Unpacking Homelessness on Move-In Day

Posted on January 21, 2012

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On December 28, in the midst of Occupy Oakland’s continuing battle against the city and OPD at Oscar Grant Plaza, another kind of Occupation battle was taking place in Sacramento, largely out of sight of both activists and media. Homeless campers were experiencing another raid, as police cleared out their encampment. Despite the fact that Sacramento’s shelters are at full capacity already, the city nevertheless used anti-camping ordinances to clear the camp and scatter homeless people to the city’s doorways and park benches. The action by Sacramento’s city government and police parallels the cynical raids on homeless encampments throughout the last decade in Oakland and other parts of the East Bay.

The sensational focus on one Occupation, but not the other, borne of necessity, speaks to some of the artificial borders that have been set up in the mainstream Occupy conversation. After all, Occupy is often represented as a movement of middle class liberals, assuming a symbolic “homelessness” to bring attention to a small range of problems that have become the focus of attention in the last decade—the sub-prime crisis, the failure of elected leaders to address this crisis, the lack of substantive creation of job security and the completion of the co-opting of the Democratic party. For this reason, the active participation of homeless people in various Occupy movements—and especially in Oakland—became a cause of confusion and concern in the early weeks of the Occupy movement. Homelessness remains such an integral part of the American economic and social system, that few progressives or liberals even view it as a political issue.

But as a “homeless” Occupy Oakland movement prepares to take over an abandoned building on January 28, its worth unpacking homelessness to reveal its central–and consistently overlooked–position in the current discussion about foreclosures, embattled unions and corrupt banks that engendered the Occupy movement. Homelessness, in fact, can be seen as the final stretch of an economic road a diverse group of Americans are constantly being forced along. Some are now for the first time experiencing the first leg of that journey, seemingly unaware of their ultimate destination.

Homelessness is built into the economic fabric of our society. Most of the working poor traditionally live at the precipice of homelessness. Those paying 50% of their income in rent—in Alameda County, there are 34,000 such households—are under the constant threat of homelessness. Households earning double the minimum wage in Oakland, still fall into this vulnerable economic group, because Alameda County is in the top ten of least affordable housing markets in the US. That’s a condition due in no small part to the failure of political leaders to introduce meaningful rent controls for fear of tampering with the workings of capitalism.

All of these factors are exacerbated by other systemic failures of the American economic system. Those facing serious illness and overwhelming medical costs are emerging as a growing proportion of the homeless. And, of course, foster children leaving from group homes often have only homelessness to transition to, and the imprisoned transitioning from institution to joblessness often end up in the streets. Failing to implement meaningful rent control, programs to combat joblessness and adequately funding and managing social programs is the city and county’s own contribution to our homeless epidemic.

None of that is news to many. But since 2007, those more economically secure now quite suddenly find themselves converging into this grouping via alternate routes–a recent study indicates that between 10 and 20% of homeless shelter residents got there after a foreclosure on their home in the past few years. Foreclosure was almost unheard of as a cause of homelessness even four years ago. Tenants of foreclosed buildings—who may, or may not be in the vulnerable group of working poor renters—are in even greater danger of homelessness than their working poor counterparts, as they are evicted from their homes with little notice, and forced to enter an increasingly over-priced rental market.

After the city, county, state and federal government fail our fellow homeless citizens, they then criminalize them. This is most easily visible by the city’s ruthless prosecution of its state law and city ordinance to prevent homeless people from coming together as communities, bulldozing what were once-empty lots when they become productive and self-sustaining responses to the poor state of homeless and social services. Being homeless is essentially illegal, under California law and local ordinances, a fact that many city residents found easy to ignore until the Occupy Oakland camp put such issues on a magnified stage at the foot of city hall. Oakland’s city government website even provides a hotline number so that citizens can report the crime of homeless people helping one another build a community in unused space.

As we’ve seen with the hysterically violent police reaction to the Traveller’s Building and the Cathedral Hill Occupations, there’s no more critical an emergency to city and police than the take-over of unused property. The rapid mobilization is reminiscent of old Godzilla movies.

Doubtless, few occupiers actually believe they’re solving all of the city’s problems of the soon-to be and actual homeless. But in a microcosmic reality that existed for several weeks in the plaza, all of the factors associated with the precarious life of the economically marginalized were dealt with. Food and clothing, health care, emotional support and political capacitation were all at the service of surrounding communities: those facing imminent homelessness, those who may one day soon face it, and the homeless themselves.

Seizing an unused and forgotten building is, in one sense, a response to worsening weather and increased police repression—this rationale is not unlike the one that motivated the homeless throughout the decade to band together in intentional communities in various “tent-cities. But Occupation also acts as a public stage where the rapidly shrinking base of living-wage jobs, affordable housing, accessible libraries, schooling and health care—all of the factors that lead to homelessness—can be made an integral part of our 99% conversation.

Likewise, the fact that vital resources, like the hundreds of public and corporate owned buildings throughout Oakland, remain unused because of greed, city corruption and incompetence, becomes an issue that can’t be ignored. The real-world homelessness that Oakland residents face daily—and that Occupy Oakland now faces symbolically—is not an accident. Rather it’s the predictable outcome of a merciless corporate-political partnership that always looks to wealthy corporations to manage its social and economic structure; as the city and county offer no solutions to the foreclosure crisis, for example, political leaders look on as monolith corporations like Waypoint restructure communities from homeowners to hapless renters living in one-landlord company towns.

The abandoned building that Occupy rehabilitates on January 28 will serve as a living symbol of this escalating crisis, just as the empty hotel with its capacity to house hundreds taken over by the SF Tenant’s Union last night, put these same economic issues on the nightly news throughout California and the nation. Occupy Oakland’s new occupation–where social services, food and political space are provided for all–will point to the obvious solutions to that crisis.

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