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A reparations informed perspective


Homelessness is the quintessential intersectional issue of the decade. There is simply no way around it, no matter how hard some may try to deny it: homelessness cuts across every major policy sector of our time, full stop! Poll after poll, in the Mayor’s race, in the Sheriff’s race, and in State and local ballot measures, homelessness reigns supreme as the priority issue for voters.

Voters know homelessness is the most complex manifestation of poverty confronting communities across the nation. I can think of nothing more profoundly stubborn and at the same time so dynamic. In a sense, homelessness is its own pandemic. We are pretty clear from our work in this field over many years and from the many studies done during that time that race, gender, age, geography, housing, law enforcement, and health all interplay in a very powerful and routinely daunting way.

Homelessness forces us to acknowledge the moral crisis of income inequality and economic injustice that confronts us on a daily basis. It also reminds us of discrimination, disproportionality and disparity. For example, the Los Angeles Homelessness Services Authority (LAHSA) study commissioned on Black People Experiencing Homelessness (2018) pointedly identified racism as the primary causal factor. And more recently, Theo Henderson, host and creator of the podcast “We The Unhoused”, eloquently explained how unhoused Black people threaten the sensibilities of those fortunate enough to be housed, just by their mere presence. Here’s a former teacher, a Black man, who found himself having to choose among medicine, food, or housing in order to survive.

By now it comes as no surprise that a disproportionate number of African Americans are homeless. There is no shortage of data that corroborates the point that Blacks are twice as likely to live in poverty and correspondingly have the lowest rate of homeownership. Ongoing discrimination and its legacy – disproportionality and disparity – continue to uniquely conspire against Blacks as a racial group. How else do you explain California’s homeless profile with Blacks constituting roughly 6.5% of the Golden State’s general population, but hovering at 40% of its homeless population?

Given my academic background and training as an ethicist, I view the racial impact of this humanitarian crisis through the lens of ethical discourse, specifically, distributive justice. Simply stated: Who gets what in society and what’s the fairest way to deliver what’s needed, deserved, or even owed? It’s a matter of the most equitable way to distribute the primary social goods in our society: food, clothing, shelter.

Thankfully, the California Reparations Commission (the first of its kind in the nation) brought attention to these disparities and inequities in their recent Interim Report just a few months ago. Astutely, the Commissioners call for an end to policies that propound racial discrimination and persistently compound racial disparity, particularly anti-Black public policies. Redlining policies and predatory lending practices, for example, have disproportionately damaged Black men, women and children over generations. In other words, the Reparations Commission calls for an end to policies and practices that perpetuate the vast over representation of Black people who are yet houseless.

The very notion of reparations applied to homelessnesses expands and deepens our concept of justice. Because of homelessness’s intersectional prowess it moves justice beyond the traditional categories and facilitates a powerful interplay of a multi conceptual framework for change. No longer is it a matter of distributive justice alone. Compensatory justice ceases to stand by itself. Restorative justice integrates itself into the larger construct and cannot then be marginalized. Herein lies the call to rethink justice in the interest of those who endure the indignities of homelessness everyday.

Perhaps it was the Rev. Amos Brown, Commission Vice Chair and Pastor of the historic Third Baptist Church in San Francisco, who offered the best prescription for the fight against injustices past and present: “Admit it. Atone for it. Act to correct it.” This is the clear reparations-informed policy path forward to address the devastating impact of homelessness on Black people across the state of California.

Mark Ridley-Thomas holds a PhD in Social Ethics from USC. His concentration was social criticism and social change. He has used his training to interpret and address the issue of homelessness for over a decade. He is recognized as a leading voice on homelessness prevention, intervention, and innovation across the state of California.