COVID Has Been 'Hurricane Katrina' for the Homeless on Skid Row

We spoke to Los Angeles Activist Pete White about homelessness, the pandemic, and defunding the police.
January 20, 2021, 3:16pm
Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles has the city's largest population of homeless. The homeless remain the most vulnerable to contracting Covid-19 due to lack of sanitary facilities and overburdened city services.
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For the largely Black homeless population living in Los Angeles’ Skid Row neighborhood, the pandemic has been their Hurricane Katrina, according to Pete White, the founder and executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network. People have felt abandoned by their officials.

But it’s also been an opportunity for advocates and community members to step in when they felt no one else would, and ensure the survival of an immensely vulnerable group.

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“The story that I’m left with is that people are resilient, even in lieu of leadership that is more about words than actually doing the work in the service of the people,” said White, whose organization has advocated for impoverished people living in Skid Row and greater Los Angeles County since 1999.

That kind of resiliency and drive to fill unmet needs has followed White throughout his career. He’s long railed against gentrification, the over-policing of the poor, and the increased presence of cops in Los Angeles’ homeless communities. Then came a pandemic that disproportionately affected people of color, and this summer’s calls to defund the police and address systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. White found himself once again advocating for change—and money to address the problems plaguing his community. 

“This year was probably the most busy, and the most taxing, that I can remember—ever,” White said. “Because you’re dealing with a public health crisis on the one hand, but then you’re also dealing with rapidly shifting political dynamics.” 

In some ways, that busyness paid off—though he says there’s still a long way to go. Activists in Los Angeles and other cities managed to push officials to consider non-police solutions for calls about issues relating to nonviolent crimes, mental illness, and homeless. The city also agreed to cut $150 million from the Los Angeles Police Department’s budget, under immense pressure from activists. What’s more, White said he also played a part in the successful Measure J campaign in LA County, which voters approved in November and will divert 10% of the county’s “locally generated unrestricted funding” toward social services like housing and alternatives to incarceration. The cash set aside specifically “to address the disproportionate impact of racial injustice” could be worth an estimated $360 million to $900 million, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

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VICE News spoke to White about his successes in 2020, systemic racism in Skid Row, and his advice for the Biden administration. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

VICE News: Before COVID-19 and George Floyd, why were homeless activists, including you, essentially backing a defund-the-police model then? What was at stake? 

Pete White: We’ve seen this slow creep of police departments and the LAPD attempting to remake itself and place itself within the purview, or the realm, of social problems. We see that in their Community Safety Partnership  programs, where they are becoming sports coaches and hanging out in parks and things in this nature—but not out of good will, because they’re getting paid additional dollars. We see this with them engaged in homeless “outreach and services.” Where, in reality in both cases, what they’re really doing is quality-of-life violations, they’re targeting specific community members; they’re using this time to surveil, arrest, harass, and banish folks.

So we’ve been doing this work, and watching these trends, and fighting back against these trends, for more than two decades. We just saw in the George Floyd rebellions an opportunity around this idea of defunding the police. 

VN: Did you see any real change after that sentiment became a movement this summer?

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White: The short answer is yes. In Los Angeles, I was part of the campaign committee in creating the Measure J campaign, whereas in the County of Los Angeles, we ran a county charter reform campaign on the ballot that now puts nearly $1 billion in the hands of the community and away from law enforcement.

But when we’re talking about a budget battle, we're talking about hundreds, thousands of pages of documents that most communities don’t have the appetite to sort of go through. And most organizations don’t have the technical experience to sort of wade through the ways in which we’re tricked in the budget. And so this charter reform for us did two things. The very first thing was that it actually pulled aside resources for things communities identified. That doesn’t suggest that the rest of the budget isn’t open for communities—there’s still allocations that we’re looking for—but we wan’t to make sure that certain resources are earmarked for community organizations, advocates, and others to direct that money. So that’s what becomes very important. 

Pete White (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Community Action Network)

Pete White (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Community Action Network)

And then the other thing is that the money is there irrespective of the politics. So no matter who is in office, those dollars are there. What our hope is, in that way, is this idea of participatory budgeting can sort of emerge, right? So it doesn’t become so overwhelming, because folks have a stake. They have a stake on Day 1—this stake is in this smaller pie on the county side that’s $1 billion—but then hopefully it’ll lead to people being interested in the entire pie. 

We wanted to make sure that we were able to, when we’re talking about lasting change, lasting efforts, we wanted to make sure that whatever we did outlived the politicians that were clearly trying to both save their jobs as well as take advantage of the movement.

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VN: How have you seen issues of systemic racism manifest on Skid Row and across Los Angeles’ homeless population, which is disproportionately Black?

White:
During the COVID-19 crisis, houseless deaths increased from three per day to four per day in Los Angeles. Black communities were still left out—Black houseless communities were still forgotten about even in programs, projects that were designated for houseless people. 

VN: How have you seen issues of systemic racism manifest on Skid Row and across Los Angeles’ homeless population, which is disproportionately Black?

White:
During the COVID-19 crisis, houseless deaths increased from three per day to four per day in Los Angeles. Black communities were still left out—Black houseless communities were still forgotten about even in programs, projects that were designated for houseless people. 

What we’re finding in the context of people falling out is that much like with the mortgage meltdown, the African American community is hard-hit. And, in particular, this is where the feminization of poverty just raises its ugly head. Because with the mortgage meltdown, it was largely African American women who were the head of households in South Central Los Angeles and other places that were hit the hardest. So we’re seeing the same thing with COVID-19. It’s like a double whammy. Those who were barely hanging on—because there’s no relief—are about to hit the bricks, and most of those folks are going to be Black and brown folks who are barely hanging on. 

Our fear is that as a result of true mom-and-pop landlords not being able—and this is people of color, largely—to cut the mustard, we’re going to see a lot of properties turned over to the larger corporate interests—Blackstone and others. And it’s going to expedite the gentrification of our communities, because it’s going to continue to lead to the banishment and displacement of the few remaining Black communities in Los Angeles. So there’s a lot at play.

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VN: How has this year impacted you physically and mentally? 

White: In short, really tired. I think that’s the appropriate word, because while many people were sheltered in place, there’s a whole other gaggle of folks who were out in the streets doing outreach, providing services, running campaigns, building organizations. This year was probably the most busy, and the most taxing, that I can remember—ever. Because you’re dealing with a public health crisis on the one hand, but then you’re also dealing with rapidly shifting political dynamics. It was no joke. It was no joke. 

The other thing we were doing at the same time is figuring out ways—and this is why it’s so taxing—figuring out ways to bring in all of the newfound energy that existed to make change by way of virtual toolkits and this, that, and the other. And then figuring out how to organize on Zoom chats. So all of this stuff—when I said “tired,” you really didn’t have the opportunity—and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to sit down and reflect, just all of the amazing stuff that we were able to pull off this last year. But then, additionally, figure out, you know, just what the movement—and I’m part of that movement—what the movement needs to sort of heal and get prepared for implementation. 

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In this work, the campaign is one thing. A campaign takes two or three years, and these were really quick campaigns. Implementation is where it’s at, though. Implementation, you’re monitoring, you’re measuring, you’re pushing for the next decade. So getting some time to sit the hell down, reflect, prepare, evaluate how to move forward in the next few years. And now, with the vaccine coming, figuring out what that means to organizing, what that means to engagement, what that means to the economy as it relates to our work.

VN: President-elect Joe Biden has said he’s going to make racial equity a key priority of his transition, including ensuring housing.  If you were to tell him how that’d work for people living on Skid Row, what would you say?

White: I think I’d have to roll out a plan [laughs.] The very first part of that plan would be to take all surplus state, city, federal, and local properties, right—and old buildings—and turn that into housing where applicable. So we should not have any empty anything—that should all be turned into housing. 

The other thing that I would tell him, just on the policy level, is that we need to go back and replace the billions of dollars that were stripped from the HUD budget in the ’80s, so we can put back in place real resources to build housing that’s affordable at all income levels, all the way down to zero income. 

The other thing that I would tell him is stopping the wholesale giveaway—and that’s what it is—of public housing across the country. It’s something that started with Clinton, went through Bush, Obama. And Trump was real quiet about it—you didn’t really hear much about it—but stopping the wholesale giving away of our public housing stock. Those would be some of the things that I would say up front.

The other thing I would say is, make sure—you’re talking about these radical visions, but I need to see your leadership. It’s good to hear the VP and the president saying these things, but who is going to hold down this? And what radical things can we expect within your first 100 days in office?

And as you know, no matter what they say, we know that we’re going to have to fight for everything. Because the same sort of developers and bankers and insurance companies who have sort of controlled the destiny of America before, they haven’t gone anywhere. And they’re still in the VP’s and the president’s pockets, or the VP and the president are still in their pockets. So there’s just some financial interest that we’re still going to have to be up against.

The other thing that I would tell him is stopping the wholesale giveaway—and that’s what it is—of public housing across the country. It’s something that started with Clinton, went through Bush, Obama. And Trump was real quiet about it—you didn’t really hear much about it—but stopping the wholesale giving away of our public housing stock. Those would be some of the things that I would say up front.

The other thing I would say is, make sure—you’re talking about these radical visions, but I need to see your leadership. It’s good to hear the VP and the president saying these things, but who is going to hold down this? And what radical things can we expect within your first 100 days in office?

And as you know, no matter what they say, we know that we’re going to have to fight for everything. Because the same sort of developers and bankers and insurance companies who have sort of controlled the destiny of America before, they haven’t gone anywhere. And they’re still in the VP’s and the president’s pockets, or the VP and the president are still in their pockets. So there’s just some financial interest that we’re still going to have to be up against.

The other thing that I would tell him is stopping the wholesale giveaway—and that’s what it is—of public housing across the country. It’s something that started with Clinton, went through Bush, Obama. And Trump was real quiet about it—you didn’t really hear much about it—but stopping the wholesale giving away of our public housing stock. Those would be some of the things that I would say up front.

The other thing I would say is, make sure—you’re talking about these radical visions, but I need to see your leadership. It’s good to hear the VP and the president saying these things, but who is going to hold down this? And what radical things can we expect within your first 100 days in office?

And as you know, no matter what they say, we know that we’re going to have to fight for everything. Because the same sort of developers and bankers and insurance companies who have sort of controlled the destiny of America before, they haven’t gone anywhere. And they’re still in the VP’s and the president’s pockets, or the VP and the president are still in their pockets. So there’s just some financial interest that we’re still going to have to be up against.