Since last fall, Lee has lived in a budding community on the southern edge of Watts, a neighborhood in Los Angeles. Residents of the once-majority Black area — the epicenter of the 1965 Watts Rebellion and the 1992 uprising following the police beating of Rodney King — have advocated for investments in Black life for more than 60 years.
Despite a lack of affordable housing and jobs in Watts, Lee has felt the most peace in his life while living there — even though he lives in a tent. He is one 50,000 unhoused Black people in California.
“This is all I have,” said Lee, 44, of his make-shift tent community nestled between an empty lot and one of California’s most-traveled freeways. “This is where I feel at peace, like I’m most a part of society and a community.” (When asked, Capital B omitted the last names of two unhoused people who are quoted in this story.)
But that peace faces an existential threat. Lee’s open-air home, divided into a living room and bedroom, is located in an area where it soon may be illegal to sleep in public. It falls into the city’s newest proposed “anti-camping” jurisdictions, according to a map produced by Kenneth Mejia, a candidate for LA city controller.
Months after Los Angeles enshrined its first anti-camping ordinance last fall — designating 100 areas as off limits to homeless camps — the City Council is considering expanding the ban to more than 3,000 zones across the expansive metropolis. The law enforcement approach to homelessness has divided the city, which is grappling with one of the nation’s worst housing crises.
Los Angeles’s anti-camping ordinance mirrors others across the country, part of a national movement that’s targeting public homelessness. At least nine bills have been introduced in six states creating restrictions on homeless encampments with fines, fees, and incarceration for those that do not comply.
The Los Angeles ordinance first passed in 1963 as an anti-loitering law before it was amended to become an anti-camping law last year with the support of all but two of the city’s 15 council members. The change, supporters say, was passed in the name of pedestrian safety and cleaning up the city’s streets. But opponents say the ordinance is meant to “disappear” the homelessness crisis and will push unhoused people deeper into poverty and social instability.
Los Angeles has already spent $2 million to implement its anti-camping zones. The new amendment would make it illegal for people to “sit, lie, or sleep” in areas totaling 90 square miles, or roughly 20% of the city. The regulated zones would include areas within 500 feet of all schools; 2 feet of all fire hydrants; 5 feet of all “operational” entrances and exits of buildings; and within 10 feet of driveways.
The City Council was slated to vote on expanding the ordinance, known as 41.18, on Wednesday — but the vote was delayed. Dozens of protesters stood outside the chambers chanting “let us in!” and many carried signs reading “41.18=Death.” Police were called in to control the situation. The vote was moved to Aug. 2.
The struggle underscores a growing battle over the country’s public spaces. As housing prices across the country have soared, California serves as ground zero for the homelessness crisis. In Los Angeles, 95% of voters view homelessness as the city’s biggest problem.
The Overlooked Roots of Homelessness
Public policy experts and advocates for the unhoused say the new amendment doubles down on failed policies and overlooks the roots of these crises.
Race has been largely absent from the conversation, despite being one of the most jarring determinants of homelessless in the state. The splintering of California’s Black communities through housing instability and community violence has left Black residents experiencing homelessness at a rate 14 times higher than white, Latino, and Asian residents combined, according to a Capital B analysis of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data.
According to California’s last expansive homelessness count before the COVID-19 pandemic, the state had roughly 160,000 people living on the streets on any given day. In Los Angeles County alone, there were more than 65,000 people. Despite representing only 5% of the state’s population, in 2019, Black people comprised 40% of the state’s unhoused population. In Los Angeles County, the number has neared 45%.
“Ironically, a state that boasts itself as being progressive is unable to address this reality,” said Marques Vestal, an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, who recently co-authored the report, “The Making Of A Crisis: A History Of Homelessness In Los Angeles.”
In the report, Vestal’s research team wrote that the policy of policing the homelessness crisis has “unduly” burdened Black unhoused people for decades, sticking them “with fines and ineradicable criminal records.”
A large part of that burden is physical violence. According to a 2019 Los Angeles Police Department report, roughly one-third of use-of-force incidents were against unhoused residents, incidents that some fear will become more common if the anti-camping rule is expanded.
In Austin, Texas, which passed a similar law in April 2021, tents have become less common on city streets, according to local reports. But there also has been a rise in homelessness. More than 250 people have been issued fines and a handful of unhoused people have been arrested, with at least one unhoused woman suing the city for police brutality.
“The through line of the crises that keep leaving Black folks dispossessed is four centuries of caging people and finding ways to extract their wealth,” said Vestal, a South Central chapter of the Los Angeles Tenants Union member, referring to Los Angeles’ anti-camping ordinance.
While the situations that lead people to homelessness are varied — incarceration-induced poverty, drug addiction, or being priced out of homes — many encounter the same challenges in accessing government services. Because the city does not have the manpower to reach every encampment, many never learn about available services. For others, services feel like empty promises. A recent Los Angeles Times investigation found that less than 6% of federally backed housing vouchers given to the city last year to help get people off the streets were actually used.
Without addressing the historical roots of the state’s homelessness issue and a simultaneous investment into supportive services, such as affordable housing, health care, and job training, the anti-camping ordinances will continue to meet pushback and fall flat, unhoused residents say.
In the Los Angeles neighborhood of Harbor City last week, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy told Michael S., an unhoused Black man, that he had two hours to pack up his teal tarp and haul his 99 Cents Only Stores shopping cart away. Michael said the deputy told him he would be cited and potentially detained if he didn’t comply, but offered no supportive housing options.
“They treat me like I’m the number one suspect, like I did something wrong,” he told Capital B from his tent located in a formerly redlined community, across the street from a polluting oil well. “I’m not a criminal. I just found myself in a bad situation.”
The cycle of Black wealth
Black Californians have been put in bad situations for generations, Vestal’s research shows. Starting with the post-World War II Great Migration, the dream of a fruitful life for Black folks was oversold. In Los Angeles and across the country, discriminatory housing policies — redlining, exclusionary zoning, and subprime mortgages — only widened the racial wealth gap and limited any opportunities for housing. Black folks were relegated to environmentally toxic and underdeveloped neighborhoods and excluded from the postwar housing and economic boom afforded to white people.
As the Black population in Los Angeles grew tenfold, access to housing did not keep up.
By the late 1970s, with Black communities in Los Angeles already facing a massive housing shortage, unchecked employment discrimination, and economic inequality, the war on drugs dealt a deadly blow. Seemingly overnight, the massive increase in policing and lack of access to health care pushed thousands of Black people onto the streets. A recent UCLA study suggests that, as the city’s homeless population grew in the 1990s, there was a “conscious decision” to highlight the white Americans living on the streets “to gain favorable public attention” from residents and the media. However, the decision helped hide how structural racism was driving the crisis amongst Black residents.
“To address that relationship between race, property, and wealth inequality, it requires an acknowledgment that inequality is among the founding tenets of American democracy,” he said.
As some Black families began to rise above the destruction of redlining and the war on drugs, the 2008 housing crisis emerged. A discriminatory home loan process, which made Black families more vulnerable to foreclosure, left Black Californians twice as likely to lose their homes as white homeowners.
The constant churn of Black Californians building wealth and then losing it is a trademark of the country’s housing system, Vestal argues. “The housing system has created an institutional process that makes us more vulnerable to getting money taken away from us and more vulnerable to violence,” he said.
It also has stunted the state’s Black population. Since the war on drugs began, California’s Black population has been the slowest growing group. In Los Angeles, the share of Black residents has dropped from 17% to 8% since 1980. But the racial discrepancies in the state’s unhoused population never wavered.
For Damien Wilson, an unhoused resident of Los Angeles’ Avalon Gardens neighborhood, the racial disparity in the state’s homeless population is reminiscent of his time in prison.
Wilson, who has been chronically unhoused since 2017 after 23 years of incarceration, was able to maintain a job cleaning parking lots at local shopping centers for two years until he lost his job during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in March 2020. In his five years of homelessness, he says no public or private institution has approached him about supportive housing options.
When interviewed by Capital B last week during a heatwave that saw temperatures reach 93 degrees, Wilson lamented the lack of shelters to provide residents reprieve from the heat. “We need places where people can wash their hands, take showers, and have somewhere safe to be when it gets this bad,” he said. (Following the first COVID-19-related shutdown in Los Angeles, the city spent $4 million to set up 500 hygiene and sanitation stations for unhoused residents, as Wilson suggests, but the units were abandoned, according to a 2021 investigation by the independent digital magazine LA Taco.)
For Lee, the lack of supportive options and increased criminalization of homelessness show that elected officials are using an old playbook to tackle the crisis.
Last year, he abandoned his “permanent supportive housing” unit made available through the nonprofit housing organization Housing Works, because his neighbors “bullied” and “discriminated” against him, he says. The experience showed him that the state’s growing unhoused population “is about more than just being unable to give people housing.”
“It’s one thing for the government to say they’re going to get the housing,” he said. “It’s another thing to help people keep it when it feels like everything in the world is working against them.”
Standing at the entryway to his tent’s living room area, equipped with a leather couch, table, and scattered pieces of scrap metal, Lee explained some of his experiences resulting from the state’s massive racial discrepancies in homelessness, incarceration, environmental injustices, mental illness, and addiction. He mentioned fears about air and dust pollution if he is to spend many more months living outside in Watts.
While he has curbed his drug addiction, he now worries about relapsing if he is displaced or, even worse, incarcerated because of the city’s ordinance.
“It’s funny because I don’t really have the choice, but I want to be picky and choosy with my next living environment,” he said.
“I need to be around people that believe in me, that believe in being friends with your neighbors,” he added. “No one cares about community.”