The multidimensional nature of homelessness extends beyond “selected episodes of rooflessness;” rather, it involves “deprivation across several different dimensions—physiological (lack of bodily comfort or warmth), emotional (lack of love or joy), territorial (lack of privacy), ontological (lack of rootedness in the world, anomie), and spiritual (lack of hope, lack of purpose).” All of which must be considered to holistically view its implicit causes and enablers (Somerville 2). Despite Los Angeles County’s innovative pursuits to combat homelessness, its unhoused population continues to rise. This suggests a flawed understanding of the physical state and emotional being of homelessness itself. Rather, “[it] is a symptom of a much larger… issue in our region and across America” (Examining the Homelessness Crisis in Los Angeles 8). Mass incarceration, the impending housing crisis, and the dehumanization of the homeless population all inflict predatory behavior on unhoused individuals. Homelessness cannot be addressed or analyzed without acknowledging it as being in close conversation with these macro issues on a city and national level. The reason for such lack of progress in housing, despite persistent efforts from the city, can be analyzed through community records of court hearings and community interviews. These depict that both the perceived criminality of the homeless and current legislation solidifies a fate of imprisonment either directly by the legal system or by the unhoused population’s lack of autonomy.
Viewing homelessness through the lens of the current climate of LA’s housing crisis establishes a correlation between increasing housing inaccessibility and the homeless population. This crisis is further enabled by gentrification which causes not only the surrounding homes to become unaffordable, but the way of life itself, which leaves displaced residents in its wake. In today’s housing climate, neighborhoods such as Highland Park, Crenshaw, Chinatown, and other parts of South Los Angeles are highly vulnerable to gentrification based on this historical depreciation and are subsequently at risk for a displacement of its long-term residents due to the expansion of services like public transportation (Examining the Homelessness Crisis in Los Angeles 37).
Without a stable means of housing, low-income residents, or residents subject to the effects of historical redlining in LA are threatened by rising living costs. The displacement of residents from their homes directly increases the rates of homelessness seen in the city. This phenomenon has deep roots in government financing and redlining, which can be defined as the denial of homeownership, mortgage loans, and improvement loans to racially targeted groups, resulting in segregated neighborhoods. Additionally, these highly racially concentrated neighborhoods were left with no services including parks, public transportation, or recreational services. This, in turn, led to a stigma that depreciated the value of black-owned homes based on the consequences of redlining. Establishing macro-issues, such as the housing crisis and redlining, as root causes of the rising homeless population relieves pressure on individuals’ actions or failures and places more responsibility on the larger-scale problems rooted within the city. This recognition disproves the misconception that homelessness is the result of individual failures, but rather the collective failures of local legislation and sustainable home planning in addition to national problems of mass incarceration.
The social constructs of homelessness and its perceived criminality create a suffocating state of imprisonment that is often promoted in local legislation and approaches to combat the issue. The inherent lack of freedom within the prison system parallels the lack of freedom that coincides with being unsheltered on the streets or even within current government shelters. Although shelter residents have the agency to leave as they please, “this freedom must be examined in the context of anti-homeless policing” (Speer 2). Among the unhoused community, there is a preference for community-centered shelters rather than strict government-regulated shelters, mainly to preserve a sense of freedom and avoid the projected criminality enforced through anti-homeless policing and shelter policies. Through Speer’s “Rise of the Tent Ward: Homeless Camps in the Era of Mass Incarceration,” the strict approach to managing homeless shelters is criticized as other avenues of and forms of self-governed sheltered living are explored. For instance, Speer analyzed encampments within two Washington cities with restrictive policies enforcing background checks and the requirement of an “outside manager.” The implementation of such harsh and extensive regulations within the encampments illuminated the underlying intent of placing unhoused individuals in prison-like settings due to the need to combat their perceived criminality and presumed ill intentions (Speer 3). Overall, this pushes the narrative that people without homes can only be addicts, criminals, or people who deserve their circumstantial struggles.
Moreover, the need for such controlling oversight observed within such shelters implies that “officials viewed the homeless as an unruly population in need of strict discipline and control” (Speer 3). Although these “tent wards” are well intended and are consistent with the continued goal to end homelessness, they strip their residents of basic freedoms such as privacy and free will while constraining human connections of community and self-government in a similar way as correctional facilities. These basic freedoms and human connections are vital to holding onto one’s humanity and remaining an integrated part of society. Additionally, encouraging such connections and freedoms places more emphasis on the initiative of the individual rather than the initiatives and requirements of the encampments. Otherwise, being unhoused develops beyond an economic status and morphs into physical and mental imprisonment even for those who seek shelter.
In addition, the apparent lack of privacy and criminalization of basic needs and bodily processes further establishes the commonality between an incarcerated individual and a homeless individual. Necessary functions such as sleeping or using the restroom are legal only if done within the comfort of a home; if done without one, these functions can be a means for prosecution. specifically, unhoused male residents are among a stigmatized and targeted group by the police. Being exposed to such scrutiny, they are often under the inescapable threat of arrest (Snow 14). Unhoused residents are “jailed anywhere from 8 to 40 times more often than the general population” (Metraux, Caterina, & Cho, 2008 as cited in Speer 161) on charges of “life-sustaining activities like sitting, sleeping, and urinating” (Amster, 2008; Davis, 1990; Mitchell, 1997 as cited in Speer 161). Ultimately, this emphasizes the commonality in experiences of an unhoused individual and an incarcerated individual based on parallel episodes of imprisonment physically, socially, and economically. It also illuminates the deprivation of basic human rights and autonomy from those without homes. As victims of circumstance, they are forced to make the often most private functions of life public. The looming and frequent threat of arrest brands “carceral institutions [as] rival homeless shelters [to] primary sites of homelessness management” (Speer 161) and “reinforces the mutually beneficial cycle of neglect and imprisonment between incarceration and homelessness” (Gowan, 2002 as cited in Speer 161). Like the housing crisis, the macro-issue of mass incarceration creates a static cycle regarding progression in ending homelessness and often goes unacknowledged as a primary beneficiary of homelessness. The misguided assumption that homelessness fosters criminality also must be erased to preserve the very few freedoms unhoused individuals have left, because the act of living itself should never be perceived as criminal.
Just as homeless individuals are funneled into the prison system as a result of their perceived criminality, recently incarcerated individuals are often neglected into homelessness due to a lack of sufficient transitional resources as a “racialized cycle of exclusion and punishment” (Gowan, 2002 as cited in Speer 2). Due to this mutually reinforced cycle, “efforts to eradicate homelessness also must include the unmet needs of inmates who are released from prison” to enact actual progress (Kushel 1). The correlation between homelessness and imprisonment is nuanced: Imprisonment spurs homelessness by severing familial and communal relationships and decreasing housing and employment opportunities. Alternatively, homelessness may precipitate imprisonment by increasing the possibility of arrest (Kushel 1). Statistically, inmates who claimed to be homeless anytime within a year before their incarceration comprised 15.3% of the U.S. jail population, which is 7.5 to 11.3 times the estimate of 1.36% to 2.03% regarding the general U.S. adult population (Greenberg 1). Overall, such data reveals the susceptibility to homelessness for recently incarcerated individuals and vice versa, thus feeding a bidirectional relationship of imprisonment.
The prevailing, defining story that is portrayed by LA residents, either implicitly or explicitly, is that Skid Row, an area in which many unhouse residents call home, is unsafe and dangerous. Within her Ted Talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story,” Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie claims that “power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” These biases within LA’s “single story” create stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story” (Adichie). The sentiments of fear and avoidance associated with Skid Row “robs people of dignity. It makes [the] recognition of equal humanity difficult.” As the divide between housed and unhoused residents grows, “it emphasizes how [housed and unhoused residents] are different rather than how [they] are similar” (Adichie). This dehumanization centers around the idea that if Skid Row is dangerous, the people are inherently dangerous. This stereotype can be harmful as it insinuates that “the presence of homeless men seriously threatens neighborhood security and can mobilize citizens to affect what governments and social service agencies do for and about the home” (Snow 2). Such a belief amplifies the stigma surrounding homelessness and further ostracizes unhoused individuals from residential communities. This separation, in turn, develops a system of social imprisonment that reflects the often-distorted perception of those without homes. Coupled with the constant reminder of a lack of safety in this area, a sense of fear and evasion prevails contributing to the stratification of housed members of the community and justifying their societal neglect.
Homelessness is a complex state of being that varies with each individual experience. Subsequently, this separation from society can lead to a change in identity or self-perception. Within a set of interviews, James—an individual experiencing homelessness—confessed, “in society, I don’t know who I am or what I’m doing; it’s just weird out here…out here life is hard work, in jail I know what to do and where I am…” (Williams 5). Such insight places time served on the streets into perspective with time served behind bars, as James’ history of incarceration is portrayed as more forgiving of one’s identity. The identity of an unhoused individual can be heavily influenced by the conversations surrounding homelessness. Discourse in which homelessness is portrayed in a detached manner displays how “[showing] a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again…that is what they become” (Adichie). Such a narrowing sense of identity is driven by this impersonal discourse and can also be influenced by both the hardening experiences of living unsheltered on the streets and the reflection of unresolved feelings of abandonment either by family, the city, or society itself. Although it may be easier to think of homelessness as a detached and statistically quantified point of view, this mindset overshadows the individual experiences of many and feeds into the often-forgotten sense of humanity when encountering people experiencing homelessness. It also can contribute to loss of identity as unhoused residents can feel less human and more like a faceless statistic.
Although there are a variety of resources available for unhoused residents of LA and support from community organizations, the claim that homelessness is the consequence of individual failures rather than failures of the city and state, including structural poverty and inequality, is a prominent inhibiting factor to social and quantifiable progress in ending homelessness. To fully address the homeless issue, “political change also must occur, … so that homeless people are regarded and treated as equals – the current approach (at least in the UK) of “tough love” or conditional welfare is oppressive” (Somerville 27) and blatantly ignores the other macro causes of homelessness. It blames the individual rather than the system, forcing unhoused residents to be the scapegoat for much bigger problems and allowing for an excused lack of progress.
Rather than at the forefront of public concern, city and state political authorities continue to ignore the root causes of worsening homelessness, the housing crisis, and mass incarceration as well as the inseparable effects each has on the other. Community organizations are then stranded to finish the city’s work in ending homelessness, often overstretching themselves and their resources to fulfill a multitude of needs. Until the city and state can acknowledge these underlying causes, Skid Row’s handwashing stations will remain inoperable, its street sweeps will disrupt communities, and strangers will look past its residents rather than in their eyes, reminding them that “[they are] not on top of the public interest list…” (Ben as cited in Williams 5).
- Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED, TEDGlobal 2009, July2009, https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en.
- Examining the Homelessness Crisis in Los Angeles : Field Hearing before the Committee on Financial Services, U.S. House of Representatives, One Hundred Sixteenth Congress, First Session, August 14, 2019. U.S. Government Publishing Office; 2020.
- Greenberg GA. Jail incarceration, homelessness, and mental health: A national study.
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- Kushel MB. Revolving doors: Imprisonment among the homeless and marginally housed
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- Snow, David A., et al. “Criminality and Homeless Men: An Empirical Assessment.” Social Problems, vol. 36, no. 5, [Oxford University Press, Society for the Study of Social Problems], 1989, pp. 532–49, https://doi.org/10.2307/3096817.
- Somerville P. Understanding Homelessness. Housing, theory, and society. 2013;30(4):384-415
- Speer, Jessie. “The Rise of the Tent Ward: Homeless Camps in the Era of Mass Incarceration.” Science Direct, vol. 62, 27 Nov. 2017, pp. 160–169.
- Williams, S. “Stories from the Streets: People’s Experiences of Homelessness.” Wiley Online Library, https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.libproxy2.usc.edu/doi/full/10.1111/j.1365-2850.2010.01676.x.