Black Californians constitute 6.5% of California’s total population but make up nearly 40% of its homeless population. This disparity exists in San Francisco and it exists in Santa Cruz. It’s an issue in Chico, as it is in Los Angeles.
Brandon Greene, affiliated scholar at UC Hastings’ Center for Racial and Economic Justice, is well familiar with these statistics. As the director of the Racial and Economic Justice Program at the ACLU of Northern California, he has been engaged in work around the issue of homelessness.
This imbalance is “neither incidental nor accidental,” Greene told a nine-member task force convened by the State of California to study and recommend reparations for Black Californians.
Discriminatory housing and criminal justice policies, Greene said, have held Black Americans back from accumulating wealth and have pushed Black individuals into homelessness and incarceration.
Greene expressed this viewpoint as an expert witness during a task force meeting focused on gentrification and homelessness.
“The ties between homelessness and the carceral system are important, due to the ways in which jurisdictions develop and implement ordinances that further criminalize unhoused populations as a means of pushing those communities out,” Greene told the task force in early December. “They do this by creating scenarios where unhoused individuals are forced to either leave the jurisdiction or break the law.”
The California Reparations Task Force was established in 2020 with passage of AB 3121—authored by then Assembly member Shirley Weber—to study issues pertinent to reparations for Black people, propose remedies, and suggest ways to educate the public about its findings. Appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, the committee of nine prominent lawyers, academics, politicians, and religious and civil rights leaders is in the midst of a two-year process to study the consequences of slavery and systemic racism Black people have faced in California and across the country. The task force is expected to release a report with its recommendations later this year.
Although California never formally sanctioned slavery, state leaders created the reparations task force soon after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a series of racial and criminal justice bills and police-reform bills following George Floyd’s death.
Greene was asked to testify by the Greenlining Institute, an Oakland-based public policy, research, and advocacy nonprofit, because of his work on the statewide criminalization of homelessness.
The civil rights attorney emphasized in his testimony that homelessness is a racial justice issue, pointing to redlining, overtaxation of Black families’ homes, reports of discrimination in appraisal and loan processes, and racially restrictive covenants as factors that have contributed to the historically disproportionate rate of homelessness within Black communities.
He explained that people experiencing homelessness are more likely to interact with the criminal justice system because living outside can lead to citations or arrests for offenses such as loitering or sleeping in public. And individuals who have been incarcerated are more likely to become homeless because they face housing and job discrimination and are often disconnected from supportive people and resources.
Greene offered a solution in the form of legislation that would make housing status a protected class, similar to race and religion. Doing so, he says, would empower unhoused people and their advocates to fight against racially discriminatory policies.
“By adding this protection,” he says, “when a city wants to pass an ordinance banning RV parking, for example, as a ploy to expel its unhoused or vehicularly housed population, they won’t be able to do so.”
In addition to his work on homelessness, Greene has been developing a module for potential piloting in criminal law courses that explores the history of racial discrimination in jury selection, how the U.S. Supreme Court has contributed to the problem, and the history and impact of non-unanimous jury decisions. The module is intended to bring greater depth and perspective to introductory courses that portray the law and legal precedents as racially neutral, Greene says, when “they almost certainly are not.”
“For me, the way in which constitutional law, criminal law, and other classes were taught [did not deal] with the reality of the law and its impacts,” he says. “They were not taught in a way that made me feel seen.” Greene plans to complete the draft module during his year-long stay at UC Hastings’ Center for Racial and Economic Justice.
Greene is a graduate of Boston University School of Law, where he says he was one of three Black men out of 300 students.
After earning his J.D., Greene was hired as a fellow on the education and housing justice teams at Public Advocates in San Francisco. Since then, his work has included positions as a public defender in Contra Costa County, where he focused on unfair driver’s license suspensions, and as an attorney and clinical supervisor at Berkeley Law’s East Bay Community Law Center, where he helped create and lead a clinic on the decriminalization of poverty. He has also served as an adjunct professor in the Criminal Practice Clinic at UC Hastings.