Houselessness: How the state perpetuates the issue

With the pandemic and cold weather persisting the issue of houselessness is urgent, yet the state continues to do little to support those facing this.

The ongoing COVID pandemic has and continues to exacerbate the already worsening issue of homelessness in this country. Many businesses were forced to close temporarily or permanently due to the pandemic. Resulting in a loss of income for many, this eventually led to eviction and even houselessness for some. 

Houselessness or not having stable shelter affects every aspect of life and always carries risks. But with the pandemic, there is an elevated risk associated with not having stable shelter. People are made to seek shelter in overcrowded facilities, camps and other areas that lead to an increase in close quarters interaction with others as well as an elevated risk of being infected with and spreading COVID-19.

Due to this known risk, it should be a priority of the state now more than ever to ensure that people have access to secure and stable housing that allows them to properly follow COVID protocols. Yet, we have seen no change in the cruel tactics used against those facing evictions and homelessness. 

Many places enacted temporary eviction moratoria, which were intended to stop new evictions from being filed. This was not the reality though, as many landlords found loopholes that allowed them to evict people regardless of the moratorium. Even when people aren’t evicted while the moratoria are in place costs don’t stop and without a change in conditions many are left with outstanding balances that they are unable to pay off, so once these eventually end landlords are able to evict immediately.

Local police are used to enforce these evictions and show up to force people from their homes regardless of the circumstance. We don’t just see police enforcing evictions though. Police are also used for what are known as homeless sweeps, a practice where houseless people staying in camps on city property are forcibly removed from the area. With little to no resources provided by the state to aid them in this effort, they are given a short notice before they are expected to pack up their belongings and leave the area.

If and when they are still on the premises the day the sweep is planned, police often take to destroying the encampment and everyone’s belongings, leaving them with nothing. Sometimes people are directed to already strained resources that are unable to provide them aid, other times they are just displaced and given no aid. 

One popular location for camps is Cal Anderson Park. Large-scale camps have been set up here on and off since last summer. Each time the police have swept the camp people have returned as soon as the presence was gone in order to set up again. The city of Seattle continues to insist that the park is not a suitable place to live, yet residents of the park have no other options. 

Shelters have limited bed space, and even when available, these spaces are not always safe or ideal for those seeking shelter. As such, the park offers a safe place for people to set up their own shelter and be protected from the elements. But due to complaints by housed residents and business owners, the park continues to face violence by the police. 

One of the more violent sweeps happened back in late Dec. of last year when a huge resistance had been organized. Dozens of people showed up to resist police presence and build barricades around the park to protect those living there from the sweep. However, police showed up with full force in riot gear armed with airguns to shoot pepper balls and were also accompanied by armed vehicles. 

The sweep was carried out, the city bulldozed the camp destroying the possessions of those living there, despite orders otherwise. According to “SPD sweeps Cal Anderson to clear homeless encampments and protesters from park — UPDATE” from Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, there were 24 confirmed arrests from that day for charges including obstructing, trespassing and property destruction.

This massive display of state violence is not only despicable and inhumane, it directly violates CDC recommendations for COVID safety. Beyond that, it also carries a hefty price tag. All of the officers, weapons and equipment used during the sweep cost an insane amount of money, money that could have been used to solve the problem and house people, rather than criminalize them and worsen their material conditions. 

In the wake of these devastating and inhumane actions by the state, we have seen communities come together to fight for change and justice. There are many groups that work to provide services to the houseless community, eviction defense and sweep defense. 

They are made up of community members who recognize that houseless people are a part of our community as well. Many of these groups include or work closely with houseless individuals to ensure that their voices are always centered in this fight. 

Tacoma Housing Now and Olympia Housing Now have both had high-profile occupation efforts to house people in hotels. Demanding that their cities use the funds they received from The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — or CARES Act — to house people at these locations. Yet the cities refused, also choosing to utilize state violence to evict people rather than provide adequate support. 

Their work does not end there though, and many other groups are also taking up efforts to help the houseless community. Tacoma Housing Now also works to help clean up trash and advocate for better sanitation from the city to the encampments. Food Not Bombs Tacoma provides meals and medical services to encampments, as well as other essential items while also working closely with Tacoma Housing Now. Tacoma Mutual Aid Collective hosts events, such as “laundry days” for houseless people to provide access to laundromats at no expense as well as other necessary supplies such as tents. 

Despite the continued use of violence and extreme force by the state, it is important that we look to the community and the real work being done daily for hope. As we continue to demand improved conditions for those experiencing houselessness or those at risk of unjust evictions we can see the ways that the community is working to fill the gaps. 

We see people that are resilient in the face of injustice, and those willing to provide for needs that are left uncared for by the state. And there is power in this, in recognizing the ways that we can come together and fill the needs of our community without, or in spite of, state powers. The state upholds the status quo and seeks to cling to its power, it will never change, it will never allow prosperity for the many. We take care of us, always.  

Groups working on housing efforts: Tacoma Housing Now, Olympia Housing Now, Food Not bombs (several cities), Tacoma Mutual Aid Collective, Pierce County Tacoma Coalition to End Homelessness, Tenants Union of Washington.