All of my belongings were in storage and I was living out of the second bedroom of my best friend’s apartment while her son was off at college. Unless you knew my situation, you had no idea that I was homeless — but I was. That’s why I can tell you now that the 2018 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count is going to be woefully inaccurate and the full magnitude of the crisis underreported if we continue to put the focus only on the homeless people we can see.
Each year a big deal is made over the thousands of volunteers who hit the streets in search of homeless people to count. These volunteers look under freeway overpasses, in cars and riverbed encampments, shelters, transitional housing, nursing homes, hospitals, even jails. But where they don’t look (or count) is in L.A.’s pay-by-the-day or -week motels and on the couches, floors, garages and spare rooms inside the homes of friends and relatives.
It’s no secret that Los Angeles has a homelessness crisis — but what is less talked about are the homeless people we can’t see. These are the homeless people who are scraping by just enough to pay for a bed bug–infested motel room or whose relatives and friends have taken pity on them.
They’re students living in the dorm rooms of other students. You may live next door to them. You may pass them every day on your way to work. You might carpool with them or see them walking or waiting at the bus stop. They’re sitting next to you in class. They’re in coffee shops on laptops applying for jobs.
They’re not necessarily disheveled, dirty or unkempt. They don’t suffer outwardly from mental illness or an addiction to drugs and alcohol. They are the tens of thousands of unemployed and underemployed men and women and their children reduced to living in a motel or with a friend or relative because they can no longer afford the cost of rent in Los Angeles — but they are homeless just the same.
Depending on which way the Santa Anas blow, Los Angeles fluctuates between being the sixth or seventh most expensive rental market in the United States. According to a recent report from Abodo, a Madison, Wisconsin–based startup that has developed technology to help users search for apartments nationwide, in 2017 the median price for a one-bedroom in Los Angeles was $2,077 while for a two-bedroom it was $3,099. Oh, and did I mention that the median household income in Los Angeles is $57,952 while the per-capita individual income is only $29,301?
Thanks to the revitalization efforts of city leaders, otherwise known as gentrification, “the ’hood” is no longer off-limits to whites who have boldly settled into black and brown neighborhoods — displacing those areas’ longtime inhabitants, who now find themselves thrown into a rental market where landlords and property management companies want prospective tenants that make three times the rent and hold a FICO score over 600. The displaced more often than not wind up homeless or are forced to move out of Los Angeles County and sometimes the state of California altogether.
Those who manage to stay in L.A. end up like I did, staying with a friend or relative. Those who don’t have that option are forced into rooms for rent in strangers’ homes found on Craigslist, or in motels paying sometimes as much as $100 a night, in an attempt to stave off being out on the streets.
Trying to save up for first and last months’ rent while paying between $500 and $700 a week for a motel room is next to impossible for most families, let alone single adults who barely have their heads above water. But it’s the exact situation being played out all over L.A. County. Just because they’re hidden doesn’t mean they don’t exist or count.
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I’m all for counting the homeless — but picking and choosing who counts as homeless is just as disingenuous as ignoring the reasons that so many people in Los Angeles are finding themselves homeless. Everyone who is homeless is not on drugs or mentally ill. For many it was just good old-fashioned gentrification and displacement. Once city leaders can acknowledge this group of homeless people, perhaps we can have a real conversation about what’s needed to help them.
The bottom line: Touting another homeless count with a very wide margin of error because thousands of people weren’t included can’t possibly help in addressing the crisis.
Los Angeles has long been in the business of reimagining history and redefining whatever we want to suit our politically correct ideology — including laws. If we’re serious about counting all of the homeless people, we can and should do the same. Visible or not, homeless is homeless.
A native of Los Angeles, Jasmyne A. Cannick is a nationally known writer and commentator on political, race and social issues. Follow her on Twitter @Jasmyne and Facebook @JasmyneCannick.