Jacqueline Luqman talks with LA Times reporter Gale Holland about how acknowledging the issues that contribute to a high percentage of African American homelessness in LA County might inform the solutions for everyone.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network. The president is driving the discussion about rising homelessness in this country and he’s targeting California in particular.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Nearly half of all the homeless people living in the streets in America happen to live in the state of California. What they are doing to our beautiful California is a disgrace to our country. It’s a shame. The world is looking at it. Look at Los Angeles with the tents and the horrible, horrible, disgusting condition.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Now, of course, his rhetoric is callous and he doesn’t focus on the human toll of homelessness at all. But what he also does not address are the causes of homelessness. Which if he did, if we did as a nation, could inform the solutions to the issue. That is if we really cared to address them at all. So maybe if we look at one of the groups of people who are hit the hardest by the homeless crisis, we might be able to formulate some solutions to this problem, if that’s really what we want to do.
Here to talk with me about this community in LA County and how they are particularly hard hit by this crisis is Gale Holland. Gale covers homelessness and poverty for The Los Angeles Times. Gale, thank you so much for joining me today.
GALE HOLLAND: Thank you for having me, Jacqueline.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And I want to thank you for writing the piece on the Pacoima community that was recently published in the LA Times. That was an incredible and shocking piece that was published. But before we get into it, I want to address a part of what Trump said because I want us to put the homeless issue in California in some context. Let’s talk about some real numbers. Homelessness is a growing issue in California, right?
GALE HOLLAND: Correct.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And it is an issue that has grown exponentially because homelessness has risen in California steadily since 2011 reaching almost 60,000 people that were documented as homeless this year, right?
GALE HOLLAND: Absolutely.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Now to your article about the community in Pacoima, California. That’s a particularly interesting and unique community because this group of people that you highlighted in your article were basically the children of a middle-class, working-class African American community in Pacoima, California. Pacoima is unique and noteworthy because it was one of the few places in Los Angeles County where African Americans could buy homes before the 1960 Fair Housing laws, right?
GALE HOLLAND: Particularly suburban places. There were other neighborhoods in urban Los Angeles that didn’t have racial covenants to keep black people and other people of color out. But in the suburbs, and particularly in the San Fernando Valley, home of the Valley girl, the covenants were pretty ubiquitous across most of the communities other than Pacoima. And so in Pacoima, the people who settled there were – it was a range like there always is everywhere. But basically, this was the doctors, the teachers, the judges. As well as the factory workers, the ice-cream salesmen, the retailers, the insurance salesmen because there was a possibility of home ownership that wasn’t available and in a suburban setting with yards or a bit more space than in the inner city.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So this was a thriving working-class, middle-class, but even professional-class black community in the ’60s. And then in the ’70s, the Fair Housing laws were implemented and some black people with a little more money, with a little higher education, moved out of that community, moved farther out into the suburbs where housing was more open to them. But you still had a thriving working-class, black community because manufacturing jobs were still in existence in the area.
GALE HOLLAND: Yeah. And a lot of people don’t think of LA as a manufacturing hub, but it was. And we had a major General Motors factory plant that produced the Camaro. I think a lot of people remember the Camaro. And there was a Pfister office, you know, kitchen fixtures plant and a few other plants. So they were line jobs, there were administrative jobs. And then like I said, there were the kinds of professional jobs that those people would have probably perhaps wanted to do somewhere else but weren’t able to because of these racial covenants restricting them from going elsewhere in the Valley. And the Valley at that time was fairly developed.
One irony that I found out in my reporting is basically, again, it’s not as well-known as like Chicago or even maybe – no, not Baltimore, but some of the other cities that are known for the Great Migration of African Americans from the South. Just kind of like a mini little place for the Great Migration. And when a lot of the founding families arrived, people were absolutely living in tents and now their ancestors are back to living in tents. So I mean, I’m sorry, their descendants, are back to living in tents. So it’s just a very cruel irony of history and [inaudible].
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So let’s talk about the factors that contributed to the descendants of those original African American people who migrated to this area, to that area in the country, lived in tents until they could achieve their “American dream” and buy a house. And now their descendants are living in tents again because we’re talking about the collapse of US manufacturing that hit that area particularly hard, right?
GALE HOLLAND: Right. Because the other than jobs that were available for people who were in the aerospace industry. And of course, after World War II, the aerospace industry had really pioneered in Southern California and specifically in that part of the Valley. So it was also the decline of the aerospace industry. And I think people didn’t realize it till later that this is what really—People think of LA as Hollywood and Hollywood being where the money is in LA, but in actuality, the aerospace industry and some of its offshoots like the auto industry are feeder industries to the big planes – is where a lot of the wealth of LA was created right after World War II. And this is where these people, their families had jobs.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And then after you have the erosion of the economic base, the elimination of jobs so people could afford their homes, then you had the introduction of crack cocaine, the proliferation of crack cocaine in an already economically devastated and racially segregated community, where you did not see the proliferation of that drug in many other communities that were not predominantly poor and predominantly black. And then on the tail end of that or during that proliferation, you also had mass incarceration that went along with that. So this community of a former thriving middle-class black community, many of those residents are now, as you said earlier, on the streets, living in tents again.
GALE HOLLAND: Right. I think it actually isn’t many. It just feels like many because of course there should be none. But there should be no people living on the street, but there are. And in this one camp which had been driven over the years, they’ve been out there in various configurations for three to five years, some of them have been driven from neighborhood to neighborhood. And finally, according to them, the LAPD told them to go under this freeway overpass because they would not be impacting homes and schools as much. And so the homeless services provider that’s trying to help them find housing says that there’s 50 people out there. And even in Los Angeles, whereas some of the pictures you are showing show there are block after block of tents, it doesn’t stop being shocking. But 50 people in one place in the middle of the suburb, I think was very shocking to a lot of people and it was certainly shocking to me.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Yes, certainly. And when you consider that many of those people are from the same community. And then when you look at this issue—
GALE HOLLAND: Not a lot of them are from the same community, but many of them are related. It’s only my former, you know, brother-in-law’s second wife. They know each other. And so they may be on the sidewalk, but they’re still part of the community. [crosstalk] all the time to help them. The reason I bring this up is that a lot of times people ask me, why don’t their families take care of them? Well, in many cases, their families are trying to still take care of them. They’re out there in the streets trying to help them.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So then when we look at this issue from a macro view, not just for Pacoima in the neighborhood of Pacoima, we look at LA County as a whole that has an African American population of only about 9%, but has a 40% of the homeless population is African American. So then we begin to ask why that is. And now we look at more data where a recent study outlines that it’s the systemic racial issues that you raised in your article as well as the economic issues of manufacturing, job loss, and housing issues that also contribute to a disproportionate number of African Americans being represented among the homeless community. But these issues also contribute to homelessness in general. So can you give more insight into this study?
GALE HOLLAND: Well, I think that just looking at Pacoima in terms of people arrived from the South with no wealth and they were able to buy these houses and build this very nice community. But when the tide came up, industrial disinvestment at that time, the community was extremely stigmatized as a place where there was a lot of drug trafficking and other crime. So their houses were worth nothing. So there was no wealth for them to pass on to their children to sustain themselves as they entered adulthood and tried to move on having their own families and this kind of thing.
And then at the same time, I don’t know how big a factor this was, but some of the people I talked to talked about within own families, because their parents no longer were able to work very close to Pacoima, they had to drive up to the High Desert communities where the aerospace industry and other industrial jobs that hadn’t fled overseas had gone to these very low-price areas in the High Desert here. The drive, there would be long commutes, family life was disrupted. And so they lost out on those counts as well.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So when we hear this president, and Ben Carson and others in this administration propose to use the police to clear away homeless encampments even more than what is being done now to criminalize homelessness and to put homeless people in federal facilities, which are basically prisons and detention centers. That’s clearly horrible for all people, for all homeless people. But what does it mean in particular for this group of people who have already been stigmatized, as you said, and discriminated against and have already faced so much victimization? What does it mean for people who truly have been victimized by the collapse of this American economy?
GALE HOLLAND: Well, I think one thing that you see immediately if you talk to these people is there’s so much trauma. There’s people who watched their children get killed in front of them. There’s people who lost their parents for lack of healthcare or the hospitalization, they weren’t able to get there on time. And so it’s not as simple as just get them an apartment. There’s a lot of healing that has to go on for a lot of these people. And it just compounds for the people who, like Mr. Trump and Ben Carson, who are angered by seeing tents in the street, the amount of time that they’ve been left there, both the circumstances that occurred in their neighborhood as they growing were up and also the direct racism they experience, and then some of the things that have gone on since then, they need a lot of services like mental health services.
I think there’s many people out there that need mental health services and drug addiction or abuse services. And one thing that I think a lot of people don’t realize is that, and I think the research is still out on this, but there’s a lot of people that believe that the prevalence of drug abuse in the streets, it’s not that these were drug abusers who therefore landed in the streets. There are certainly those people who weren’t able to keep up the job or whatever, but there’s an awful lot of people that started using drugs in the street to self-medicate or for mental health problems that may have led to them being in the street. So I also think that one thing I’ve learned from reporting on this for five years is that it’s one thing to say you’re going to take a criminalization approach to homelessness, but one would need to ask oneself, how many police do we really have?
If there’s 59,000 people, there’s 10,000 officers in the city of Los Angeles. Of course, homelessness is a 24/7 thing. If you think you’re going to police those people around the clock, year-round, with 10,000 officers and have every other law enforcement issue to deal with the same time, I’m not sure how serious those calls for that as a solution are because there just aren’t the resources. There aren’t the resources to impose the kind of orders that they want. And then the same problem with incarceration. There are plenty of people that clinicians here in Los Angeles would like to see enter mental health facilities and could benefit from it, and they aren’t able to. The resources have not been dedicated to that. And even the sheriff a long time ago said he would not take low-level drug dealers into the jail because he would be overrun by them. So—
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So, Gale, let me ask you this final question. The rhetoric coming from this administration is very similar to the “build the wall” rhetoric where there is demonization of a particular group of people, blaming those people who are marginalized and victimized for all of the problems of this country. Do you think that the administration taking this type of approach, further demonizing homeless people and particularly vulnerable groups of homeless people, is that going to exacerbate the problem in your opinion?
GALE HOLLAND: Well, I think that political analysts and our political reporters feel that he’s using it as a wedge issue to rile up his base and hoping that that will help him with his reelection effort. Again, he came out of here, he spent a few days here. The only order he made was something about water quality being affected by having street camps. I think California is perhaps among the top states in dealing with its water quality, it’s air quality. We have problems because we’re very overcrowded as a state. I just don’t know how serious he is about it. So it leads one to believe that actually, it’s more of an electioneer stunt, as the Democrats say.
Particularly as the cities that he’s attacking are Democratic-led cities and cities with people of color where the politicians have been critical of the language that he’s used about immigrants. And of course, for us in Los Angeles where Latinos are not a minority, not even close, it’s beyond the pale to have that particular group demonized as people who haven’t given to our society or our country because it’s so much of our city. And they make the city go around. Every group does. But—
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Yeah. It sounds like all of the things you mentioned, of course, housing, of course, an end to a racial discrimination, just acknowledging racial discrimination that has contributed significantly to homelessness for so many people of color. And certainly substance abuse, mental health abuse, which, of course, ties into Medicare for All and other social programs that could address this issue and mitigate it for hundreds of thousands of people across this country. But that’s not where we are. And it looks as though we have much more work to do in this arena of addressing and relieving homelessness in this country. But Gale Holland, thank you so much for joining me today and bringing us this story of the Pacoima community, and what it means in the larger context of addressing homelessness in this country.
GALE HOLLAND: Well, thank you for the opportunity.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And thank you for watching. This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network in Baltimore.