“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 well over 10,000 people. In San Francisco, close to one in every hundred residents is homeless. In Oakland that’s almost exactly the rate. 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.
This past 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 both 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.
More Radical Reads: Because We Want to Be the Hero: Why We Get Defensive About Privilege
Here are four ways that Homelessness is Body Terrorism:
1. 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. People who are mentally disabled are particularly at risk. Across the board, homeless people are at risk of unprovoked violence and hate crimes. Despite these vulnerabilities, we fail to protect homeless people from crime and abuse.
2. Denial of 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 described are “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. Can’t Perform Essential Life Functions: One issue around homelessness that has drawn some public attention is the right to sleep in public. The federal government recently ruled that bans on sleeping outside are unconstitutional, saying that “If 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 is unlikely to curb the rising criminalization of existing-while-homeless.
4. Social Stigma: Severe and often wildly inaccurate stereotyping is damaging to 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 internal experience, making it difficult to maintain vital connections with community.
It’s not only the conditions of homelessness that characterize it as body terrorism. It’s also the systemically oppressive nature of homelessness in our society.
Homelessness generates and enforces the subjugation of marginalized people. There are huge racial disparities in homeless demographics. In the U.S., African Americans face homelessness at extremely high rates. They are followed by Native Americans, then Latinxs.
Disparities also exist based on sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status, and other factors. Domestic violence, for example – a phenomenon that affects women, teens, LQBT folk, immigrants, the elderly, and the disabled disproportionately – is the third leading cause of homelessness in the country. Thus, homelessness accentuates marginalization where it already exists.
This is particularly so under conditions of criminalization. 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.” It 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.
More Radical Reads: 10 Counterproductive Behaviors of Well-Intentioned People
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, 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 very 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 pay day 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. The polarized debates that are generated scapegoat the homeless The outrage that people propagate against the homeless is misdirected, but it serves to obscure the fact that our current state of economic turmoil is the result of our co-subjugation. This economic turmoil creates the conditions under which criminalization and other abuses occur. hey feed into the prejudices that people already attach to those who experience homelessness.
Our policy-makers already know that it’s cheaper to house the homeless than it is to do nothing. Even though housing shortage is a deception, and 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.
Have you ever experienced homelessness? Are you still searching for home within yourself? Often to be in a place to serve we must also nourish ourselves to give from a well refilled. If you are interested in stopping body terrorism in your own life, check out our upcoming
[Feature Image: A black and white photo of a dark skin person sitting outside on the concrete against a building with a blanket over them an plastic bags beside them as people walk pass. Flickr.com/RuiDuarte]