Stop the Sweeps
On the criminalization of homelessness
Those of you who live in the Bay Area hae probably already seen that video of a San Francisco gallery owner harassing an unhoused woman by hosing her down. It’s pretty horrific, but also unexceptional; if anything, it’s just an illustration of how acclimated many Californians have become to treating their least fortunate neighbors like literal vermin. (Notably, but not surprisingly, the assailant is less than fully contrite.)
There are a number of factors that contribute to this attitude: racism, classism, ableism, a very American sort of visceral resentment at the existence of other people’s unhappiness. If you’ll let me get a little esoteric (after all, the whole point of this Substack is to be a safe space where I can get needlessly esoteric), I would also point to some parallels between unhoused people in 21st century America and stateless peoples as Arendt describes them in Origins of Totalitarianism. In both cases we are describing not merely an “other” but someone who is regarded as existing outside the human community.
This otherness is reinforced by quotidian acts of disrespect and casual violence. Many of these acts are perpetrated by private actors but many, many others are committed by the state. Unhoused people and stateless people are, to quote Arendt, “outside the pale of the law.”
Arendt writes (emphasis mine):
The best criterion by which to decide whether someone has been forced outside the pale of the law is to ask if he would benefit by committing a crime. If a small burglary is likely to improve his legal position, at least temporarily, one may be sure he has been deprived of human rights. For then a criminal offense becomes the best opportunity to regain some kind of human inequality, even if it is as a recognized exception to the norm. The one important fact is that this exception is provided for by law. As a criminal even a stateless person will not be treated worse than another criminal, that is, he will be treated like everybody else. Only as an offender against the law can he gain protection from it. As long as his trial and his sentence last, he will be safe from that arbitrary police rule against which there are no lawyers and no appeals.
Civil rights groups and housing organizations often decry the “criminalization of homelessness,” by which we mean the routine police harassment and arbitrary destruction of property that gets visited on people who sleep on the streets. But another way to think about this may be as a sort of logic of internal statelessness. We know where that logic inexorably leads; and indeed, it’s not unusual to hear public calls for rounding up unhoused people and placing them in camps.
Ultimately, housing is the solution to homelessness. But we also need to restrain public actors from imposing “arbitrary police rule” (in Arendt’s words) on unhoused people. I wrote a little bit about how to do that in California YIMBY’s recent report on homelessness.
Because the subject deserves a bit more detail than I was able to provide in that report, I’ve expanded on our decriminalization recommendation in a post for the California YIMBY blog. You can read that post here.