Mass homelessness has become increasingly normalized since the late 1970s, as neoliberal economic policies began divesting public resources from housing, healthcare, and welfare in favor of policing, prisons, and privatization. To address this systemic increase in people living in poverty our local and federal governments have created an elaborate industry of mass criminalization.
As of May 2018, there were at least 53,000 unhoused people in Los Angeles County and over 34,000 in the city of Los Angeles. 3 out of 4 of these unhoused people in the city and county live on the street, rather than in a shelter. Some live in cars, campers, RVs, tents, or makeshift shelters. The number of unhoused people far exceeds the number of available shelter beds, as well as the amount of planned housing the city expects to build through Proposition HHH funds. Low-income rental units are scarce in Los Angeles, and average rents are much higher than minimum wage workers can afford. Ultimately, tens of thousands of Angelenos have nowhere else to sleep than the street.
In Los Angeles, sleeping in public space, whether in a car, a tent, or in the open, is not illegal between the hours of 9pm and 6am. But this legal right is under attack. Los Angeles Municipal Code 85.02 bans overnight parking in many areas, and LAMC 56.11 drastically limits the amount of personal property one can possess in public space, leading to increases in police sweeps, confiscations of vital belongings, and arrests. In the past year alone, arrests of unhoused Angelinos have increased by 49 percent, and brutal daily sweeps occur under the city’s misleading “Operation Clean Streets” campaign. Sweeps conducted by police and sanitation often lead to the illegal discarding of vital possessions such as prescription medicine, tents, warm clothing, and personal documents. Arrests push our unhoused neighbors into the criminal justice system and drastically inhibit their ability to find stable housing or jobs. Simply put, both “Operation Clean Streets” and 56.11 amount to sanitation through criminalization—for too long the preferred choice of city officials who continue their push to “disappear” the unhoused to clear the way for rampant gentrification.
As agents of the racist carceral state, most police officers and private security guards approach people living on the street— a population that continues to be disproportionately black and increasingly Latinx—as suspects to be interrogated, surveilled, and punished. Many people suffer from substance abuse and mental health issues as a result of being unhoused, and the antagonistic approach of the police frequently escalates into violent confrontations— including the 2015 police shooting and killing of an unarmed and unhoused Skid Row resident Charley Keunang. In many cases, a dozen or more officers are called to respond to a single individual having a mental health crisis. More recently, City Council members have praised the formation of LAPD’s “HOPE” outreach teams as a more humane way to engage with the unhoused, and yet these teams are still primarily units of criminalization, made up largely of police officers and only a few social workers. This is sadly unsurprising when over 54 percent of our city budget is given to law enforcement that primarily exists to protect the wealthy and police the poor. Within this market-based housing economy that continues to marginalize and force thousands of Angelenos to live on the streets, we cannot accept the continued normalization of law enforcement as effective and appropriate “first responders” to our most vulnerable community members.
STREET WATCH IN DSA-LA
In order to achieve safe and democratically controlled housing for all, the DSA-LA Housing and Homelessness Committee is committed to abolishing neoliberal housing policies and the heavily funded police state that enforces them. Through Street Watch, we will begin reaching out to those most oppressed by these policies in an effort to help alleviate the systemic pressures they face, and help empower their voices in the policy making process. We will learn from and build solidarity with other housing rights and police monitoring organizations in LA and beyond to pressure elected officials, property owners, and city employees to immediately cease their inhumane treatment of low income and unhoused peoples. We will also seek to engage with those who view housing inequality and the criminalization of poverty as normal or immutable to shake them from their complacency, and encourage them to organize with us and join us in demanding a society that provides a dignified home for everyone.
Street Watch stands apart from progressive and non-profit homeless outreach efforts because we explicitly acknowledge that the housing and homelessness crisis cannot be solved through charity within the capitalist framework. Capitalism itself is cause of this crisis. Therefore, we acknowledge that it is not only the private sector’s control of housing policy that forces people to live on the streets, but also the private control of health care, labor, law enforcement, and government.