Homelessness is Los Angeles’s defining crisis. Income inequality, a shortage of housing, failing mental health services and drug addiction all contribute to growing scenes of squalor across America’s second-largest city. The federal government recently estimated that a nearly 3 percent rise in homelessness nationwide this year was driven mostly by California.
Yet it does not affect everyone equally. The historic displacement and fracturing of black communities in South Los Angeles have pushed black Angelenos like Mr. Wynn onto the streets at more than eight times the rate of other groups. In interviews with more than a dozen black men who are homeless in Los Angeles, the bitter inheritance of racism came up again and again.
Peter Lynn, the longtime head of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, said discrimination played a major role in the origins of the crisis. “There is a staggering overrepresentation of black people in homelessness, and that is not based on poverty,” he said. “That is based on structural and institutional racism.”
Marqueece Harris-Dawson, a City Council member who represents communities in South Los Angeles, said, “The homelessness crisis we are living in now is the result of a housing crisis that has been in the making for decades.”
Decades of Displacement
Like many black families during the Second Great Migration, Mr. Wynn’s parents came to Los Angeles in the 1950s, seeking an escape from segregation and a path to a middle class life.
“Better life, job opportunities,” Mr Wynn said. “At that time California was booming. It was, ‘Go West.’”
But his family arrived in Los Angeles at a time of discrimination in housing and mortgage lending, which largely restricted black families to certain neighborhoods in South Los Angeles.
Through a practice known as redlining, real estate agents and lenders marked these neighborhoods as areas undesirable for investment, preventing residents from obtaining home loans.
By 1970, three-quarters of Los Angeles County’s black population lived in just two dozen neighborhoods in South L.A. That concentration made the area a center of black culture and the site of a burgeoning black middle class.
When manufacturing jobs declined in the 1980s, black unemployment nearly doubled. Drugs and gangs ravaged the neighborhoods, kicking off a period of black flight. Harsh policing and high incarceration hollowed out the community.
In the 1990s, Latinos started moving to the area and the cost of living rose. Black residents moved to Inglewood and the Crenshaw corridor, or out of the county entirely.
These maps show the loss of majority-black neighborhoods in Los Angeles County over the last 50 years.
By 2000, South L.A. had a new racial makeup. Once predominantly black spaces were now majority Latino, and the black residents who remained were among the city’s poorest. The Great Recession hit them the hardest while the recovery offered them the least. About a third of South L.A.’s black residents now live in poverty.
“It has been a vicious barrage of public and private policies and actions that have placed and will continue to place black individuals and families into a downward spiral into poverty,” said Chancela Al-Mansour, the director of a local housing advocacy group.
And the poor are least able to cope with L.A.’s skyrocketing housing costs. As rents rise across the county, they are rising faster in South L.A. Black households there have a particularly hard time affording rent.
Across the county, a third of black households experience severe rent burdens, with their housing costs equaling half or more of their income.
In South L.A., the share of black households experiencing severe rent burdens is about 50 percent.
South L.A. — once the heart of the city’s black life — is now the epicenter of housing instability for black Angelenos. It is where black residents are most at risk of falling into homelessness.
Latinos in the area do not experience homelessness at nearly the same rate as African-Americans. Experts cite a variety of reasons. Rates of homelessness among white Angelenos are similar to those of Latinos, at about one in 100 residents. Asians and Pacific Islanders in Los Angeles experience homelessness at even lower rates.
From South Central to Skid Row
Mr. Wynn, now 60, had a troubled home life from the start. His parents, he said, were married “only on paper,” and he never lived with his father.
He shuttled between the homes of other family members — in Compton, East L.A., South L.A. — while his mother worked long hours at a county hospital.
At the time, the city around him was in turmoil. He recalled being terrified during the 1965 Watts riots, watching rioters loot a corner liquor store. “They drove up and down the street saying, ‘Burn baby burn,’” he said.
Mr. Wynn found a measure of stability when he moved with his mother to Inglewood, part of the first wave of black families moving to what was then a white neighborhood. The old lines that separated black areas from white ones were shifting.
“Blacks moved in, and I watched the white flight out,” he said.
He eventually came to like his new, mostly white school, but it was tough at first.
“I never really felt true prejudice until I moved to Inglewood,” he said, recalling an episode of being accosted by the police at an ice cream parlor.
Mr. Wynn had a lot of dreams over the years. He fell in love with fashion. He saw a black man present the news on television, and thought he too could do that.
But he struggled with depression. And when he came out as gay, his father didn’t accept him. “I did everything in my power to be straight,” he said.
He made it to college, studying biology at the historically black Clark Atlanta College. He thought of being a doctor.
But he got caught up in drug running and was arrested with 250 pounds of marijuana. He avoided prison time, but has a felony on his record, which has haunted him ever since.
“I was so limited to what I could do,” he said.
By the time he returned to Los Angeles, his mother was preparing to retire and move to Riverside, in the Inland Empire. Black families had for years been flowing out of Los Angeles, in search of cheaper housing and an escape from crime. He followed to care for her and held several jobs, including working as a shoe salesman at Nordstrom and as a mortgage broker.
After his mother died of cancer, Mr. Wynn couldn’t get back to Los Angeles fast enough.
“I was devastated losing my mom,” he said. “She was all I had.”
He left Riverside with his dog, a chihuahua and Jack Russell mix, and about $1,000 in cash. For a time, he stayed in motels, but the money soon ran out and he was living in his car, a 12-year-old beat-up black Toyota Matrix.
“It was kind of weird because every evening your mind said, ‘I’m going to go home,’” he said. “And finally reality started kicking in, and I said, ‘Wow, there’s no home, there’s no home, there’s no home to go to.’”
Record Numbers Are Homeless
Los Angeles voters have in recent years approved more than a billion dollars to fund more housing for the homeless, and the city and county are opening up new shelters all the time. But the problem continues to worsen.
The number of people living on Los Angeles streets is at an all-time high and growing. The annual street count from January 2019 showed 44,214 people living without shelter across Los Angeles County.
There are unprecedented plans to build temporary shelters with 4,000 beds and 15,000 permanent housing units for the homeless by 2026.
The estimated number of people housed by those efforts — about 27,000 combined — would leave thousands still living on the streets.
And none of this construction is likely to help solve the specific challenge of black homelessness, which experts say requires efforts that go beyond building more housing units or opening more shelters. Those efforts must address bias in everything from the rental markets to employment to criminal justice.
A report on black homelessness published a year ago by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found racism to be the root cause, saying that black Angelenos continue to face discrimination in many areas. Over the past 50 years, for example, black homeownership in L.A. County has declined to 36 percent from 44 percent.
Mr. Lynn, the homelessness agency director, pointed to the criminal justice system, saying, “There is probably no more single significant factor than incarceration in terms of elevating somebody’s prospects of homelessness.”
The black overrepresentation in homelessness roughly tracks the same dynamic in California’s prisons: Black people make up about 6 percent of the state's population but about 30 percent of those in prison.
Inmates return to the world with a criminal record that gets in the way of getting a job or securing a mortgage or lease on an apartment.
Advocates for the homeless have been pushing state and local officials to spend more on re-entry programs to stop the revolving door between prison cells and homeless camps.
“If you are a felon, you can’t get a good job,” said Marlon Jackson, 44, who is homeless in South L.A.
Mr. Jackson does not have a felony record, but many of his friends do. “Most black people I have been around all my life, all my friends, have felonies,” he said. “Everybody I grew up with is either dead or in jail or they are out of jail with felonies.”
From the Streets to Supportive Housing
At Mr. Wynn’s lowest point he was living in his car, dealing with hypertension and heart problems, in addition to his persistent depression. His weight dropped from 190 pounds to 130 pounds on his six-foot-three-inch frame.
“I didn’t want to commit suicide, but I wanted to die,” he said.
He was eventually accepted into a residential program at the Weingart Center on Skid Row, which served as a bridge between the streets and a new apartment. He took part in group therapy, and started to feel less alone.
“There’s a lot of depressed black men in Los Angeles,” he said.
For a few months now, after being on the streets for almost three years, Mr. Wynn has lived in a small one-bedroom apartment provided by the county. He has a new dream: to learn sign language so that he can find a job working with the deaf.
But he hasn’t slept in his bed, which still has the plastic cover on it.
He calls the bedroom his “depression room” and sleeps instead on a small black couch. This is not uncommon: some formerly homeless people set up their tents inside their apartments.
Of the many losses he has experienced, one continues to torment him.
When he left Riverside, he put his mother’s belongings — furniture, family photos — in storage. When he failed to make the payments, the company auctioned everything off.