(Photo illustration by Shawntel Johnson; created in Procreate and Lightroom using assets from Unsplash, Pexel, and Pixabay)

Addressing homelessness in L.A. means confronting racial bias in charitable giving

When I wrote about Sarah Fay in 2022, a young white woman experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles, something unexpected happened. For the first time in my career, readers reached out, not only with sympathy, but with offers of financial help. 

I was happy for Sarah and proud of the series, but confused. I’ve shared stories of people in similar situations, most of them Black or Latine, without response. The difference in reaction to her story made me think about the realities of race, homelessness and public empathy in a city that has both great wealth and a widening inequality gap. There are more than 75,000 unhoused people on any given night in Los Angeles. Nearly 32% are Black, despite Black people making up only just over 7% of L.A. County’s population, according to recent census data.

While Sarah’s story is unique, it reflects a trend in how race influences public response to homelessness. I wondered why the stories of some people move us to action, while others, of folks equally as deserving, do not. A deeper look at homelessness through the lens of philanthropy reveals uncomfortable truths about how race and visibility shape our sense of empathy.

Unhoused person sitting beside a building looking straight to the street at golden hour.
(Credit: Ev via Unsplash)

Amanda Andere, chief executive officer of Funders Together to End Homelessness, said it’s absolutely time we confront racial disparities in how we perceive and address issues like homelessness.

“What would it look like if we only had to depend on the kindness of strangers?” she said.

A 2020 report titled “Racial Equity and Philanthropy” looks at disparities in funding for organizational leaders of color. There is systemic underfunding and biases against Black-led initiatives. Black-led organizations earn 24% less in revenue and have 76% less in unrestricted net assets (which can be put toward any general expenses) compared to their white-led counterparts. These inequities, the report says, limit the growth of Black-led organizations and hinder broader social progress.

There is also the pervasive issue of racism within the fundraising profession, according to the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Birgit Smith Burton, Georgia Tech’s executive director of foundation relations with a 30-year career in philanthropy, explained in an AFP blog post that racism goes beyond individual biases and shows up in cultural norms and institutional policies. The overall lack of a supportive culture within nonprofits for discussing racial issues, coupled with a concentrated number of nonwhite staff in roles that have little power, makes matters worse. There’s also hesitancy to hire people of color for major fundraising roles due to unfounded fears of failure.

The systemic nature of the biases highlighted by Burton go hand in hand with the challenges faced by Black-led organizations securing funding. The pattern mirrors biases in homelessness, where sympathy and compassion can often align with race. Readers’ reactions to Sarah’s experience led to empathy and support. But it also showed me how reactions to homelessness can vary based on someone’s race, illustrating a broader issue of racial bias when it comes to fundraising and philanthropic support.

“After George Floyd there has been a lot of work and attention to racial equity,” Andere said of efforts to prevent and end homelessness, which include putting people on a path to housing justice and racial justice. “That means understanding how to reimagine a system in which we shouldn’t have anyone falling into homelessness. And if they do, how do we give them agency and power over where and how they live?”

Go Fund Me, please?

Back in November 2017, Katelyn McClure and boyfriend Mark D’Amico launched a GoFundMe campaign called “Paying It Forward.” The page claimed McClure was on her way home from Philadelphia on Interstate 95 when her car ran out of gas. A man, an unhoused veteran, gave her his last $20. A photo of McClure, a white woman, and the unhoused white man accompanied the campaign profile. The goal was to raise $10,000 to help get the man off the streets. The campaign caught the attention of media outlets nationwide. More than 14,000 people gave $400,000 in under three weeks. 

The entire fundraiser was based on a lie. The man was unhoused, but never gave his last $20. McClure and D’Amico used the money raised for gambling, luxury items and a BMW. The scam was revealed when the unhoused veteran, Johnny Bobbitt, sued them for not getting his share of the money. The trio had actually met at a casino. According to news reports, Bobbitt struggled with addiction and was convinced to be part of the scheme. But when McClure and D’Amico didn’t give him his full portion of the proceeds, he sued, which led to an investigation. 

I share this story because I believe this incident is a microcosm of larger racial biases in philanthropy. It highlighted a troubling aspect of fundraising: How easy it is for certain narratives (especially those involving white people) to quickly gain trust and financial support. A study led by Jessica M. Clark from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business found that being authentic about racial identity hinders fundraising success on platforms like Kickstarter. The research analyzed how both visual and textual signs of racial identity both affected fundraising outcomes and success.  

GoFundMe has similar campaigns by people of color looking for help with housing in L.A., struggling to find similar empathy, attention, or raise the money they are looking for. According to GoFundMe’s 2022 Year In Help report, L.A. didn’t make the top 20 list of most generous cities on the platform. California didn’t make the top 10 most generous states. 

I reached out to GoFundMe to see if they could share internal data about its fundraising campaigns. A spokesperson told me the company doesn’t track racial data for internal equity metrics. They also don’t track how many campaigns successfully achieve their fundraising goals: 

“Goals are dynamic and ever-changing. Goals are set by the campaign organizer and can be altered at any time throughout the campaign. Some organizers set humble goals and then increase once the donations start coming in. Others will set ambitious goals and very high goals but still raise money to help.”

I can’t prove that race was a key factor in the success of the fraudulent GoFundMe campaign. But it does speak to broader trends in racial dynamics within fundraising that suggest race could play a part in how campaigns are perceived and supported. There are also studies linking certain racial identities to trustworthiness. This means race can influence public empathy and fundraising efforts, making some stories more appealing than others. 

The legacy of Prop 209 and redefining equity 

Laws help shape the landscape of race, philanthropy and homelessness in Los Angeles. Veronica Lewis, director of the Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System (HOPICS), told LAist there is a barrier to address the disproportionate impact of homelessness on Black communities: California’s Proposition 209. The legislation prohibits targeting state funds based on race, complicating efforts to put resources specifically toward people who are Black and unhoused despite there being a clear need for them. 

“They do it for gender. They do it for age. That seems to be acceptable,” said Lewis about addressing deep-rooted disparities when we spoke about adopting an equity lens in philanthropy. 

“Philanthropy has a lot more flexibility because of its private dollars,” Lewis said. 

“There’s more openness especially if you can demonstrate the need and [philanthropy] can really delve into areas that Prop 209 or the public sector cannot directly fund.”

This means that Lewis can target specific populations through her work. But she also said relying on philanthropy is not a solution because these issues are systemic. 

“I think the public sector should be doing more,” she said, adding that a shift in focus could happen at any time because private dollars have their own priorities. They also have boards of trustees they answer to and a finite pot of money to disburse. 

Lewis said it’s important to acknowledge racial realities in philanthropy. She criticized the notion of being “color blind” in grantmaking, saying it ignores the varied experiences of people of different races.

“Across the board, data shows there are less resources for Black and people of color,” she said. She referenced the “equality versus equity” meme to illustrate her point: While equality treats everyone the same, equity recognizes and addresses unequal starting points. 

(Credit: Interaction Institute for Social Change)

In the meme, equality is depicted as everyone standing on the same box on the ground, but only those who are more advantaged can see over the fence. Equity involves providing support (like stacking boxes) for those who start disadvantaged due to systemic inequities. 

“My convo with the philanthropic sector is always don’t talk to me about equity if you’re not stacking the books,” Lewis said. “Color blind means you are giving resources after reviewing and assessing applications, assuming that everyone can see over the fence.”

Addressing homelessness and its racial disparities requires more than just funding; there needs to be a shift in perspective. The response to Sarah’s story reminds me that empathy in our society intersects with race, perception and deep-rooted biases that we must constantly strive to overcome. 

The Hilton Foundation funds targeted initiatives at nonprofits such as HOPICS. Peter Laugharn, Hilton Foundation’s president and chief executive officer, said that philanthropic organizations have helped pioneer, test and improve strategies to reduce homelessness for a long time. 

“[Philanthropy] has the flexible dollars to step in to activate and pilot solutions, particularly before government funds become available,” Laugharn said in an emailed statement. 

To address challenges in the philanthropic sector, Laugharn stressed the importance of structural changes and collaborative efforts among local governments.

“After declaring emergencies and allocating more funding to homelessness solutions, city and county officials across Greater Los Angeles are moving closer to one effort and one plan,” Laugharn said. “Philanthropy will continue to support them with the help of other nonprofits, community leaders and public officials.” 

Laugharn said acknowledging racial disparities and historical injustices in grantmaking is necessary. He pointed out that unaffordable housing, income inequality and racial inequity are significant drivers of housing instability, particularly for communities of color and LGBTQ+ communities. He also referenced historical policies like redlining and the uneven implementation of the GI Bill, which contributed to these disparities. 

“To that end, our approach to grantmaking must inherently include an equity lens,” Laugharn said. 

But addressing homelessness and its racial disparities requires more than just funding; there needs to be a shift in perspective. The response to Sarah’s story reminds me that empathy in our society intersects with race, perception and deep-rooted biases that we must constantly strive to overcome. 

Andere of Funders Together to End Homelessness said individual donations cannot replace comprehensive and equitable support that should come from the government.

“There is extreme bias,” she said, referring to people’s decisions to care about the unhoused possibly based on the color of someone’s skin. “That approach is inequitable and unfair. Philanthropy can be part of the solution, but it can’t wholly address these deep issues.”

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