Outdoor camping tents. Personal belongings piled in shopping carts. Cardboard signs covered in written cries for help. This scene is instantly recognizable for almost anyone living in Los Angeles, though it’s a scene people often turn their heads away from, as if to shield themselves from its horrors. No one wants to believe that someday, for one reason or another, homelessness could land on their very own doorstep.
With a 12% increase in homelessness in Los Angeles County this year alone, many politicians, state residents and homelessness advocates have different ideas about how to tackle the crisis. However, the voices that might have the most to say about the issue are the ones that are also the least heard—those of people who are experiencing and have experienced homelessness firsthand.
In September, President Donald Trump spoke in California and publicly acknowledged that rising homelessness is a dire issue throughout the state.
“We can’t let Los Angeles, San Francisco and numerous other cities destroy themselves by allowing what’s happening,” Trump told reporters during his visit. “In many cases, [homeless individuals] came from other countries, and they moved to Los Angeles, or they moved to San Francisco because of the prestige of the city, and all of a sudden they have tents.”
By talking about homelessness as it relates to the prestige of California cities, Trump did not address some major causes of the complex issue, said Brenda Wiewel, the director of USC’s initiative to end homelessness.
“My impression is that he said we have to clean up the streets because it was disgusting for normal people to have to walk through filth,” Wiewel said. “It’s almost like he thinks they did something wrong to get there, which is a common stereotype.”
Trump painted the people experiencing homelessness as the major root of the problem, rather than factoring in the system that led them there, Wiewel added.
However, his administration did offer some ideas to help alleviate the problem.
“Homelessness could be dramatically reduced by slashing restrictions on housing construction and being less tolerant of people sleeping on the streets,” the administration said in a report.
Within the USC community, some students found Trump’s September comments about homelessness to be confusing and unclear.
“It seems very contradictory,” senior Albaab Khan said of the president’s plan.
Along with the confusion, some students felt like it did not address the systemic reasons people find themselves homeless.
“I think putting things in place to just kind of slash [homelessness] doesn’t necessarily eliminate the core issue of it,” said graduate student Brianna Nixon. “I think we have made such a stigma out of homelessness that we’re not actually doing anything to get to the root of the issue.”
Other students said they felt that the president’s plan was unfair and ineffective.
“This plan by the president is not only idiotic, but pointedly cruel for the sake of cruelty itself,” said senior Ali Sahimi, an administrator for the homelessness advocacy organization Share a Meal. “There seems to be a vendetta against California in general by the administration given the fact that the state has, at every turn, opposed the president in terms of his policies, so, no, I don’t think in any case that this would be good."
Because homelessness is a multi-faceted issue with many different causes, Brenda Wiewel agreed that the Trump Administration’s plan does not address the economic conditions that contribute to the homelessness crisis.
“Someone who is working a minimum wage job would have to work 79 hours in one week to afford the rent on a one-bedroom apartment,” Wiewel said. “The rental vacancy rate is [about] 2%, so once somebody loses their home, it’s very hard to find another place to live.”
According to Wiewel, rent increases and a lack of available affordable housing have been driving factors in the rise in homelessness in Los Angeles.
“I’ve talked to residents who are so close to losing their home,” she said. “They don’t have enough money to pay their rent and cover all their expenses, and then their landlord comes and says I’m going to raise your rent $200 or $500 starting two months from now, and they’re terrified.”
Wiewel had her own ideas about how to address these economic hardships that lead people to homelessness.
“We have a lot of poor people, and we need more housing vouchers so that they can get into the housing that’s available, even though they don’t have enough money coming in to pay for it, because the vouchers will make up the difference,” Wiewel said. “There’s 30,000 or 32,000 people on the streets right now who want to be housed, who are ready to be housed, and they cannot find a place because nobody will take their voucher, and there’s just not enough places.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also cited unstable economic housing conditions as a major contribution to rising homelessness in his initial response to Trump’s September visit.
“For many years, the federal government has woefully underfunded our housing safety net, contributing to homelessness,” he said in a statement. “Only one in four low-income families who qualify for housing assistance actually receive it. This pressure is acutely felt here in Los Angeles, where 36,000 people experience homelessness on any given night.”
Garcetti’s fight against homelessness has not gone without criticism, though. One group has been looking to recall Garcetti over the growth in homelessness during his time in office and over the possible inaccuracies in his June statement about the number of homeless individuals housed in the last year.
The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority conducted a recent report showing that homelessness also disproportionately affects black individuals in LA County. Although black people make up 9% of Los Angeles’ population, they make up 40% of the homeless population, a number that has been attributed to institutional racism within public systems and workplaces across, but not limited to, Los Angeles.
“Structural racism, discrimination and implicit bias in our policies and institutions have led to an overrepresentation of black people experiencing homelessness,” the report concluded.
While the widespread increase in Los Angeles homelessness can be attributed partly to growing economic and racial disparities, the stories of homeless individuals can provide a great deal of insight into what people experiencing homelessness feel and need.
Russell Kennedy, a man who has been homeless on and off for eight years, shared his story of becoming institutionalized during his time in prison, an experience that shaped his own descent into homelessness.
“I’m what you call institutionalized. I spent so much time in prison that that’s the only life I know,” Kennedy said. “When I was 19, I got into some trouble. I did 11 years in prison, paid my debts to society, and when I got out, everything had changed. I couldn’t support myself, you know, I didn’t know how things worked, and at that point, I guess it was now about eight years ago, I became homeless.”
While prisons do offer some programs to help former inmates assimilate back into society, the chances of getting into those programs are very slim. Kennedy said that only one in 8,000 to 9,000 people is accepted into the programs.
Kennedy also said that non-homeless people have to understand that homelessness is an issue that affects each of its victims and survivors differently.
“After I got out of prison, and I became homeless myself, it’s only then that I realized that each individual is unique and they have a different story,” he said. “We can’t categorize just ‘oh that’s homelessness’ because everybody’s homeless for their own thing.”
Kennedy also feels that education is a key feature in helping to lift people out of homelessness.
“There’s an old parable in the Christian Bible that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. No statement has ever been truer,” Kennedy said. “That’s my fight, you know. I’m fighting. I’m gonna fight for that person. Education is the one. If somebody is educated, they can make educated decisions.”
There is also a major connection between drug addiction and homelessness, though research is inconclusive if drug addiction is more of a cause or a consequence of homelessness.
According to Addiction Center, there is a paradox within homelessness where people can become homeless because of drug addiction, but the addiction may also begin or grow stronger once the individual has to endure the hardships of life without shelter.
Jamal Dawes, an individual who experienced homelessness, developed a drug addiction at a young age, but his addiction was exacerbated during his time without a home.
“I was doing drugs while being homeless because I wanted to stay awake and just make sure my safety was number one. That’s mostly why people use. Because they’re afraid,” Dawes said.
Matt Nelson, a native Californian, was homeless on and off for 14 years while battling an alcohol and methamphetamine addiction in addition to being in and out of prison.
“I got involved with gangs and everything, and so when I went to prison and got out, I didn’t want to bring any kind of danger to my family, so I stayed away. And it was really hard to find a job after that, having felonies, so I just started selling drugs,” Nelson said. “You want to do the right thing, but a lot of times you’re pushed up against a wall.”
Although Nelson said that selling drugs helped him make enough money to live, it had a toll on his emotional health.
“Selling drugs really helped. It helped out a lot,” he said. “It’s sad because I don’t know how many lives I’ve ruined by doing that.”
Nelson’s girlfriend died from a drug-related disease, an event he said propelled him to change his ways and seek help. By contacting his family and expressing his seriousness about recovering from his methamphetamine addiction, Nelson was able to join a recovery program at the Midnight Mission, a Los Angeles-based organization seeking to help rebuild the lives of homeless individuals.
“For a long time I had no power in my life, and I was driven by addiction and by just anger and a lot of shame, and I was just existing, but now today I feel like I am here for a reason,” Nelson said. “I have another shot at life, and I don’t know where I would’ve been without the Midnight Mission, and I feel like it’s saved my life. I really do.”
A common feature in each of these stories about the hardships of homelessness is the desire each of these men had to simply be recognized as individuals by society.
“It’s a lonely feeling being homeless,” Matt Nelson said. “People think of you like third-class people. Who gives a hell about them? They’re expendable. And that’s not true. They’re people like me and you, you know? That was me out there one day, and look where I’m at now.”
A survey conducted by the Downtown Women’s Center revealed that 55% of homeless women found themselves on the streets after leaving domestically abusive relationships. Once women became homeless, 50% of them said they were assaulted within the past year, with half of those victims experiencing more than four instances of assault.
Though every homelessness story is unique, almost everyone shares the experience of trauma, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Homelessness sufferers are often physically disabled and unable to find work, suffering from a mental illness or victims of domestic violence. The trauma that leads people to become homeless and the trauma experienced while people are homeless must be dealt with in order for them to have a chance at escaping it.
Brenda Wiewel hopes that the common ideas people have about people who are homeless changes.
“The common stigma or stereotype is that they’re lazy, they’re crazy, they’re out of it, and they don’t care, and they’re ruining our city, so let’s round 'em all up and put them all out of sight,” she said. “It makes no effort to understand what it’s like when you’re poor and destitute.”
While there might not be a conclusive answer on how to end homelessness, experts and survivors agree that one of the best ways to begin to combat the issue is to change the negative stigma surrounding it.
Their belief is that whether someone is homeless because of a mental illness, economic hardship or drug addiction, it is the homelessness that’s the issue, not the homeless person.