Professor Evelyn Blumenberg sat in her UCLA office explaining her well-researched and unconventional thoughts on homelessness. Having spent my life in the conventional world of journalism, I was especially interested in what she had to say.
Like most journalists, I tend to accept the establishment solution to homelessness offered by most elected officials and government and non-profit experts. They focus on providing low-cost housing, counseling, job training and health care for the homeless. Journalists, being results-oriented, tend to like the quick fix. We also like numbers, reporting the count of homeless every year and gauging progress by whether the numbers go up or down.
Blumenberg, director of UCLA’s Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, and some of her academic colleagues understand the need for housing. But they go deeper, with solutions that are longer range. Breaking with conventional wisdom, they talk about cars in addition to housing.
They see the cause of homelessness as income inequality — the difference between the poor and the more affluent. It is becoming all but permanent because of the inability of impoverished Americans to earn money. They can’t do that without transportation — a motor vehicle or public transit if it is available — to reach one or two jobs that will permit them to rent a place and begin the climb out of poverty.
“The increasing costs of housing, and rent in particular, and the fact that there has been next to no change in median income, earnings, that’s just a perfect storm for households that causes many of them to end up on the street,” Blumenberg said.
That’s an argument that takes some getting used to. Reducing income inequality may get at the roots of homelessness, but it will take time. Meanwhile, the problem is as immediate as the homeless encampments on the streets of Skid Row or just a few miles from UCLA.
“Some really smart people have tackled that subject [income inequality],” I said. “Like Karl Marx. He was a pretty smart fellow but he didn’t solve it.”
Roots as an organizer
That was a sample of the exchange we had in July about homelessness. It began over the kitchen table of the West Los Angeles home she shares with her husband, Professor Brian Taylor, director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies. They have two daughters, 24 and 21. I had more questions so our talk resumed a week later at her office at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
Blumenberg started out as a progressive political organizer. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in political science, she became an organizer in the 1980s for Neighbor to Neighbor, a grassroots group campaigning to elect senators and House members who opposed aid to the Contras, the right wingers backed by the Reagan administration in Nicaragua.
She worked with two legendary community organizers. One was Fred Ross, an associate of César Chávez, founder of the farmworkers union. The other was Ross’ son, Fred Jr.
“Those organizers had a huge influence on my life,” Blumenberg told me. “That coupled with being a kid of Holocaust survivors. That gave me the motivation. The other [working for Neighbor to Neighbor] gave me the tools to work with. I feel very blessed to have worked with such a group of talented individuals.”
She was dispatched to cities around the country, finding volunteers and teaching them how to run political campaigns. “Fred senior had this whole way of using house meetings as building blocks. It was nuts and bolts, grassroots,” she said.
“She was a gifted teacher and trainer,” said Fred Ross Jr. “Not everyone can do that. She was a passionate progressive. She wanted to go out and change the world and was looking for ways of doing it seven days a week, picking up, going to other states.”
She stayed overnight in people’s houses; sleeping on couches, always ready to take off for another state at short notice. “She had a natural warmth and curiosity about people,” said Ross. “She won people over. People liked to work with her. She had an infectious sense of humor and was really fun to be around. She knew how to make the world fun.”
A car can change everything
Blumenberg returned to school and earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in urban planning from UCLA. Her specialty is examining how access to transportation, including auto ownership, affects the poor. In 2014, she was named a White House Champion of Change for her research. It’s research that is counter to views of city planners who’d like to sideline the gas-guzzlers.
“Let me talk about the car,” she said. “The research is conclusive, by a whole bunch of scholars, including what I have done, that having a car, if you are a low-income household, improves your economic outlook. Having access to a car makes it more likely you will have a job, makes it more likely you can live in a better quality neighborhood with lower crime rates, lower poverty rates.”
She conceded that was a “hard sell” to convince some of her urban planning colleagues who favor a combination of more mass transit and affordable housing built around transit lines. Their idea is to supplement public transit with ride sharing, Uber, Lyft, bicycles, motorized scooters and — as foreign as the idea is to the Southland — feet.
“How do you get a car if you don’t have any money,” I asked.
“What’s no money?” she asked. “There are some pretty cheap cars around. You’re not buying a Tesla.”
No, but even a battered old Ford may beyond the means of poor. Would government subsidize such car purchases? Where would the money come from? How could an equally poor friend or relative help pay?
I wondered how her students, after graduation, confront these issue and weigh short-term fixes against long-term solutions.
Blumenberg replied, “I think we have to be moving both for longer term change and immediate change. People are struggling now. They’re not going to wait 10 years to get reasonable health or find a job. Their lives are being destroyed as a consequence.”
She said: “There are multiple causes of homelessness. There are individuals who are rightfully discussing the lack of affordable housing as one of the causes. At the same time, the cost of rent goes up; the median income does not go up. We need to think of what is going on in the income side, increasing the supply of affordable housing and finding ways of increasing household incomes so they can afford those rents.”
“When you get a job and a car, your life changes?” I asked.
“You have income,” she said. “It means access to everything, including finding a place to live. Think what it gives you having some reliable form of transportation, being able to go to the store, being able to go to the doctor.
“Being able to find a job and travel to that job regularly,” she added. “It’s not just finding the job, you’ve got to be there whatever your schedule is, you’ve got to regularly travel to that job. For women, in particular, they have to balance taking care of the kids and maintain the job. All those things are essential.” So is “juggling multiple jobs so your earning stream is higher.”
I thought of the women and men who stock shelves at the market at night and go another job during the day. And if it’s a parent, she has to stop home, feed the kids, take them to school and then go to the day job and in the evening back to her night duties. Without a car, that’s extremely difficult.
“At night,” Blumenberg said. “If you are female, you are not likely to be hanging out at a bus stop in your neighborhood waiting for a bus to show up.”
These are not just theoretical questions for Blumenberg. She takes them into the classroom. “I teach a class on transportation and poverty,” she said. “The students are social- justice minded. They tend to be interested in equity issues.”
I asked what the Lewis Center, Luskin and the entire university contribute beyond theoretical solutions, in policies that will help the rest of Los Angeles.
From research to intervention
“The bread and butter of the university is research,” she said. “That’s what we do at UCLA. We do research. I think that is essential to broad policy making. Students get frustrated because there is research and intervention. The students are intervention-oriented.”
“And journalists are intervention-oriented, too” I said.
“Exactly,” she replied. “So there is always the challenge of taking these scholarly ideas and translating them into particular strategies. The lawmakers can figure out what the nuts and bolts are.”
That made sense. Blumenberg is sending her students out into neighborhoods miles from UCLA. There they interview people, take surveys and observe. They study whether the new rail lines will bring many people close to their jobs. They learn about gentrification — how the big new apartments in Chinatown and the Sawtelle Japanese-American neighborhoods are pricing housing out of reach for all but the affluent. Then they write up their findings to meet the rigorous UCLA graduate school standards.
From there they will head to jobs in city halls, foundations, Sacramento, Washington and other places where politicians deal with the nuts and bolts of fixing these problems. With luck, the graduates will provide a fresh approach to a debate badly in need of new ideas.