The Fight of Unhoused People for The Right to Live Intensifies As the Need for Housing Becomes Undeniable
by Cathleen Williams
The City’s Attack on Unhoused People Living In Vehicles
A devastating attack on the homeless was carried out this December by the destruction of the only homes that many unhoused people have in Sacramento, California. Hundreds of people were impacted after the City “tagged” the vehicles where they were living on Commerce Circle, a secluded side street. The City towed 18 cars and RV’s that stayed parked because their unhoused owners did not have the money to get them running, even as storms brought freezing rain to the region. Many more vehicles – 3,000 total – have been identified by the City and targeted for towing.
Sacramento’s “Services Not Sweeps” Coalition, a coalition of activist groups, the Sacramento Homeless Union, and the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee, Democratic Socialists of America, along with others, protested the City’s action at the City Council meeting on December 14.
“Activists said the crackdown could not come at a worse time, with all shelters full on any given night, temperatures forecast to dip into the 30s this week, rain in the forecast Saturday and Sunday, and no warming centers yet open. Four homeless people in Sacramento County died of hypothermia last winter.
“‘With temperatures dropping they are giving permission to remove the only shelter that families have,’ said Crystal Sanchez, president of the Sacramento Homeless Union. ‘We are getting reports of children as young as 2 months old to seniors losing RVs. The streets of Sacramento are extremely dangerous not only due to the elements of weather but of physical harm.’”(Theresa Clift/Sacramento Bee)
According to Katie Valenzuela, the progressive councilwoman elected last year in a campaign that was responsive to the needs of the working and poor neighborhoods in the central city, “We should not be wasting resources on further traumatizing and harming people who have no place to go, particularly when those actions take away the only shelter that people have during the rainy and cold season which can be life threatening to people living outdoors,” Valenzuela said in the post quoted in the Sacramento Bee.
Political Support for Unhoused People at the City Council Met by Resistance from Multi-Millionaires
At its December 14 meeting after the widely publicized towing and displacement of the unhoused community at Commerce Circle, the Sacramento City Council considered Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s “Resolution on Protocols for Encampment Enforcement Actions” that would have banned the towing of vehicles where unhoused people are living unless alternative shelter was offered.
In addition to the Mayor, two others voted for the Resolution – newly elected councilwomen Katie Valenzuela and May Vang, part of the wave of young, grass roots candidates who are winning elections across the country as voters and activists enter the political arena to fight for the very survival of poor and working constituents.
The Resolution, even if it had passed, would have had little practical effect. It did not change existing laws or mandate new practices. Some have suggested it was a form of political theatre. This is not surprising. Most council members — with the exception of the two new council members who voted for the Resolution – have been dominated by the priorities of multi-millionaire property owners and their organizations, who contribute tens of thousands of dollars to local campaigns. Their opposition to rent control is only one sign of their alignment against the needs of poor and working residents.
According to the podcast, VOICES: River City, “campaign contributions from explicitly anti-rent-control political action groups to Sacramento’s city council members and Mayor Darrell Steinberg for their 2018 and 2020 campaigns near $54,000… Council members also received thousands in campaign donations from real estate developers and property managers…” Among the actions that have reflected the power of these forces are the following:
- The council has refused robust rent control in the midst of the housing crisis.
- They have saddled the City with decades of debt (half a billion and counting) to build a downtown sports arena, following the model of other “entertainment cities” to bring up property values for the benefit of the few who own neighboring venues.
- They have subsidized development that has impacted whole neighborhoods, accelerating gentrification and displacement.
- They have resolutely refused to require developers to build low-income units as a condition of permitting luxury housing construction.
- They made no plans to preserve “naturally” affordable housing before it was snapped up by investors.
- They have made few attempts to site and secure the housing that is needed for the tens of thousands who are housing insecure or homeless, funding squalid, under-served encampments, and “emergency” shelters instead.
- They have sat back while thousands have been subjected to traumatizing police raids and sweeps.
- Their pursuit of development in the City has failed to invest in the neighborhoods where most poor and working people live
Despite all this – and even though the Resolution would have been limited in its effect – the Resolution is an important sign that the housing crisis, and the resulting explosion of tent and vehicle encampments on every street and park, is changing the political narrative in favor of the unhoused. The imperative of housing has become undeniable.
This is evident in the headline articles by the gifted local reporter Theresa Clift, exposing hardship and death in the unhoused community. It is evident in the growing organizational unity and moblization among the different activist groups across the region. There is a groundswell of awareness and concern.
At the same time, there is an upsurge of verbal attacks and vilification of unhoused people, a backlash, an attempt to push those in dire poverty outside the conversation and abandon them to police “management.” This was exemplified by the testimony of the “business community” at December’s city council meeting, all horrified at Resolution’s acknowledgement that it is a cruel and useless policy to displace and destroy vehicles where people are living when they have nowhere else to go.
Perhaps Mark Friedman’s comments were the most revealing. Mark Friedman was born to wealth – his family owns a mall and vast properties throughout the region – and he recently purchased the most expensive house ever sold in Sacramento. No doubt he starts each morning by slipping into the swimming pool that shimmers outside the glass doors of his bedroom.
Mark Friedman has no problems. As he describes it, his life is “charmed.” His goal for Sacramento is to transform it into “the Silicon Valley [meaning tech hub] of agribusiness;” his investments have reshaped our city in his interests without regard for the need for low income housing, quality education, and other public services. As far as he is concerned, unhoused people are simply like rats, worthless undesirables who stand in the way of the full realization of the wealth and property his life exemplifies.
Friedman started out his testimony by evoking fear of encampments as places populated by dangerous and demented criminals, listing drug abuse, theft, prostitution, violence and even murder – “We must not shrink from the reality we are dealing with,” he commented, we are “losing control of the city.” He spoke for pure class war on the poor.
There are couple of problems with his narrative, which is now being advanced with new fervor in the face of a rising public consensus that people need housing.
First, it is unseemly – inappropriate, improper, disgusting – for a multi-millionaire to attack those in dire poverty.
Secondly, vilifying – demonizing, degrading – poor and powerless people is a despicable tactic, the same one that has been adopted by the most rabid, racist, and hateful forces in American politics today.For example, Ashli Babbit, the Q-anon adherent, in her media posts repeating right wing propaganda about immigration, said, “This immigration thing, I guess I’m taking it personally, because I am here and you see the effects, you see the crime, you see the drugs…you see the rapes, you see all the gangs.”(LA Times).
Thirdly, the narrative is false, demonstrably false, because it disregards and denies the economic deprivation now inflicted upon masses of people, subjecting them to hardship and homelessness on a scale not seen since the Great Depression.
Who are the real criminals, the multi-millionaires or the vulnerable, shattered families trying to survive?