Written by Becky Dennison, Executive Director of Venice Community Housing
My organization, Venice Community Housing (VCH), is a nonprofit affordable and supportive housing provider operating in communities on the westside of Los Angeles, CA. VCH has been active for decades in efforts to prevent and end the criminalization and forced displacement of unhoused residents, and continues to challenge the brutal, racist, and often illegal practices in Los Angeles. VCH has actively opposed all legislation, policies, and practices that result in harassment or criminalization of unhoused people in public spaces who clearly have nowhere else to go, given the housing and shelter shortage. We have supported grassroots organizations and campaigns and leadership among people with lived experience, and we have at times celebrated collective victories.
But, given the recent resurgence of criminalization, it hasn’t been nearly enough. In order to truly make a dent on reducing homelessness and defend human rights, criminalization (and its resulting harmful effects on people experiencing homelessness) needs to end.
How Local Laws Influence Homelessness
No two municipalities have the same laws that criminalize homelessness, though the intent and result is often the same. Here are a few examples of what these policies have looked like in Los Angeles recently, exacerbating the trauma experienced by unhoused residents that VCH works with:
- the LA City Council approved a new version of LA Municipal Code 41.18 that continues to criminalize the basic rights of everyone to sleep, sit down, or have property in public space;
- Los Angeles Police Department and City elected officials launched a massive police raid to enact the largest forced displacement in recent years in Echo Park;
- there are regular and ongoing seizures and destruction of property by City Sanitation and LAPD, instead of providing health-based street cleaning and regular trash pickup services; and
- the Los Angeles City Council recently voted to approve a settlement to end litigation that expressly relies on criminalization efforts and minimal shelter options instead of any emphasis on permanent housing solutions.
All of these policies and practices are explicitly designed to harass, criminalize, and forcibly remove unhoused people from all public spaces without any sufficient alternatives. The one thing that solves homelessness is housing, and officials must focus on permanent housing solutions instead of continually implementing methods to move unsheltered people from place to place without any housing options available.
The Structural Effects of Criminalization
Criminalization deeply harms people in the moment (and often forever), diverts resources from housing solutions, creates criminal and credit histories that exclude people from most housing in LA, pushes people away from outreach teams, and destroys documents and belongings. All of these factors make it less likely for people affected by criminalization to be housed – should they be lucky enough to get through the lengthy wait list process.
Criminalization and forced displacement are acts of racism, classism, and political cowardice that advance the demands of a privileged and relatively small group of people at the expense of unhoused people and their allies. Time and time again, this approach has proven to fail and cause harm to people already dealing with crisis, trauma, and the extreme lack of affordable housing across the nation.
As providers, our experience is clear that the effects of criminalization makes it harder for us to do our jobs: moving people into housing quickly and smoothly. In Los Angeles, a purported “softer” approach has been rolled out over the years, where outreach and connections to housing or services is done prior to or alongside policing or other displacement efforts. Yet in a region with such a shortage of housing and even the most basic shelter options, long-term or comprehensive options are not available and not offered. Additionally, outreach connected to threats of enforcement and displacement only further isolates most people who have been pushed around from the streets to shelters to jail and back to the streets for years. Los Angeles is not the only city that struggles with both criminalization and a limited housing supply – if we are to improve homelessness nationwide, each city and state must take steps to counteract these effects, and invest in systemic solutions.
Solving Issues Systemically
While the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated homelessness, the current state of homelessness nationwide is the result of decades of disinvestment in affordable housing and other critical resources; systemic racism in land use policies, housing, employment and mass incarceration policies; and growing income and wealth inequality. It will, unfortunately, take years to permanently end homelessness even in the best of political circumstances, which we do not currently have in LA, California, or the country. Therefore we must share public spaces, be kind to unhoused neighbors, continue the local outreach and street medicine efforts that support people until they are housed, and put vastly more resources into permanent housing solutions for folks on our streets.
We also must be more principled, speak out more often and more forcefully, and refuse to engage in any part of any criminalization and displacement policy and practice, including providing services tied to any form of policing. All of us must do this as individuals; as housing, health or homeless services organizations; and as allied organizations. We’ve collectively accepted that that non-profit funding, legitimacy, and advancing our mission is at risk if we challenge power structures that rely on criminalization and other tools steeped in structural racism, but silence is compliance. Speaking out may have political consequences, but advancing human rights and racial justice requires us to accept and adapt to those consequences. The consequences to unhoused people when we are silent, or ineffective, are far worse.