On Saturday, as part of its ongoing series on homelessness in the San Fernando Valley, the Los Angeles Daily News posted a picture of 48-year-old Daniel Benitez standing in front of his makeshift encampment on Van Nuys Boulevard. As depicted in the photo, Benitez's living quarters is comprised of a tarp staked to some metal poles, a few cardboard boxes full of clothes, and various spare bicycle parts, which he uses to make a little cash doing bike repairs.
The shopping center in the background of the picture—the Plant—is probably intended to be just that: background. But a picture is worth a thousand words. The juxtaposition of Benitez and this shopping center speaks volumes about the root causes of homelessness in the Valley. The history of the Plant, and countless shopping centers like it, ties directly in to the rise of homelessness in ways that are so ordinary and common as to be persistently ignored.
Many of those who drive by the Plant on their daily commutes along Van Nuys Boulevard, or who go shopping inside one of its stores, are probably not aware of the buildings that used to hold fort on this patch of ground. From 1947 to 1992, General Motors operated a manufacturing plant here. In the years after World War II, Los Angeles was the second largest auto-producing city in the country, after Detroit. Like many of the automotive plants in L.A. at the time, GM Van Nuys offered good work in manufacturing and assembly: unionized, well-paying jobs, with benefits and pensions. The kinds of jobs that once allowed people to comfortably afford a mortgage, or at least rent a decent apartment, in the San Fernando Valley.
When GM left, so too did many of the San Fernando Valley's remaining high-quality manufacturing and assembly jobs.
All that has changed, and the Daily News' series on homelessness in the Valley reflects it. So, too, do the numbers: The Los Angeles Homeless Services Agency's most recent count, conducted in January 2015, found 5,216 homeless people in the Valley, up eight percent from the last count in 2013. The number of veterans—the population typically associated with homelessness—has remained essentially flat, meaning that most of the growth can be traced to non-veterans, especially women and children.
Service providers in the Valley attribute the increase to the same issues that affect all of L.A., namely stagnant wages and a crisis of affordable housing. But they say that homelessness is less visible in the Valley than on Skid Row, and therefore less likely to garner political attention, because of the area's sprawling suburban nature and the tendency of homeless people to camp out in the Valley's dams and washes instead of its storefronts. Still, homelessness in the Valley has become much more noticeable in recent years, as Benitez and others set up base in front of places like the Plant. David Crane's photo of Benitez for the Daily News unwittingly captures the bigger picture within the picture—a story of broad economic shifts inscribed in the landscape.
During the 1980s, GM Van Nuys was the site of a bitter labor struggle between the United Auto Workers and GM executives. At the time, GM would strategically pit its various factories against each other to see which would offer the best conditions for production (low wages, speed-ups, no benefits). It was clearly a union-busting strategy. In this case, the Van Nuys plant was in competition with a factory in Norwood, Ohio.
In response to this manipulative tactic, the United Auto Workers launched a comprehensive campaign that endured nearly 10 years. In addition to gaining the support of leaders such as Maxine Waters and Cesar Chavez, and building an impressive multiracial coalition, activists from the UAW challenged the idea that corporations could simply shut down and leave when they found (or coerced) cheaper labor elsewhere. The UAW argued that GM and other corporations have a responsibility not only to their shareholders, and not even just to their workers, but also to the communities where they choose to operate. As Eric Mann, a union activist (and now director of L.A.'s Labor Community Strategy Center) put it at the time: "The basic premise of the struggle—that we do not recognize GM's plant as 'private property' but see it as a 'joint venture' between capital, labor, and minority communities—flies in the face of GM's worldview and the dominant business ideology of the times."
The UAW and its supporters waged a hard fight, and succeeded in getting the factory to stay open for nearly a decade longer than anticipated. But GM Van Nuys ultimately shuttered in 1992. It was the last auto plant to leave Southern California during the region's painful process of de-industrialization. And when it left, so did many of the San Fernando Valley's remaining high-quality manufacturing and assembly jobs.
After sitting vacant for years, the land was re-developed in 1999 as the Plant Shopping Center. Current tenants include Home Depot, Babies 'R' Us, Michael's, and Party City. There are also some fast-food restaurants and a Starbucks. Regardless of the industry, the vast majority of jobs in this complex are low-wage, often part-time or seasonal, with no benefits. This is insecure and insufficient work. Few employees at the Plant could afford a home in the Valley, or even a small apartment, on the wages they receive.
Of course, the redevelopment of the Plant is not, by itself, responsible for the spike in homelessness in recent years. There were homeless people in the Valley well before GM closed down and the Plant went up, but service providers say they were in the order of hundreds, not thousands. Instead, the Plant's development represents the convergence of large-scale economic changes that have increased poverty and homelessness in the Valley over the past three decades: the growing reliance on retail rather than manufacturing, declining unionization rates, increasing rents, and flat wages, among others.
Decron Properties, the owners and managers of the site, calls the Plant "an iconic power center in densely populated Van Nuys." Let's call the Plant what it really is: an iconic representation of the downward economic shift that has plagued the Valley and the entire country over the past three decades. The shopping center's name evokes its history, as does its signage, which incorporates a riff on the famous Chevy Cadillac logo. But names and aesthetic gestures are no substitute for high-quality jobs—something Daniel Benitez surely knows quite well.