for bigger reforms is still building. For now, however, most L.A. residents face the persistent risk of being priced out of their homes.

Compounding these citywide dynamics, women are more vulnerable to some causes of homelessness, and also face some specific barriers once they lose housing. Around 6% of the total unhoused population became homeless as a result of domestic violence, which, in L.A. as everywhere, disproportionately affects women. Mothers who become homeless also face the very real risk of being separated from their children, temporarily or permanently. Although around 5000 shelter beds are available to women with children, families with older children may be separated by gender, while women experiencing homelessness frequently lose their children to foster care. For Kathy Klein, whose testimony was shared on Saturday by Sidney Ross Risden of Every Mother is a Working Mother, an organization that advocates for the compensation of unpaid caregiving work, becoming homeless meant losing custody of her son for four years--even after she’d obtained a two-bedroom apartment in Pasadena. Only once he aged out of the foster system were they able to reunite.

The daily living conditions of homelessness can also have specific consequences for women.  On Skid Row, the lack of clean water and accessible toilets is a public health crisis, which has contributed to recent deadly outbreaks of Hepatitis A. As LA CAN reported in 2017, around 1800 residents have to share just nine portable toilets. According to Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty who attended a “Skid Row Town Hall” last year, this provision “failed to meet even the minimum standards the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees sets for refugee camps.” While a crisis for all Skid Row residents, for women, as highlighted by LA CAN’s community research, the lack of bathrooms heightens the risk of urinary tract infections, which can quickly lead to more serious health problems, as well as other preventable conditions. And even when Skid Row’s bathrooms are equipped with toilet paper, they almost never include sanitary products.

Meanwhile, Skid Row residents are commonly arrested for public urination, alongside other low-level offenses. According to the L.A. Times, between 2011 and 2016, overall arrests by the LAPD decreased 15%; for the unhoused, arrests went up 31%. Among the 14,000 homeless people arrested in 2016, two-thirds were Black or Latinx, while the top five charges were for non-violent or minor offenses.

Saturday’s two-hour event, which interspersed the women’s testimony with song, prayer, and calls to action, laid bare the human cost of L.A.’s housing crisis. At the same time, it made clear that the solutions are known: increasing the supply of permanent affordable housing; ending the criminalization of poverty and homelessness; increasing wages and strengthening the safety net for all, regardless of immigration status; and checking the ability of landlords to raise rents indiscriminately, which inevitably leads to displacement and has among the worst consequences for children.

Both LA CAN and the Poor People’s Campaign are providing a roadmap for reclaiming housing as a human right, rather than a commodity, and treating homelessness as the human rights and public health crisis it is.

The hearing also further underscored that the communities experiencing homelessness and precarious housing situations are best positioned to articulate their own needs--an idea that should be common sense. By continuously sharing testimony and evidence from people’s lived experiences of poverty and homelessness, both LA CAN and the Poor People’s Campaign are providing a roadmap for reclaiming housing as a human right, rather than a commodity, and treating homelessness as the human rights and public health crisis it is.

But it’s up to policymakers to listen. According to Margaret Prescod, a longtime activist and member of the PPC who helped organize Saturday’s event, at least 10-12 elected officials were personally invited to attend. In the end, staff members for just two officials showed up: Rep. Maxine Waters and Rep. Karen Bass. People who’ve experienced poverty have critical insights to offer those who are genuinely interested in crafting solutions. If elected leaders are serious about advancing social and economic justice in the years to come, at every level of policymaking, honest conversations with those who will be mostly deeply affected must be a core component of their approach.

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Aleta Sprague

Aleta Sprague is a writer based in Los Angeles and a program fellow with the Family-Centered Social Policy program at New America.

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