LOS ANGELES — Policy makers and civic leaders discussed what it will take to ensure greater quality of life and opportunity for residents in Los Angeles at a renewal summit coordinated by The Atlantic magazine Nov. 21 at L.A. Live.
The Renewal Summit is a traveling think tank that has visited Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Seattle, New Orleans, Houston and New York to explore problem-solving solutions facing each city.
“[Los Angeles] faces enormous challenges,” said Margaret Low, president of Atlantic Live!, who kicked off the summit. “There is a stunning rise in homelessness and for those who do have a place to live, people with means are pushing those without means out of their neighborhoods.
“Add to that significant gaps of how rich kids and poor kids get educated which points to underlying inequality at every turn. What will it take to provide quality of life and greater opportunity for everyone in Los Angeles? Everyone knows that there are no easy answers to that question,” she said.
Panel discussions included topics surrounding transportation, homelessness, education and gentrification.
Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement and author of the New York Times best seller, “When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir,” was interviewed by writer Todd Purdum of The Atlantic.
“Six and a half years ago, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometti and I started Black Lives Matter as a response around vigilante violence and police violence,” Cullors said. She referred to the Trayvon Martin case as one of the first racially charged trials of her generation.
“We recognized that the defense side said that Trayvon Martin was trying to harm George Zimmerman,” Cullors said. “We thought Zimmerman would go to jail, but he was acquitted. We stood up and said, ‘Enough is enough.’
“We wanted to organize a generation of leaders to protest police violence,” Cullors said of her organization. “What we recognized is that grassroots organizing is critical to making change.” Over the last several years, Black Lives Matter members have marched at the downtown Hall of Justice to protest Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who has refused to charge police officers involved in the shootings of unarmed black males.
Referring to Lacey, Cullors said, “We need a district attorney to do what the community wants and champion a new way in Los Angeles. And to move the dollars out of incarceration and into mental health. Criminal justice reform is not just about policy but about real human lives.
Cullors spoke of her group leading the protest against a new county jail facility.
“We stopped the building of a women’s jail and a mental health jail,” Cullors said. “What we are much more interested in is what does it look like to build an L.A. that is grounded in dignity and care for the people who most need it — those with severe mental illness, those who are cycling in and out of homelessness and who are poor in L.A.,” Cullors said.
“I grew up in Van Nuys,” Cullors said. “My father suffered from substance abuse and my brother was schizophrenic. They did not get the treatment that they needed. There were no early interventions. The only type of intervention was police intervention, which is harmful and dangerous and which ultimately led to my father’s death.
“Half or our city budget goes to law enforcement. What are we investing in?” Cullors asked. “We need more community-based services.”
“I was 17 years old when I planned my first protest,” Cullors recalled. “I was kissing my girlfriend in the park and this homophobic man interrupted our kissing and yelled terrible homophobic slurs at us. So I got all of my queer friends together — there were seven of us — and we marched down Ventura Boulevard. in Sherman Oaks waving our posters. I was angry and upset and I wanted the world to know.
“In 2013, we went to Beverly Hills and marched up and down the streets of Rodeo Drive. Helicopters hovered over us. We tried to get the folks to put down their forks and champagne glasses and to take a moment to pay attention to the people who mattered to us.”
“What did they do? asked Purdum.
“They put down their champagne glasses,” Cullors said.
The “59,000 on the Street” panel, which tackled the problem of homelessness, featured Helen Leung, co-executive director of LA-Mas, Anthony Ruffin, community center director for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health; and Nicole Wallens, executive director of the Urban Voices Project. The panel was moderated by Shirley Li, staff writer at The Atlantic.
Ruffin said he had been steadily working with the homeless population for 20 years. “We have a crisis,” he said. “There are 63,000 homeless people currently living on the streets of Los Angeles County. A mortality study was just released and it revealed that two or three people are dying on our streets each day.”
Ruffin added that mental health plays a huge component in the homeless crisis.
“We don’t know how many of the individuals (on the streets) are mentally ill, but we do know there’s a lot,” he said.
“We have about four or five outreach teams that are specialists in this type of work of working with the homeless,” said Ruffin. “Even if a homeless individual is psychotic and running naked in the street, we continue to engage them with respect and dignity.”
Wallens, executive director of the Urban Voices Project, said that music has been instrumental in helping the homeless get off the streets. With L.A.’s Skid Row having the highest concentration of homeless people in America, Wallens added that “We use music as a bridge to get people from the streets back into the community. Joining the Urban Voices Project’s choir has wonderful psychological effects.”
Wallens said that the power of music heals individuals marginalized by homelessness, mental health issues and unemployment.
“Once they join the group, we connect them to mental health and other services,” she said.
With a huge housing crunch facing Los Angeles, Leung said that LA Mas has a program where homeowners can be certified as Section 8 landlords to provide housing for the homeless.
“We already have homeowners that are excited to participate. We will build them a structure for $100,000 and as landlords, they can expect to receive $2,000 a month.”
Ruffin said his father abandoned him when he was six months old. He finally located his father, who was living on Skid Row.
“I didn’t know that he was mentally ill,” Ruffin said. “He couldn’t get a job or pay rent. He died of a massive stroke three months ago.”
Ruffin said that average citizens need to reach out to the homeless.
“It takes one individual to help another individual If we can just look outside of ourselves and our families, all it takes one individual to reach out,” he said.
During the “L.A. Challenge” panel, Ron Brownstein, senior editor at The Atlantic, interviewed Ana Guerrero, chief of staff in the office of Eric Garcetti and City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson.
Brownstein observed that 74% of Los Angelenos saw homelessness as a very serious problem.
“Is it out of control?” he asked Guerrero and Harris-Dawson.
Guerrero nodded. “It’s a crisis. We’re doing as much as we can, but we need more resources. We are building supportive housing, but construction is not going fast enough.”
“The country produces 18 new homeless people every day,” Harris-Dawson added.
“We are doing a lot in Los Angeles,” said Guerrero. “We’re doing more than any city up and down the state, but we need to do more, “she said, adding that the city plans to build one million units for supportive hosing in the near future.
“The work that we had to do to build 10,000 units was daunting,” Harris-Dawson said. “I think building one million units is farfetched.”
He also agreed that residents are having trouble paying rent where neighborhood rents are escalating.
“Recently, 213 new homeless people said they had full-time jobs, but they still wound up homeless and on the streets,” he said.
“People are worried about displacement and being moved out of the neighborhoods,” Brownstein observed.
“The reason we are building Destination Crenshaw is to confront displacement,” said Harris-Dawson, referring to the artistic enclave that is being built in one of the last remaining African American districts in Los Angeles.
“It’s an important step in immortalizing Crenshaw Boulevard. When you hit Crenshaw, you’ll know that you are in the African-American community,” he said, adding that Destination Crenshaw will be completed by the end of next year.
By Shirley Hawkins