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Black Lives Matter. Unless they’re homeless

By the time I caught up to the 500 or more people marching in Venice on behalf of Black Lives Matter, they were turning east in front of a narrow traffic island near the Venice Public Library, chanting “No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace!”

My iPhone camera caught the whole scene, and it captured something else too: dozens of dilapidated blue tents, plywood lean-tos and the jumbled, rain-wrecked belongings of homeless men and women living there.

The marchers continued on, chanting, burning with righteous fury, leaving the homeless behind.

Again.

They say tragedy and hardship don’t so much change you as reveal who you really are. It’s true with individuals, and it’s definitely true with my city. We are a city whose citizens and leaders don’t need Minneapolis or Louisville or New York to help us see the hard truth of what we believe: black lives don’t really matter.

Yes, now that the streets are boiling our mayor and other city officials are saying they do, but those blue tents and cardboard shacks at march level tell a very different truth.

If black lives really mattered, why do African-Americans, who make up 9% of the Los Angeles County population, account for 40% of the homeless?

If black lives really mattered, why do the numbers of African-American homeless keep going up? According to the 2018 Homeless Report, there were 20,960 homeless African-Americans, up 22% from 2017.

Pundits have wondered why Los Angeles was hit so badly by protests and looting. Since the Rodney King demonstrations and the Rampart scandal, the Los Angeles Police Department has made great strides in community policing and use-of-force restraint. It is a majority-minority force, with black, Latino, and Asian-American officers making up over 60 % of the force.

That’s a good message, but the everyday lived experience of both the homeless and the housed sends a different one – one of neglect, massive economic disparity, and misplaced priorities.

Long before Ferguson, long before Eric Garner and George Floyd, we’ve allowed men, women and children to be stuck on our streets, uncared for, unhoused, exposed. A homeless African American is up to eight times more likely to die due to homelessness than someone housed. By not fully addressing homelessness, we sentence black men and women to sickness, violence and early death every day.

If black lives matter, we wouldn’t pretend that the reasons for black death at the hands of the police and black deaths in our streets are any different.

“There is a staggering overrepresentation of black people in homelessness, and that is not based on poverty,” Peter Lynn, the former head of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, told the Los Angeles Times.he said. “That is based on structural and institutional racism.”

Different problems, same causes. Yet our leaders demand an immediate end to one kind of discrimination and slow-walk the other. We march against systemic racism that leads law enforcement to arrest, abuse and incarcerate black men at far higher rates than white men, but we excuse the homelessness in our own city as complicated.

Worse: we march right by them.

The coronavirus crisis revealed the same hypocrisy. Our city officials have been telling us to remain #saferathome while tens of thousands of homeless remain in unsanitary, soap-and-water-less encampments. These officials have seen the need for emergency homeless housing during the pandemic, acknowledged it–and once again failed to meet it.

Last year in a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed I asked why L.A. couldn’t use public property to create state-of-the-art tent cities for the homeless as other cities and countries have done. City officials I heard from dismissed the idea as a non-starter. Then the pandemic hit and L.A. built its first tent city in 40 years. But emergency efforts including Project Roomkey still fall short, leaving tens of thousands to face the virus on the streets.

As LA County Health Commissioner Dr. Barbara Ferrer at a press conference Monday, there is a direct correlation between how we treat black lives in law enforcement and how we treat them in health emergencies.

Poor African Americans die from coronavirus at a rate nearly quadruple that of those living in areas with very low poverty levels, she pointed out.

“We know that black Americans fare worse than other groups on virtually every measure of health status, and it has become all too common to blame this on individual behaviors, when in fact the science is clear,” Ferrer said. “The root cause of health inequities is racism and discrimination and how it limits access to the very opportunities and resources each of us needs for optimal health and well-being.”

When you say black lives matter after one black man dies unjustly, but ignore the daily injustice of homelessness, the words ring hollow. As the rubble and wrath of the protests clear, the mayor, county and state leaders have an opportunity to declare a zero-tolerance policy for homelessness, mobilize private and public monies and property to shelter and care for people and treat homelessness not as an issue, but as an outrage.

In other words, it’s time to treat homelessness as if black lives matter.

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