This year the students enrolled in Hawthorne’s Urban and Environmental Policy department course connected to the Third Los Angeles Project chose to highlight the topic of homelessness. 

Scholars, government officials and activists took an often passionate look at the causes and possible solutions to the growing problem of homelessness in Los Angeles in the April 6 Third Los Angeles session, organized by students in Christopher Hawthorne’s Occidental College urban policy class.

Homelessness in Los Angeles and in California generally is the result of rising income inequality and state legislation that gutted rent control and allowed landlords to take affordable housing off the market, said Peter Dreier, E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and former housing director for the Boston Redevelopment Authority. 

The criminalization of homelessness also has played a major role in exacerbating the problem, said Eric Ares of the LA Community Action Network. The result has disproportionately affected the African-American community, which makes up less than half of the city’s population yet makes up more than half of the homeless, said Charles Porter of the United Coalition East Prevention Project.

While what Ares called the “boring but critical issues of how we plan and zone our cities” are essential to a solution, Jose Ramirez, executive director of downtown L.A.’s St. Francis Center, cautioned that there is no one-size-fits-all solution because of the diversity of the homeless population: families, veterans, the mentally ill, substance abusers, and young people aging out of foster care. “That’s why building a human connection is so important,” Ramirez said.

Because homelessness pushes people’s emotional buttons in a way that other issues do not, “We need to figure out how to break down divisions in the community, get over that fear, and have a more honest conversation,” said Alisa Orduña, director of homelessness policy for Mayor Eric Garcetti. “Then we can mobilize and get the policy done.