“The System That We Have to Respond to Homelessness Is Not One That Was Designed to Help People.”
Nithya Raman is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America who is running for city council in Los Angeles. In an interview with Jacobin, she describes her history organizing around sexual harassment and homelessness, the need to stop gentrification in LA, and why a homes guarantee is a critical demand.
- Interview by
- Indigo Olivier
Nithya Raman is an urban planner who has spent her professional career working on urban poverty and women’s rights. She stepped down from her position as executive director of Time’s Up Entertainment to run in the March 3 primary for LA City Council’s 4th district, which saw its homeless population go up by 53 percent last year alone.
Raman is running on a platform of a homes guarantee, a just transition for LA, immigration reform and a more democratic city council. Her campaign has been endorsed by the Sunrise Movement LA, Ground Game, a number of celebrities and DSA-LA, where she is a member. Raman spoke with Jacobin about her campaign and the housing and homelessness crisis in Los Angeles.
You have a background in urban planning. Could you talk about your political work as an urban planner before your campaign for city council?
I spent a number of years in India working with people who lived in slums and informal settlements there. People who were members of informal-sector unions, who were fighting for access to basic services like toilets and running water. When I was working there, India was undergoing some major changes in its cities. It was a time of great economic growth and India was coming into its own as an economic superpower. The presence of slums in these major cities across the country, which make up a large percentage of each city’s population, were at odds, at times, with India’s self-image as a growing economic superpower. There was a much higher number of slum evictions.
The kinds of work that lower-income residents often did like street vending and informal industry of all kinds, were being regulated and moved outside of the city. I worked with a coalition of slum-based organizations in Delhi and later in Chennai that were doing advocacy on the ground on these issues and worked with [these residents]. In Chennai they started a research center at an academic institution that created maps and data that would help buttress their existing advocacy.
How would you define your politics?
I’m a registered Democrat, but I’m a member of DSA locally and pretty much my entire platform very much overlaps with what DSA has been fighting for here in LA. My politics is one that looks at, particularly in a city like Los Angeles, where the market has failed to accommodate or create housing for residents that they can afford and where our market has failed to meet the needs of our residents locally and making sure that we’re filling those gaps.
Why is it important to you to build a coalition that includes DSA?
I’m running in a city council race which [in LA] is a nonpartisan election so there is no public identification of party lines at all. At the city level, what has been incredibly frustrating for me, as someone who has worked on the issue of homelessness in Los Angeles for many years and has seen and grappled with the broader housing crisis that is part of the homelessness crisis, is that we have a system right now where there is an incredibly powerful status quo that is keeping the city and county from using a lot of the powers that they have at their disposal to push us towards a more just vision for Los Angeles.
Locally, there has been very little engagement in city politics in Los Angeles. Voter turnout in municipal races has been incredibly low for decades and for the most part, when we’re out knocking on doors, people don’t know who their city council member is, they don’t know the powers of the council, and they don’t understand what the council should be doing for them.
DSA, along with other organizations that are advocating on homelessness, on housing rights, on criminal justice reform, are pushing now to transform that understanding, to educate and empower residents locally to tell them this is what you should be expecting from your city and from your government.
These are the ways in which [the city council] has kind of failed us as residents. They haven’t used the power at their disposal to make sure that people are protected in the housing that they’re in, that housing prices are not rising out of control, that we’re building the kind of housing that people can actually afford, that once people are experiencing homelessness, that we’re able to get them the kinds of services that they desperately need to start their journey back into housing. These are all things that we should be expecting from our local governments and they haven’t done that. It’s been an exciting moment to have a lot of groups in the city that share a vision for change in how our local government can operate — coming together to push for that change.
Right now, there’s also an incredible moment in LA. For the first time, our city elections are coinciding with our federal elections so we have an opportunity now, potentially, to see much bigger voter turnout than we have before. There’s a real chance to bring a lot more voters into this race, to educate them about the issues and to say to them that you deserve better than what you’ve been getting right now.
What inspired you to run for office?
I had been doing a lot of work on homelessness. I worked at City Hall briefly, five years ago, and was asked to write a report on the city’s response to homelessness and my report found some really stark things. At that time, there were 23,000 people experiencing homelessness. Now there are 37,000 — the number has gone up by 14,000 in five years, which is a staggering increase. My report found then that the city was already spending over a hundred million dollars responding to homelessness, but that there was very little coordination across departments. Departments were moving homeless individuals around from the street, to parks, to libraries and, most frequently, to jail.
The bulk of that hundred million dollars was being spent to put people who were experiencing homelessness in jail and, most often, they’d be in jail for three nights and then released. It’s a policy that was both incredibly cruel and incredibly ineffective. My report also found at that time, when the city was spending such a huge amount of money on homelessness already, they had only hired nineteen outreach workers for the city and county together. The outreach workers are really the people who are tasked with ensuring that people have access to the services they needed. It’s a gross underinvestment in compassionate, evidence-based responses to homelessness.
I left City Hall, had twins and took some time off from the workforce, but I started a homeless coalition in my own neighborhood. We are a volunteer-run homeless coalition, and now it’s one of the most active homeless coalitions in the city. We started trying to do outreach in our neighborhood, getting to know people, trying to understand the barriers that they face in getting back into housing. We realized once they were experiencing homelessness, it was incredibly difficult, almost impossible, to get back into housing and impossible to get access to the kinds of services that they needed.
The system that we have to respond to homelessness is not one that was designed to help people. In our whole area there was not a single walk-in shelter bed. If you wanted to speak to someone about health issues or mental health issues, none of that was available. As a coalition, we said that we wanted to create services locally in a place that was really lacking in such resources.
We went to our city and said we’ve identified locations where you can create these kinds of drop-in services. We see that this is a desperate need and the city really didn’t do anything, so we did it ourselves. We created a one day a week drop-in center, which has since expanded, where we have a case manager, where we have showers, show a movie; we rent a van and pick up people from encampments throughout that area, bring them to the site and then drop them off afterwards.
When I looked at the system that I saw in front of me and the city’s slow response, I decided to run because I was doing this work, and the other members of the homeless coalition were doing this work, while we had other jobs and families. If elected representatives shared the sense of urgency that we felt around these issues, we would have a very different system in place in response to homelessness, but also to the broader housing crisis.
You’re one of over seventy politicians across the country to sign onto a homes guarantee. LA hasn’t built new public housing since 1955 and has the second-largest homeless population after New York. Can you talk about what a homes guarantee would look like in LA under your administration and what kinds of power the city has over housing?
What has been really exciting about this moment with the homes guarantee and with Bernie Sanders and Ilhan Omar signing onto it — talking about millions of units of public housing being built — is that we have had a space open our in our local imagination and in our local politics around reimagining our relationship to housing.
LA has been exclusively dominated by the real estate market. Unlike New York, LA has less than 10,000 units of public housing. New York has close to two hundred thousand. We’re starting in a place where people are unable to find housing through the real estate market. There is no backstop here. What has been so exciting about this moment is talking about housing as a human right, calling out issues like real estate speculation that has driven up prices across the city and led to displacement in neighborhoods that have been historically working class or dominated by a majority-minority neighborhoods.
It’s incredibly important for us to be able to address not just the homelessness crisis but the broader housing crisis of which homelessness is just the most egregious symptom. It is changing who gets to live here and who doesn’t get to live here. It’s pushing out working people and people of color.
Last year LA county lost population and the majority of people who left were people making less than $50,000 a year. We’ve had a massive decrease in our black population over decades and that is deeply linked to affordable housing issues. We have an opportunity now through, not just the homes guarantee, but the broader conversation around of which it is a part, to talk about housing as a right in a city which historically hasn’t had much of a space for that at all.
You stepped down as executive director from Time’s Up Entertainment to run for city council. Could you talk a little bit more about your time there and how the #MeToo movement has influenced politics?
I was part of Time’s Up at a really exciting moment in the women’s movement: a national reckoning around gender rights and gender equity. In addition to the stories that came out around Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, we also saw Trump’s language around women and the Brett Kavanaugh moment. Over and over again we were confronted with the fact that so many people who were powerful and influential within the system that we operated, espoused views and acted in ways that disregarded women.
At Time’s Up, we had an opportunity to push for change in an industry that had really been rocked by these moments and it exposed practices that had been taken for granted for many years. It allowed a space for workers in the industry to speak up about things that they historically would never have spoken up about before.
I was new to the industry, and one of the things that I started to realize is that despite the fact that there is a strong union presence in the entertainment industry, the way that you get jobs, the way your work is structured, is like a freelancer. The nature of the work is such that you depend on relationships in your current job for your next assignment. Your union isn’t going to get you another job. You still have to get it through your own connections and so structurally there is an incredible disincentive to come forward about sexual misconduct or any kind of issues with your working conditions.
It wasn’t just sexual misconduct, it’s abuse of all kinds that has been taken as kind of just what you had to accept: long hours, poor treatment particularly of assistants and lower-level employees on sets. What the #MeToo movement did was open a space for, of course women to come together, but really workers of all kinds to be able to build alliances not just within their own profession, or their own kind of union, but across different working categories.
The costs of speaking up were reduced from the organizing that came out of the #MeToo moment. Because your network grew. For me, at Time’s Up, one of the things that I focused on a lot was community building, whether it was groups of women of color or women who worked “below the line” in production jobs. We tried to make sure we were creating spaces where people could come together, not just to talk about these issues, but also to forge new networks in the industry.