“The idea of freedom is inspiring. But what does it mean? If you are free in a political sense but have no food, what’s that? The freedom to starve?”
— Angela Davis
Where I live, in the Bay Area, we are in the thick of a homelessness crisis affecting thousands of people. In San Francisco in 2015, close to one in every hundred residents was homeless. It’s similar in Oakland. The magnitude of the problem is overwhelming, but I feel the need to confront what’s going on around me in whatever ways I can.
During a recent winter, my partner and I undertook a personal project to raise money for handing out emergency Mylar blankets. We raised a decent sum and bought 400 blankets. With just the two of us handing them out we’ve had a lot of interactions with people, primarily those who are sleeping outside without sufficient clothing or blankets. Throughout this process I’ve been confronted with so many urgent truths that need sharing.
By its very nature, homelessness puts people at risk. Anyone who is homeless faces numerous dangers to their physical and psychological well-being, each of which is a type of violence.
Systemic hunger, unemployment, deprivation of healthcare, exposure, inaccessibility of hygiene — these are common conditions of homelessness. When we allow homelessness to persist, we sanction these forms of violence.
It’s come up before on TBINAA, but no one’s outright said it yet: homelessness is body terrorism. Straight. Up. It’s inherently dangerous, a characteristic of systemic oppression, and a necessary function of hierarchical capitalism.
There is enough wealth in our society to solve this problem; there are more empty houses than there are houseless people. Given that occupying those houses would be a criminal offense, homelessness is a willful and state-enforced phenomenon.
Here are four ways that homelessness is body terrorism.
1. Enabling direct physical violence
By allowing and enforcing the existence of homelessness, we subject people to all kinds of violence. Sexual assault of the homeless is rampant, especially in the streets, where there is no safe space and little possibility for recourse.
Despite these vulnerabilities, we fail to protect homeless people from crime and abuse.
2. Denying access to reproductive rights
The reproductive rights group Abortion Gang describes that there are significant “barriers to contraceptive use” for the homeless, including lack of agency in negotiating the circumstances of sexual encounters. Other issues they describe include “poor nutrition, lack of prenatal care and comprehensive reproductive health services, and stress”. Most family planning agencies fail to provide care that is tailored to homeless people. These factors put homeless people at high risk for “pregnancy complications, unplanned/unwanted pregnancies, and HIV infection”.
3. Preventing people from performing essential life functions
One aspect of homelessness that has drawn some public attention is the right to sleep in public. The federal US government ruled that bans on sleeping outside are unconstitutional, saying that “[i]f a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”
The ruling is a step in the right direction; however, it does not apply to bans on loitering, loafing, or sleeping in one’s own car. Nor does it address the criminalization of other life functions such as urination. As such, it’s unlikely to curb the rising criminalization of existing while homeless.
4. Reinforcing social stigma
Severe and often wildly inaccurate stereotyping about homeless people being dangerous and/or “crazy” criminals is damaging to homeless people’s psychological health. These stereotypes make it difficult to obtain services and find employment. They also contribute to unprovoked aggression from others.
The emotionally isolating nature of some of these experiences can be extremely disruptive to personal relationships and to a person’s sense of self, making it difficult to maintain vital connections with community.
Homelessness and Marginalization
It’s not only the personal experiences of homeless people that qualify homelessness as body terrorism. It’s also the systemic oppression driving homelessness in US society.
Homelessness generates and reinforces the subjugation of marginalized people. There are huge racial disparities in homeless demographics. In the US, Black folks face homelessness at extremely high rates, followed by Indigenous communities, then Latinx people. Disparities also exist based on sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status, and other factors.
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Meanwhile, domestic violence — a phenomenon disproportionately affecting women, teens, LQBT folk, immigrants, the elderly, and the disabled — is the third leading cause of homelessness in the country. Thus, homelessness accentuates marginalization where it already exists.
The marginalization of homeless people is particularly grave given the extent to which homeless folks are criminalized. Subjecting people who are struggling financially to fines and imprisonment worsens the oppression they already experience.
A 2015 report from the Seattle University School of Law states that “marginalized groups are disproportionately represented in the homeless population, and are therefore, disproportionately targeted by the ordinances that criminalize homelessness.” The report goes on to say that the very existence of such laws is “evidence of systemic and insidious discrimination of many marginalized groups.”
Too often homelessness consumes and isolates people. It further compromises the integrity and continuity of marginalized communities. Familial homelessness is on the rise, and sometimes when homelessness is experienced during childhood, it can forever shape a child’s emotional and physical well-being.
Discrimination is not merely a feature of homelessness. Rather, homelessness is inherently discriminatory.
The Connection Between Homelessness and Capitalism
Homelessness is a function of capitalism. Capitalist hierarchies require the extreme disempowerment of certain groups. Such disempowerment is the only way for the accumulation of wealth to exist as it does today. A system in which 85 people control half of global wealth can only be made possible by subjecting almost everyone else to intense poverty.
Nothing compels us to sell our labor cheaply and to work exploitative jobs like the possibility of being out on the streets. People go hungry to make rent, abstain from medical treatments to afford their daily commute, and accept workplace abuse because they can’t afford to be unemployed even for a week. These compromises rob us of our quality of life. They severely inhibit our physical and emotional well-being.
Exploiting people who are on (or over) the financial brink is lucrative business. Both our legal system and the prison industrial complex make obscene amounts of money by targeting the poor and the homeless, as do banks and other financial institutions. From court fees to payday loans, it’s more expensive being poor. The money that is extorted from the homeless goes straight back into the institutions that invest in their oppression.
Homelessness is not only an economic tool of oppression; it’s also a political tool of oppression. Polarized political debates scapegoat the homeless. The outrage propagated against the homeless is misdirected, but it serves to obscure the fact that our current state of economic turmoil is the result of our collective subjugation under capitalism.
This economic turmoil creates the conditions under which the criminalization of homeless people and other abuses occur. They feed into the prejudices that people already attach to those who experience homelessness.
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Our policy-makers already know it’s cheaper to house the homeless than it is to do nothing. Even though housing the homeless provides economic and social gain, the status quo is maintained. Why?
Because homelessness is body terrorism. It is willful, state-enabled violence against the public. It is the coercion of the public through the threat of that violence.
And we can’t stand for it anymore.
[Feature Image: A black and white photo of a dark-skinned person in a hoodie sitting outside on the concrete against a building with a blanket covering their lower body. Plastic bags lay beside them. Passersby are pictured in motion as they quickly walk past. Source: Flickr.com/RuiDuarte]