And activists from Skid Row’s LA CAN are leading the conversation.
The housing crisis that grips Los Angeles is the result of an array of interrelated forces ranging from the effects of predatory financialization to evolving forms of urban segregation. The result of these forces that create displacement and precarity is a fundamental failure to ensure the basic human right of shelter is being met for tens of thousands of Angelenos on a daily basis. The unsheltered are the most criminalized population in Los Angeles, a city spending an outsized portion of its discretionary funds on policing.
Despite the recent passage of measures H and HHH, the unhoused in Los Angeles face a dearth of resources that is the shame of this city. This crisis of houselessness is most visible in the Skid Row neighborhood of Los Angeles, the home of the LA Community Action Network (LA CAN), an organization focused on helping those dealing with the effects of poverty in Los Angeles.
It is amidst this context that UCLA’s Institute on Inequality and Democracy will be putting on the first half of their Housing Justice in Unequal Cities Conference at LA CAN. This conference draws in a network of internationally based researchers and academics focused on housing. Rather than site the event fully on the university’s campus in Westwood, Institute Director Ananya Roy thought it was crucial to take the academic work being done and present it where the inequality manifests. “quite literally the public university needs to exist not just within its walls and it’s campus,” said Roy, “it needs to be an institution that serves the city.” The siloing of academia from activists, especially those directly affected by societal forces that heighten inequality, only reinforces class divides. The question being asked with this conference is whether academia can also serve to dissolve them.
This speaks to a larger challenge facing academics in fields like housing and social welfare: how to do the work that the communities facing hardship need them to do. This requires genuine partnership. In speaking to Roy about the relationship between the university and organizations like LA CAN, she spoke to viewing Pete White as her teacher on what is really happening in Los Angeles. This work of de-centering the academy in terms of expertise is unusual, but crucial if academic research is going to be directly impactful on behalf of the communities it reports on. White will be making the opening remarks at the conference.
This conference is also an opportunity to highlight the unique forms of inequality that plague Los Angeles and the United States. “In so many parts of the Global South this framework of ‘homelessness’ or the ‘unhoused’ doesn’t exist,” says Roy. Thus bringing in academics from South Africa, Spain and Brazil can help to recontextualize issues relating to housing justice in America.
This dovetails with the work LA CAN has done both locally and working with the UN Special Rapporteur on poverty, Philip Alston. It is the work of LA CAN that has made it clear where what constitutes the American system for dealing with poverty is failing. Bringing those activists and organizers and the spaces they live and work in together with people answering the question of poverty in countries from across the globe creates the potential for a unique opportunity for everyone in attendance to learn from those most affected by poverty.
The Housing Justice in Unequal Cities Conference conference runs this Thursday and Friday (January 31-February 1) at LA CAN and the Luskin School of Public Affairs on the UCLA Campus. Tickets for the event are sold out, but more information on the presenters and the event are available from UCLA’s Institute on Inequality and Democracy.