The population of homeless people in Los Angeles County has exploded to 59,000 in recent years. A report by California Healthline and Kaiser Health News in April 2019 revealed that more than 3,600 homeless people have died on the streets of Los Angeles in four years; 4 out of 5 were men, but with the number of women who have died doubling in that time.
Over the holiday, local television news has been full of stories about charitable organizations serving hot meals. The staff of service organizations with limited budgets hustled on their outreach to try to get people off the streets and into shelters when lower temperatures, wind and rain hit. They may have made a small dent in the problem, but those extra efforts are not everyday occurrences and now, as in many areas of the U.S., three-quarters of the county’s homeless will resume “sleeping rough” — on sidewalks or in tents.
Until recent years, Los Angeles’ homeless population has been concentrated in the famed 50-block Skid Row neighborhood and in South L.A. Due to spiking rent costs and consistently low wages, the rapid swelling of homelessness has generated tent cities in many neighborhoods, town and city alike — far from shelters and other services.
California has the largest homeless population in the U.S., particularly Southern California. An April 2019 Point-In-Time count for San Diego County showed 8,000 homeless, with more than 5,000 living on the streets. San Diego has the highest rate of formerly homeless people ending up homeless again. The same survey showed a 40 percent increase in the homeless population in Orange County, the densely populated area between the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego.
Of the homeless population in L.A. County, 19 percent are disabled. Nearly 18,000 are students in Los Angeles public schools. About 15 percent are women with children. African American homelessness, already disproportionately high, increased by 22 percent over the last two years. According to L.A. County, 35 percent of the homeless population are Latinx, but they caution that as immigrant bashing and deportations have ratcheted up, the pervasive fear of going near any government office likely means that that number is a significant undercount. Both of these high percentages are associated with early release from California’s racist prison system due to overcrowding. Of the 160,000 people in prison in this state, two-thirds are African American and Latinx. To a terrible extent, release from prison ends up being a pipeline to homelessness.
A September 2018 NPR report said that in Los Angeles, 8 percent of homeless people surveyed are working, and among adults with children, 27 percent have jobs. Nearly 5,000 in San Diego reported having jobs. Most have been evicted because they just can’t afford the rent.
In 2016, Los Angeles voted for and passed a bond measure to target homelessness and raised $1.2 billion for the construction of housing to attack homelessness. That’s the largest amount of money to target homelessness in the country so far, yet the plan is a massive failure.
Bonds are rarely paid off by cities. Because of the interest, they enrich the bankers and other investors and are a drain on a city budget that usually lasts for many decades past the use of the funds. An article on laist.com explains some of the failures of Prop HHH, as the measure was named.
The initial goal was to build 10,000 units of supportive housing — meaning reserved strictly for homeless people. Of the 10,000, so far two units are expected to be finished by the end of 2019. Initial estimates put the cost at up to $414,000 per unit to build. Now the median cost is $531,000, and one large building that’s been contracted will cost $700,000 per unit.
In the meantime, Los Angeles has paid $5.2 million in interest. Interest, consulting fees and permitting, projected over the life of the plan, will use 35 percent to 40 percent of this staggering amount of money. Because the costs are so high, the goal of 10,000 units has been revised downward to 7,640, and instead of 100 percent of the units being supportive housing — there will only be 5,873 units of supportive housing. In a bow to L.A.’s real estate developers, the rest will be so-called affordable housing and manager units.
Karl Marx explained that the “reserve army of labor” is permanent in a capitalist economy. It maintains a level of vulnerability of the working class. The higher the number of unemployed, homeless or imprisoned, the lower are wages and the higher are capitalist profits.
Along with the massive warehousing of people of color in prisons, the lack of action to tackle the homeless crisis is driven by an irresistible trend of the capitalist economy. Democratic Mayor Eric Garcetti’s administration felt the pressure of the crisis, but Los Angeles’ powerful landlords, big banks and other capitalists wield the real power.
What appears to be bureaucratic speed bumps is likely fueled by their desire to continue making a fortune. Even when reforms like Prop HHH are successful, they are just barely enough to earn class peace. Homeless people are isolated. But every reform is worth fighting for. A united, determined and militant struggle against homelessness, racism and poverty can end the billionaires’ stranglehold on society once and for all.