Banish the Unhoused

By Cathleen Williams

The term “banishment” was coined by Pete White of the LA Community Action Network (LACAN) to describe how unhoused people are forcibly relocated even though they have no place to go.   

There used to be talk of housing the homeless in government circles – like the “Housing First” model that promised actual housing as the solution to the crisis. In actual fact, California needs over a million new housing units by 2030 to meet the needs of low-income people, according to the California Housing Partnership. 

Today there are disturbing signs at every level of government that the goal of actually housing people who can’t afford rent has been abandoned, given the scope of the unmet need. This is happening in a political environment where our elected representatives, for the most part, congratulate each other on their token efforts. Looking at this year’s 2 billion spending plan for homeless issues in the state budget, Christopher Martin, policy director for Housing California, pointed out, “There’s not a dime [in the 2022 budget] that is going towards rental assistance or permanent housing.”

Beyond the basic fact that half the spending on homelessness has been committed to law enforcement for years, current proposals and plans in the city of Sacramento exemplify the new, more intensive focus on management and control of unhoused people — rather than funding actual housing.

Daniel Conway, an advisor to a coalition of business and real estate interests in LA, the “LA Alliance for Human Rights,” has filed paperwork to start collecting signatures for a ballot measure, the “Emergency Temporary Shelter and Enforcement Act of 2022.” If passed, the initiative would mandate immediate removal of thousands of people from their informal encampments into newly constructed “emergency shelter space and/or emergency camping space.” The measure is designed to be an end-run around the 2018 federal case, Martin v. Boise, that blocked the arrest of people for the crime of living outside. The court reasoned that punishment of unhoused people who had nowhere to go violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment.  

According to Joe Smith, local activist and advocate, the proposed initiative would require “a big round-up” of thousands of unhoused people. The City Manager would have 60 days to set up facilities for 75% of homeless population – currently as many as 7500 people – then 120 days to get people into shelters and camps through “daily outreach” to “relocate” them from existing “illegal” encampments, prior to “enforcement” of the law. The measure would require massive surveillance of open spaces around Sacramento by law enforcement, not only to enforce the initial thrust but also to prevent new camps from springing up.  Vast city-funded shanty towns would have to be built to contain those who have been forcibly relocated. “What’s it going to look like?” Joe Smith asked during our conversation. “Haiti?”

In August of 2021, the city of Sacramento authorized a “Comprehensive Plan,” which is, according to the Mayor, similar to the proposed initiative, in that it authorizes 20 new sites for homeless shelters, camping areas, and tiny homes, intended serve a total of 2,209 people at any given time as a temporary step toward permanent housing. As of this year, the city has not yet opened most of the new sites, and the numbers of people actually housed as a result of the Plan has been miniscule, given the millions spent. For example, the City’s motel stay program served about 1,000 people – but only 59 moved into permanent housing after leaving.  

As real housing recedes as an official priority, even the programs for sheltering the unhoused are being defunded. Sacramento’s city manager, for example, recently warned that all the city’s homeless programs were in danger of closing down this summer because of lack of funding.

This instability in funding is typical of various relief measures that focus on temporary housing. The last three motels set aside for “emergency” housing, which were funded by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management System) through the County to respond to COVID, will close in March and April, 2022, even though the pandemic still rages through unhoused communities. The County has refused to continue funding these rooms, even though they were reserved for the most vulnerable unhoused people – the old and sick. No proposal or concrete plan for housing the evicted tenants has surfaced.  

In this environment of police management and control, sweeps and clean-ups of encampments have become a daily, savage reality, with six sweeps in the week following February’s homeless count. In January, the city began an assault on cars and RV’s parked on the streets, tagging hundreds for removal, and stripping the occupants of the last stable shelter they possess.

At the state level, Newsom’s budget for 2022 set aside over billion dollars for encampment “clean-ups” – primarily to uproot unhoused residents – in a new program called “Clean California.” The effort is ramping up – Caltrans, the state highway agency, conducted just 19 sweeps clearing homeless encampments in 2020. By October of 2021, Caltrans had destroyed 347 encampments; in 2022, the agency will spend almost $36 million on “clean-ups.” (CalMatters, “Will California’s plan for clearing homeless camps work?” 12/15/21.) Caltrans typically offers nothing in the way of housing or even shelter to displaced residents.

The policy and practice of forcing the relocation of unhoused people to official camps or shelters, and of destroying informal encampments, has, of course, been the main official response to homelessness for the last 20 years or more, and it is logical that these tactics would intensify as the number of people living outside multiplies. Data collection from the unhoused population has also increased.

 In the past year, Sacramento homeless agencies discovered that seventy percent of the people accessing services and housing had never been logged into the federally funded Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). The city moved to set up additional data tool to manage the homeless population, called the “Coordinated Access System,” (also known as the “Coordinated Entry System”) which was recently described as “transformative” in a rhapsodic report to the Sacramento City Council.

According to the UN Reporteur on Extreme Poverty and Civil Rights, Philip Austin, HMIS collects

“extremely personal information like social security numbers, race and ethnicity, prior residency, what services a person has used, health status (including disabilities, pregnancy status, HIV status, mental health), education, employment, and whether they have experienced domestic violence. Anyone using the services is placed into the database, no matter the length of time one was in a program, and the information is kept for years.” (Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, Automating Banishment Report.)

As Philip Austin reported in 2017, “many homeless individuals feel deeply ambivalent about the millions of dollars that are being spent on new technology to funnel them to housing that does not exist…Computers and technology cannot solve homelessness.”

Massive data collection enhances police control and management of unhoused populations. This is apparent from the contents of the survey, which asks

“homeless individuals to give up the most intimate details of their lives…including whether they engage in sex work, whether they have ever stolen medications, how often they have been in touch with the police and whether they have ‘planned activities each day other than just surviving that bring [them] happiness and fulfillment.’ Many [unhoused people] feel they are giving up their human right to privacy in return for their human right to housing.”   (UN Report 2017)

The other very real concern is that “…the risk of these databases being accessed by local law enforcement and DHS including ICE,” which is very high. In 2017, LAPD told the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights that CES was ‘a gold mine’ of information that was ‘only one policy decision away’ from police mining.”  (Automating Banishment Report.)

While the overall picture is bleak, the movement for housing as human right is growing more organized, more aware, and more vocal, as it exposes and opposes the dangerous trend toward forced removal of unhoused people to official camps. The situation has become so extreme – so raw and brutal – that the right to housing has been thrust forward not only as the humane solution, but also as the practical solution. Police destruction of encampments brings trauma and incalculable harm to residents – that’s the cruelty of it – but it is also futile and a waste of public resources. 

Josh Barocas, at the University of Colorado, who is quoted in the CalMatters article, put into words what is obvious about the “clean-ups” and massive sweeps being launched at the state and local level: “It’s what I would call social theater,” he said. “It’s showing your neighborhood that you are trying to do something by literally sweeping the problem away….The only way to actually fix this problem is to get at the social and structural issues that are perpetuating poverty, perpetuating homelessness in the city.”

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