As capitalism continues to force people to live in the streets, Street Watch will stand with tenants in the fight to end criminalization, increase public control of resources, and accelerate a socialist movement for housing as a human right.
WHAT DOES STREET WATCH DO?
For decades, the city of Los Angeles has addressed its mass homeless population through dehumanizing policies of criminalization, the destruction of vital personal belongings, and banishment. Property owners continue to advocate for these policies while employing private security and installing hostile landscaping in public spaces. It is our duty as Street Watch members to monitor and document these abusive practices whenever possible, whether it’s being present to record video as they occur, or recording testimony from unhoused community members after they happen. We strongly encourage our unhoused neighbors to join us in monitoring if they are able. Being present to monitor and record these abuses in the moment helps in these essential ways:
- Harm Reduction. The presence of community eyes, ears and cameras on Police, Sanitation, or Private Security can force them to adjust their practices and behavior towards the unhoused.
- Legal Use. Documentation of these often unconstitutional practices can be used in potential litigation against the city. Legal victories can lead to major changes in policy, protocols, and practice.
- Raising Awareness. Publicly releasing documentation of these abuses and the personal stories of those experiencing them can build broader public awareness, empathy and support for systemic changes.
- Learning. It’s one thing to read about suffering and state violence; but it is a whole other level of experience to be present and witness it in the moment itself. Seeing and learning the nuances of the present situation informs our politics and the way we move forward.
Engaging with and learning from community members most impacted by harmful policies is crucial to Street Watch organizing. Before and after Street Watch members engage in monitoring, it is essential that we do outreach to our unhoused neighbors. Through this outreach we can also learn about various and complex internal community differences, and encourage community members to organize together and fight back.
- Listening. We place a special importance in listening to the invisible stories of these personal experiences, which so often go unheard. Being there to listen consistently can give those who have been banished by capitalism a renewed sense of belonging, and assurance that their voices and experiences truly do matter. Whether its police abuse or a lack of public health resources, it is important to know exactly what types of policies, practices, or other systemic issues they face so we can all work together to change them— with their voices leading the way.
- Informing of Rights. The city always does a poor job of letting people know the laws that are being enacted, and their rights in that context. Street Watch makes it a priority to equip people with knowledge where the city fails to do so. We also distribute a “Know Your Rights” flyer that includes a Street Watch email and phone number to report sweep notices or other abuses.
- Statement of Purpose. For unhoused community members, it is often incredibly dehumanizing to be surrounded by large groups of sanitation and police. The presence of more people there filming can cause further anxiety. By letting community members know why we are there, that we are on their side, and that we are filming the city — not them — we can provide much needed relief and maybe even a sense of empowerment. We are not there as performative charity, paid employees, or saviors. We are neighbors, fellow community members, standing in support and solidarity not just to mitigate capitalist harms — but to change the system entirely.
One of the biggest obstacles we face in working together is breaching the walls of alienation and class division that separate our lives. To make a difference in the world, it is not enough to simply know the truth; we have to feel that truth at a personal level and let ourselves be guided by it. This is an incredible burden, and by ourselves, we are not always emotionally equipped to be able to bear this weight alone. It goes without saying that the emotional toll placed on those who are present for these atrocities pales in comparison to that placed on those who live them every day. Nonetheless, witnessing these injustices in our city can be emotionally disturbing as well. To build community and power, we must always be there for each other and heal together, knowing that it will be a physical and emotional challenge.
- Consistency. While we conceptualize Street Watch as a verb, an activity anyone can perform, to do street watch once or twice, or a handful of times, is not enough to sustain our work. At the core of this coalition is the cultivation of a consistent, reliable, and stable flow of organizing momentum, so that we as individual watchers can become embedded in a steady pattern of work and remain accountable to our unhoused neighbors.
- Shared Experience. When we monitor together, we do more than watch as detached observers. We are present in physical public spaces with one another in support of each other, with all our senses activated. Our unique interpretations of what is happening around us are linked through this work, allowing us to process what we witness together, through the nuance of experience which words cannot describe.
- Solidarity. The Los Angeles Tenants Union defines a tenant as anyone who does not have control of their housing. That includes the unhoused and incarcerated, along with renters. If we are to decriminalize poverty and build a movement for housing as a human right, we must make an effort to connect the voices of unhoused community members to the growing tenants movement. The particulars of our struggles may differ, but our class enemies remain the same: landlords, property owners, private equity — and the publicly funded police state that protects them all.
- Healing. We must truly embrace each other as a community, making one another a consistent presence in each of our lives. Under capitalism, housed and unhoused individuals tend to maintain an unstated divide between one another and within their own communities. Criminalization has become the normalized response to those who are forced to cope with systemic poverty and homelessness. It is crucial that we work collectively to change this punitive mindset in favor of restoration, healing, and understanding.
- To provide support and resources to unhoused people
- To reduce harm inflicted by the state onto poor and unhoused people
- To support the political empowerment of poor and unhoused people
- To build a dedicated culture of awareness and resistance to daily acts of capitalist violence
- To decriminalize poverty and homelessness
- To increase public health infrastructure for the unhoused
- To connect housed and unhoused communities
- To build collective power
Using the example of the Los Angeles Community Action Network’s (LACAN) highly effective “Community Watch” program in the heavily policed neighborhood of Skid Row, DSA-LA and LACAN have partnered to create a city-wide Street Watch coalition of grassroots organizations and community members that seek to empower and protect the rights of poor and unhoused people across LA County, while increasing public knowledge of housing issues through a variety of direct engagements and actions. These include but are not limited to: the tracking of encampments and encampment sweeps; consistent outreach to encampment residents to inform them of their rights and encourage them to organize and join the broader tenants movement for housing as a human right; gathering of information regarding rights violations or harassment from police or business/property owners; offering resources such as legal aid; educating surrounding business owners, property owners, and housed tenants to discourage them from calling law enforcement or sanitation on encampments; and legally observing and recording video of law enforcement and sanitation encampment sweeps.
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.