The homelessness conversation by California Voices features authors involved with the issue to help Californians grasp the solutions and areas of consensus. Read more voices on homelessness.

Guest Commentary written by

Zella Knight

Zella Knight

Zella Knight is an activist and Resident United Network LA leader. She has experienced homelessness, housing instability and housing insecurity.

For all the billions that California has invested to solve homelessness, we have yet to commit to the most critical changes. I know because I’ve lived it.

In 2005, I was diagnosed with a rare and debilitating heart condition that put me in the hospital. While under treatment, I lost my job. That’s when my 13-year-old daughter and I found ourselves without a home for the first time.

As I tried to get us back on our feet, I had a North Star that kept me going: I would not disrupt my daughter’s education. I fought for her to get the same opportunities as other kids. Every week I took her to her extracurricular activities like classes to learn Japanese. Los Angeles Unified School District’s homeless liaison helped me keep her on track.

After months of motels, couchsurfing and nights in my car, we entered a North Hollywood shelter in late 2006. I saved up everything I could, got a Section 8 voucher and found a new place to call home in Sun Valley. 

But four years later, the landlord refused to make safety fixes. I spoke up. He retaliated. My daughter and I were once again without a place to call home. 

I went through this cycle four times over more than a decade: safely housed, living in my car, sometimes the streets. Countless landlords refused me because I had a Section 8 voucher. 

Today I have a home. I have a space to be with the people I love, just down the street from my favorite restaurant, Old Time Drive In. 

When I moved into my home, my landlord delayed the process to transfer my voucher for so long that I lost it. I struggle to pay market-rate rent but I make it work while fighting for my rights because I refuse to cycle into homelessness again.

I’ve been resilient and endured, but I shouldn’t have had to. California is supposedly the fifth-largest economy in the world, but more than 170,000 Californians experience homelessness on any given night – more than any other state. Thousands who hold vouchers remain homeless because of reluctance or outright discrimination by landlords. 

The state has policy options that could ensure no one has to sleep on the street, and that no one has to battle to stay housed. We can make homelessness brief, rare and nonrecurring in California. 

First, we must stop passing an annual hodge-podge of funding and commit to adequate, ongoing, consistent investments in what works. This year the California Homeless Housing Needs Assessment found that we need to invest $8.1 billion in housing, shelter and supportive services every year for the next 12 years (we’re currently about one-sixth of the way there). We have to subsidize housing for more than 225,000 apartments annually. 

If there were more affordable homes and subsidies, I wouldn’t have waited so long for my own.

We need to make sure we distribute these resources equitably, too. In California, 26% of people experiencing homelessness are Black but we represent only 6% of the state’s population. If California did a better job addressing equity in who gets housed, Black people like me wouldn’t disproportionately experience homelessness.

Finally, California needs to strengthen our renter protections. Pandemic-era policies that help people stay housed should be permanent. Although the state passed a law in 2019 making it illegal to discriminate based on source of income, the law is poorly enforced. Better protections for tenants would have saved my daughter and I from a lot of suffering, and would require my landlord to accept my voucher today. 

So many people are so much closer to homelessness than we think. So many are just one job, one major loss or one health crisis away. 

I followed my North Star to watch my daughter graduate from Vassar College in 2014, and today I get to see her smile when she walks in my door to visit. How many more Black girls like my daughter and how many more families like mine could find their way home if we, as a state, truly chose to light their path?

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California Voices: Homelessness

California is struggling to address its homelessness crisis. To better understand the solutions and areas of consensus, CalMatters asked a few of the people involved to simply explain what California should do about homelessness.

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