July 10, 2020
by Soukayna Mniaï, doctoral student at the Centre de Recherches Anglophones (CREA) of the Université Paris Nanterre. She was the recipient of the 2018 Institut des Amériques-Fulbright grant.
California is a State riddled with social inequalities. There are more than one million millionnaires out of 40 million residents, but also over 150 000 homeless people.
Even before the start of the coronavirus epidemic, their numbers was considered a crisis. During his February 2020 State of the State address, Governor Gavin Newsom described at length the reasons for this situation, from the constant lack of investment in mental health services in the country for over fifty years to the budget cuts in numerous social programs since the 1980s, including the skyrocketing prices of housing these last few years.
For him, the situation is "a disgrace" because California is one of the richest States in the country. And yet it is also one of the States with the highest number of homeless people the US: 151 000 people out of the 550 000 homeless people accounted for in January 2019 in the country, of which 56 000 just in the county of Los Angeles.
This number is still under the most recent local counts. On June 12, 2020, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) published the results of its annual tally done on the night of January 29, 2020 by volunteers from the Homeless Count. The result is undeniable: 66 433 homeless people in the county (out of 10 million residents), and 41 290 just in the town of Los Angeles. Worse yet, the rapid increase noticed since 2018 is still going on. It was over 16% for the city of Los Angeles between 2018 and 2019, and is again over 14% this year.
PROTECT THE HOMELESS FROM COVID-19?
In the month of March, the situation of the homeless people is a source of worry. Studies showed that the epidemic could cause the death of several hundred, if not several thousands among them. In fact, the health of the homeless is often not good (respiratory and/or cardio-vascular problems, addictions), which makes them more vulnerable to complications linked to the coronavirus. Despite putting health and social distancing measures in place in the emergency housing centers for the homeless, clusters still happened.
However, the main issue for the public authorities has been the people who are not taken in by these centers. Close to three quarters of the more than 66 000 homeless people in Los Angeles have absolutely no shelter, which means they sleep in the streets, in the parks or even in their car. As a comparison, over 90% of the 90 000 homeless people in the State of New York benefit from temporary housing. In conditions such as these, how can health measures be applied and the confinement respected?
Following this assessment, the State of California, the county and the City Hall of Los Angeles adopted several measures, such as delaying the closure of the emergency housing centers which should have closed at the end of the winter period on March 31st, the suspension of the law forbidding the presence of tents in the street during the day, and also the installation of toilets, mobile sinks and trash cans close to the large encampments. However, there are not enough of these and they are not maintained enough to cover the needs: so, in the Skid Row neighborhood where over 5 000 homeless people live, the city services only put six hand-washing stations; so the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN) decided to install another 30 with the help of students from the University of Southern California.
One of the more ambitious measures done by the LAHSA and the City Hall of Los Angeles was Project Roomkey, whose goal is to house in hotel rooms those who seem the most vulnerable, in other words, those 65 and older and/or whose health makes them more susceptible to complications that could lead to their hospitalization or death should they get the virus. Other hotel rooms as well as RVs were set up to welcome the homeless people who had tested positive to the virus or who presented symptoms and had to isolate, and medical care was given there.
However, the truth in the field does not measure up to these ambitions. Between the start of April and mid-June 2020, over 3 500 homeless people benefited from Project Roomkey, which definitely means a huge improvement compared to pre-COVID and has changed their daily lives. But this number is still insufficient since it only represents one quarter of the 15 000 who are eligible. Furthermore, only 91 additional rooms were added to the program between the end of May and the end of June 2020.
Despite the limits of public policies put in place since the beginning of the epidemic, this unusual situation however seems to have been an opportunity to bring to light the situation of the homeless people and push the local authorities to organize services that had been requested for a number of years by the associations that help the homeless. The budget given to these services has considerably increased, at the Los Angeles township level as well as at the California State level. Futhermore, while other California counties have been more reticent to Project Roomkey, in Los Angeles the measure was largely accepted despite a few opposing protests in certain towns such as Rosemead and Covina.
Of course, the public authorities' actions were motivated by the fear of saturating hospitals, but it seems that more permanent solutions are also being looked into. So, LAHSA and the associations and NGO who work with the homeless are thinking about the future of these services born out of the epidemic emergency, and how to prevent people who are participating in Project Roomkey from returning again to the street when the emergency measures will stop.
That being said, the health crisis has mainly revealed the breadth of preventatives measures needed to work early on the causes of this social problem.
A NEED FOR MORE PERMANENT SOLUTIONS
In its report, LAHSA noted that 59% of people who are homeless for less than one year say that their situation is mainly due to economic problems. So, the major economic crisis that is looming because of the Covid-19 epidemic is reinforcing the fear of seeing a large number of people lose their jobs, then their housing when they will be unable to pay their rent. Since April, the unemployment rate rose over 20% in Los Angeles county, which heralds a really bad period in the months to come.
End of March, Governor Newson declared a moratorium on evictions during the lockdown and the city of Los Angeles has planned a budget of 100 million dollars of aid for about 50 000 families who would be unable to pay their rent because of the epidemic. Furthermore, the people who are on unemployment can get up to 600 dollars per week on top of their benefits thanks to the CARES Act voted on by Congress at the end of March.
However, this federal aid plan is only available through the month of July. What will happen when the eviction moratorium ends and renters find themselves unable to pay rent? A study published by UCLA's Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy estimates that 350 000 households in Los Angeles county could lose their housing.
This issue is at the heart of the Food Not Rent campaign organized by the Los Angeles Tenants Union in March to incite hard-pressed renters to unite and start a rent strike.
Long-term, access to affordable housing is one of the major problems in Los Angeles, where the average rent has increased by 65% since 2010 and reaches 2 527 dollars per month when mininum wage is still under 15 dollars. LAHSA's report published on June 12, 2020, estimates that 500 000 housing units need to be built in the county in order to decrease the pressure on rent.
Furthermore, LAHSA points out that homelessness in Los Angeles is the consequence of various social, class, race and gender relationships that are part of American society. So, the publication of the results from the census of the homeless done on June 12 echoed the Black Lives Matter protests of the past several weeks since 34% of homeless people are black against 8% of the total population in the county. According to a 2018 report published by the Ad Hoc Committee on Black People Experiencing Homelessness, this underrepresentation of Blacks is linked to structural racism in many areas, such as education, housing, job market, health and also justice.
While the current health and economic crisis is particularly impacting the poorest, if the actions of the public authorities is not up to par, it is not because of lack of budget but political choice. So, the People's Budget LA coalition, led by the Black Lives Matter Los Angeles movement, called for a drastic decrease in the share of the municipal budget given to the Los Angeles Police Department in order to finance other public services, especially in areas of housing, jobs and health.
The situation of the homeless people in Los Angeles during the coronavirus crisis is therefore just as alarming as it is an indicator of profound social inequalities that is inherent in American society and that the pandemic is only exacerbating.