Once known as a body of water where police routinely fished out human bodies, Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles was redeveloped in 2011 as part of the city’s broader attempts at urban renewal. The lake was drained and filled with fish, and officials introduced giant white swan boats that park visitors could rent. The 2013 reopening was just one example of how Echo Park, a historically Latinx community, was being gentrified.
For the first few years, the park stayed as the city seemingly intended: Mostly white hipsters using the green space for picnics, jogging, and tanning. Over time, tents cropped up around the outskirts of the park. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of tents grew and the park that the city spent $45 million to reconstruct became one of LA's largest tent communities. In March, the city sent the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) to raid and destroy the housing encampment, which at that point was operating as an autonomous community. With collective gardens, kitchens, showers, and medical tents, the park was supporting unhoused residence in a way the city had not.
In a statement, the Echo Park Lake Tent Community asked their councilmember Mitch O'Farrell and the police to leave them alone. “Without the constant LAPD and city harassment uprooting our lives we’ve been able to grow,” the statement read. In partnership with the housed community, the unhoused residents of Echo Park Lake were able to create a residential community and provide care and housing on their own terms, they said: “Together we’ve been able to see and enjoy each other's common humanity in a way the city, with its lens of economy, never could.”
Hundreds of people, including local community groups and Echo Park residents, protested the plan to clear the park. But the city pressed ahead, evicting the unhoused community and shutting down the park. A fence was installed to enforce the closure. After $1 million in repairs, the park reopened with the giant white swans again transporting eager visitors across the pond.
In late July, the majority Democratic L.A. city council passed an anti-homeless ordinance that will most likely lead to further harassment and criminalization of those who are unhoused. The measure bans sitting, sleeping, lying, and/or storing one's personal property near public parks, schools, libraries, streets, and sidewalks. (On September 2nd, a federal court did rule against a similar 2016 ordinance which allowed for the removal and disposal of “bulky items,” citing that it violated individuals' 4th amendment rights.) Los Angeles, home to the second-largest homeless community in the country, just outlawed everything the unhoused rely on. Sadly, this move is in line with broader trends.
Across the country, local and state municipalities are passing legislation that effectively criminalizes being homeless. These laws, like the one passed in Los Angeles, will only further endanger unhoused people. According to a 2019 LAPD report, a third of the time police officers used force in the third quarter of that year, it was against an unhoused person. Criminalizing additional aspects of being homeless only increases the opportunity for further interaction between unhoused people and the police.
Laws that criminalize the unhoused are surging during the pandemic, but they’ve been on an upswing in recent years. In 2019, the National Homeless Law Center surveyed 187 cities across the United States and found that city laws prohibiting loitering, loafing, and/or vagrancy had increased by 103% since 2006.
Vagrancy laws, which have their roots in pre-industrial England, were created with the intention of tying workers to their lords and making sure that people were forced into work. Throughout the years, authorities have used vagrancy laws to control the access of unwanted groups to public land, from sundown towns and Jim Crow laws targeting Black Americans to anti-Okie laws in California during the Great Depression. These restrictions had different names, but the desire was the same: Control public spaces and determine who could exist within them.
In June, Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a statewide ban on taking up residence and storing personal belongings on public property. An unhoused person could have to pay up to $500 in fines just for existing on public land. Which begs the question: Who is public land for? And who counts as being part of the public?
In 2019, Austin’s city council rescinded laws barring unhoused people from sleeping on public property, such as sidewalks, as long as they weren’t doing so in front of city hall. But in May, voters passed a proposition to reinstate the ban. Save Austin Now, a political action committee and self-described “citizen’s group” that is focusing on issues like “deregulation of camping, out-of-control crime, and skyrocketing property taxes” was behind the measure. The group is also pushing a second ballot measure to increase the number of police officers in Austin. (The president of the Austin Police Association sits on PAC’s board of directors.) Having gathered the requisite signatures, the proposition will go to the city’s voters in November.
Homelessness is the result of a society that has treated part of the population as disposable. Through our various categories of hierarchy, both social and economic, the United States has created a permanent caste system. At the bottom of this caste system are those most neglected in this country: those who are Black, non-Black Indigenous, undocumented, trans, queer, disabled, and/or poor. It is a truth about the country we live in that many pretend not to see. This is why measures like building colorful “tiny housing” villages for unhoused people are becoming increasingly popular, especially in liberal cities. They provide a more aesthetically pleasing alternative to haphazard encampments, without addressing the darker underlying issue: People will always be vulnerable to homelessness as long as housing is seen as a commodity.
Solutions to homelessness are often paired with plans to fund more mental health services, shelters, and job training programs. These proposals examine the problem through a very limited scope. Yes, sometimes people lose their housing because of their addiction or psychological disorder. But tens of thousands of Americans are experiencing homelessness every year, many of them children. Millions of people could lose their homes after the Supreme Court ended the federal eviction moratorium that has been in place for much of the pandemic. As I see it, the issue is that we live in a country that requires you to pay for housing instead of treating it as a public good, accessible to all.
Anti-homeless legislation is not just about the right to dwell on public property. It’s also about having the autonomy to live on this planet without having to pay rent. In essence, these laws punish people for not being renters or landowners, and as the climate crisis makes more areas of this country uninhabitable, threatening people’s homes, that’s a problem that should concern all of us.
In 2018, a massive fire destroyed 11,000 homes in Paradise, California, a rural town in the northern part of the state. Chico, one of the larger, neighboring cities, offered shelter to Paradise residents, who were forced to flee their homes. That hospitality quickly wore thin and Chico has since become a hostile place for the climate refugees, with the city government taking a right-wing turn and empowering the police force to aggressively police the unhoused. In a piece for the Intercept, Naomi Klein wrote, “Chico demonstrates what it looks like when the climate crisis slams headlong into a high-end real estate bubble and social infrastructure starved by decades of austerity.”
As cascading catastrophes render more space unlivable, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which officials take an even more authoritarian approach to solving the “problem” of the unhoused. Together, we’ll have to respond with an alternative vision, but one thing is for sure: We’re going to need more than tiny homes.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue