December 1st, 2018. Skid Row, Los Angeles, CA, USA
The Los Angeles Community Action Network & Poor People’s Campaign
Past seven congruent blocks of skid row, a half mile of tents, tarps, cardboard, and makeshift dwellings crammed in a long line over every inch of sidewalk, stands the home of the Los Angeles Community Action Network. In 1999, twenty-five houseless and downtown LA residents formed LA CAN, making a commitment to stand together and organize around common problems to demand a change. LA CAN has strived to overcome the race, class, and gender barriers in our society, to build true power, and stop the violence used against us to maintain the status quo. Volunteers like you, helping on a weekly, and daily basis, have sustained this movement, Trudy Goodwin, an LA CAN founder, thanked the packed crowd present.
The Poor People’s Campaign, first conceived in 1967 by the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., has been taken up anew by Rev. William Barber. Barber, leading an interfaith coalition of workers, civil rights advocates, the poor, and people of faith, began to engage in acts of civil disobedience on Moral Mondays, starting at the North Carolina state legislature, and spreading to the South, Midwest, and the California coast.
LA CAN and the Poor People’s Campaign convened this public hearing to emphasize the root causes of homelessness among women and children in poverty, in a society unwilling to invest in clean water, food, and housing as a human right. The room was packed—with faith leaders, homeless, community advocates, and low wage worker labor activists. Representatives of Congresswoman Karen Bass and Maxine Waters attended, as did actress Mimi Kennedy.
Systemic Racism and Pervasive Poverty
According to the Los Angeles Housing Services Authority’s 2018 homeless count and survey, over fifty thousand people on any given night sleep on the sidewalk, including 17,000 women, and 7,000 families. But Los Angeles Unified School District says there are at least 60,000 children who lack addresses. The Economic Rountable, a non-profit research group, criticized LAHSA’s methodology, estimating that there may be as many as 100,000 homeless in LA County. Released in May, 2018, the LA County CEO’s Research unit investigated the fiscal impact to LA County of caring for homeless women and families. According to this report, from July 2015 through June 2016, 147,000 single adults, 27,000 parents, and almost 50,000 children experienced homelessness—a total of approximately 225,000 people—over 2% of all residents. In a recent study, over half of students surveyed by the Los Angeles Community College District said they have experienced homelessness or had trouble paying the rent.
We are here to discuss the impact on those hidden in plain sight, Dr. Angela James of LA CAN explained to the crowd. We must let the voices of women be heard, and to give a structural context to poverty. All these voices come to the table of the Poor People’s Campaign. It has been a long time coming. Women, children, and men; your brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins, give each other the opportunity to be human beings, to be treated with dignity. One out of five in California live in poverty, and can’t afford to live. 21.4 million are one paycheck away from living in the streets. We must do something.
There is a systemic disparate impact on people of color. Dr. James continued. Seventy eight percent of those homeless in LA are people of color. Blacks are nine times more likely to be incarcerated as whites. They are eight percent of LA’s population, but 30% of the prison population, and 40% of the homelessness. In LA, over $152 million has been spent on militarizing the LAPD, and law enforcement. Nationally, between the 1033 program that gives local police departments the opportunity to purchase military hardware and Department of Homeland Security anti-terrorism grants, over $40 billion has been spent since 9/11 on criminalizing urban communities.
Everyone has a right to a living wage, a fair wage of at least $15 dollars an hour, the next speaker continued. Three million are uninsured, 18.7% of those in LA County are at risk of being unable to access clean, safe, drinking water.
Homeless Disenfranchisement, and the Right to Vote
When we fight racism, voting suppression. Not just in Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi, but for the 108,000 here who were unable to vote last election. Homeless are being disenfranchised; they can’t vote. With recent Mobile polling stations requiring you to prove your address, they are making it so homeless can’t vote. All have a right to a voice, to be heard, to live in dignity, to access the human right to food, water, and housing.
Kathy Klein, who was running late on the bus, had her story of being homeless and involved in the child welfare system read by a friend. She got sick, and was hospitalized; she couldn’t afford the rent and was evicted. A DCFS social worker referred her to a church for women in Oxnard, where they separated her in a different church program than her son. From eight am to eight at night, the church would make the kids sell candy to help pay the mortgage. She went out once to sell candy, and took a bus back to LA, heading to go speak with the DCFS social worker. All I needed, was bus fare just to get my son back to LA. Instead, the police went up and got him; they put him in foster care in Ventura County, in Oxnard. LA didn’t help me. When there are all these resources that go to foster care and the courts, they wouldn’t help keep my family together. I got help in Pasadena, a two-bedroom apartment, but it didn’t matter. Ventura accused me of neglect. It wasn’t after my son aged out of child welfare that we were reunited. No mom should have to go through this. That is why we need the Poor People’s Campaign.
Wendy Brown is the executive director of Venice Street Haven. Two years ago, she began, voters approved a 1.2 billion bond to address the housing crisis. Two years later, homelessness has grown. There is no new housing, despite Measure HHH. On a daily basis, the activities of local businesses, police, and NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard), affects the homelessness. With Airbnb, landlords have taken away rooms for rent that low-income renters often use. Businesses put spiked gates in front of their sidewalks, and ask homeless to leave their premises. There are confrontations with the police; Sweeps with the Department of Sanitation which takes away loose belongings. Police issue tickets. They give you so many tickets that you are unable to pay. Then they put in a warrant for your arrest. Jail isn’t helpful to rise out of poverty and discrimination. When people propose shelters or public housing, they try to stop it, saying that public housing and shelters create crime; it will decrease property values to have homeless services in the neighborhood. There are a lot of myths about homelessness from these haters. That they don’t want to be given housing. Politicians should be held accountable for taking no action.
Jackeline Johnson from Alexandria House in Koreatown spoke next. She read a story that a child wrote. The girl wrote she was grateful to live at Alexandria House, as opposed to on the street. She was worried when her mom was hospitalized that she would be taken to foster care, but she came back after giving birth—with a brother she could play with. Every time she went to a new school, all the other kids labeled her; she would not know where to go or where she could go use the bathroom. It’s hard, at school, and you are labeled homeless.
The Church with No Walls and the Kingdom of God
Pastor Eddie Anderson, of the skid-row based Church with No Walls, reflected on the Book of John. When Jesus spoke with women in the bible, Rev. Anderson explained, he was showing his disciples that the Kingdom of God is like women and children. In John 4:27, the disciples did not question why Jesus was talking to a woman. It is because women and children are the Kingdom. What our patriarchal society is trying to do today though, is to silence them, the houseless. I say houseless, not homeless, because for many here, skid row is home. The Kingdom of God is seated on this stage. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to join you, he looked at the women; passing back the microphone.
Ana Hernandez spoke next, introduced with a deafening applause. She lives in Pico Aliso and Los Casitas, in the Boyle Heights community of East LA. She is a founding member of the Union de Vecinos, and has lived there 23 years. We have been fighting for public housing and the human right to housing for all. We have 300 units and 1,000 residents that live in these units. I am a member of the residents’ council. In 1996, 22 years ago we had Pico Gardens, Aliso Apartments, and Pico Village. Then the Housing Authority using the Hope VI program, began demolishing housing projects. It used to be much bigger. We were given sixty-day eviction notices, and Section 8 vouchers. But they didn’t say that the vouchers had expiration dates, or that landlords didn’t have to accept the vouchers.
They didn’t think that residents have rights, or would fight back. It started with thirty-six families organizing to defend their housing—that’s how we started the Union de Vecinos. We didn’t know how to organize, but we learned. It wasn’t easy for families; the men who worked didn’t earn much. We met in our apartments, in the street, in parks, and parking lots. We were being evicted. It was hard during the demolition. We were living when the housing was being demolished. We won an amendment, with our organizers and lawyers, and were able to stay. It was difficult, but we had to do it. I’m proud of this achievement, as a mother. We can achieve our dreams, of housing for all. We must end the criminalization of poverty.
In 2018 LAHSA said that the number of homeless decreased by 4.1% from the year before, and that there are 7,000 families living on the street. But these numbers are not real, Silvia Hernandez, a member of LA CAN, declared. I’m an immigrant. We didn’t arrive to take your place. I did what I needed to do, for my family to survive. I’ve worked in sweatshops, in factories, as a housekeeper, and as a server. I did hair, and got a cosmetology degree. They always treated me different in these places where I worked as a stylist; at my skin color, my looks. I always had to overcome that. I got sick and couldn’t pay the rent; I got evicted. I had to go to skid row, to skid row housing services. Women are disadvantaged; we face more faces of violence than just physical attack. The women of skid row support and advocate for each other. We lack toilets and clean water; imagine the environmental impact this has on the community and on the city. We face harassment and criminalization. In 2015, Mayor Garcetti declared a state of emergency. Measure HHH raised $1.2 billion dollars for 10,000 supportive housing units within 10 years. As of October 18th, they have built 615 units. Way less than the 1,000 per year that voters authorized. We will have to act to take control of the resources we voted for.
We stand in solidarity with all of the poor and oppressed, against poverty, racism, militarism, and misogyny. Melanie spoke next, sitting on stage, with a small boy seated on her lap. She has been a McDonalds fast food worker for six years. She is a single mother, with three kids.
The minimum wage has gone up, she announced. But the cost of rent and food went up too. There are many injustices we face as workers. We are victims of injustice. The fight for 15 supports us, to fight against this. We went on strike; we do what we have to do. Workers must unite, in the fight for fifteen, and to end poverty. Many live in the street; they don’t have anything to eat. They live homeless, even though they work hard every day. It isn’t enough. We have the right to dignified work, a roof over our houses, and food on the table. That is the heart of the Poor Peoples Campaign. The Poor Peoples campaign in based in 40 states. In six weeks, 5,000 were arrested for civil disobedience. We have the power to change this.
A third of American Indians in the United States are homeless. There are between 170,000 and 200.000 of these indigenous, and one million Zapotec, living in LA County. We are all Native Americans, though Amerigo Vespucci never came around here. You have the resources, and together we have the power to change this.
God is Love
God is Love. Anton held these words scrawled with a marker with an uneasy hand on a ragged square of torn cardboard as he squatted next to the stop sign on the corner of Hill and Cesar Chavez, facing south. Anton sat there watching passing cars, less than a mile from the Los Angeles Civic Center Red Line Metro stop, which after a long narrow escalator emerges at a terraced concrete park with grass and trees flanked by City Hall, the LA County Hall of Administration, LAPD HQ, and the County Superior Court. He wanted to take the train home, he said, staring off past two lanes of opposing traffic. He gazed out, as I passed him a six-inch cold cut sub, like he could see that gold ticket floating right there in the middle of the street, a ticket to somewhere loving, warm, and safe, just out of reach. This ticket, to catch the train out of the grit, grind, and callous indifference to the houseless who call skid row home.
But maybe, just maybe, we can board that train together,