Visibility and Solidarity Between the Housed and Unhoused in Los Angeles
Map of Anti-Homeless Zones in Los Angeles.
Ordinance No. 187127
March 24th 2021 marks an eradication of public space and an erasure of a shared reality. On March 24th 2021, under the guise of park restoration and against massive popular protest, the City of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Police Department violently raided and enclosed Echo Park Lake, ending a years long process of intimidation, criminalization, and the eventual eviction of the unhoused community of hundreds that took refuge there over the course of 18 months over the course of the pandemic.
Amidst immediate inflated and unfounded panic that the unhoused population of ~70,000 countywide would wreak infection across Los Angeles, the Los Angeles City Council paused the enforcement of 41.18—the ordinance that criminalizes “sitting, sleeping, lying, storing, using, maintaining or placing personal property in the public right-of-way,” and is the basis of the comprehensive encampment “clean-up” program, run by the Los Angeles Sanitation Department (LASAN), that takes place across dozens of encampments across districts on a daily basis, commonly referred to as “sweeps”. In conjunction with 56.11, the ordinance that limits the amount of personal belongings an unhoused person is permitted to possess to no more than could fit in a 60-gallon trash can with the lid closed, the same trash can that housed people get to fill and empty three of each week, a flagrant equation of unhoused people and trash, and statement of the exponential privilege of possession that property permits, sweeps cause constant loss of personal belongings, place, and possibility.
Sweeps begin as early as 7:30am, after 24 hour notice, after which encampment residents are given 15 minutes to move all of their belongings, by themselves, by hand, out of the designated cleaning zone, often blocks away through busy traffic, after which LASAN can confiscate or discard all remaining belongings, from shelters up to and including personal documents like government ID’s which are critical to all processes of receiving services and securing housing. Which encampments are swept and the force and frequency of their sweep, as often as once a week, and is determined by the perception of their blight, the power of their propertied neighbors, and their proximity to capital investment. This unrelenting cycle of continuous displacement from somewhere to elsewhere makes the possibility of being re-housed to be barely possible, particularly in the most discriminatory of districts.
While sweeps were paused for over a year, the unhoused who found respite and took refuge at Echo Park Lake were able to exist settled enough, safely enough, and sustainably enough to model what it looks like when unhoused people are able to claim place in shared space with housed people, exist in a shared reality. The community held weekly meetings in which they identified their needs, determined how to address them, and developed a set of agreements to govern themselves by. With the support of housed neighbors, they built a community kitchen, shower, garden, and living space, they collected donations of food, clothes, shelter supplies, hygiene supplies, and harm reduction supplies, they held a 3 times per week “Power Up!” station where residents could charge their devices, and they created a jobs program that paid residents to maintain all of these operations. For over a year they modeled this exemplary existence in a shared reality, and over time, and finally, overnight, it was eviscerated. Evidently, it posed extreme threat to the systematic capitalization, privatization, segregation, isolation, and dehumanization that creates and perpetuates the crisis of houselessness.
In resistance, upon the threat of disbandment, the unhoused community at Echo Park Lake declared, “we will not be swept into dark corners”1: we will not be swept, literally in the process of sweeps, and metaphorically, swept like debris, into dark corners, into darkness where we cannot be seen, into corners where we cannot get out. This declaration names what they proved to be true; that to claim place in a shared space, in visibility, in a shared reality, is to reclaim the interdependence we have been societally systematically othered from, whereas to be displaced from a shared space, to be made invisible, to be made to exist in separated realities, preserves the disclaim of interdependence, upholds the claim of independence we have become habituated to and disciplined by.
The three day raid cost $2 million in police salaries and overtime, $250,000 in CCTV cameras, and $104,000 in full-perimeter fencing. As of one year since the raid, of the 183 residents on record on the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) official placements list (a partially fictitious placements list which included residents of nearby encampments in attempt to lift the number of placements), only 17 have been housed, 84 have been placed in temporary shelter or otherwise remain on record unhoused, 82 have “disappeared” from record, and 6 have passed away, while city officials, including the office of the mayor, guaranteed on record that all residents would be placed in permanent housing within the year, and lauded the raid as the model for housing services moving forward.
On July 28th 2021, the Los Angeles City Council, which had already resumed the enforcement of 41.18, passed an expansion of 41.18, which prohibits basic acts of human existence, the acts of sitting, sleeping, and lying, upon district by district resolution, up to 500 feet from a school, daycare, park, library, overpass, underpass, freeway ramp, bridge, tunnel, subway, railroad, or wash, and up to 1,000 feet from a shelter, homeless services center, safe sleeping or safe parking site. These categories of exclusion zones can be divided into: places where unhoused people receive services and therefore live at or near in large numbers, places where unhoused people are protected from the elements, either environmental exposure or surveillance exposure, and therefore live in large numbers, and places where children are, for play or education, and where the existence of unhoused people can be deemed dangerous most agreeably, disregarding the 51,287 unhoused youth countywide (according to the Los Angeles County Office of Education which appropriately counts all youth who lack a fixed and adequate nighttime residence ).
Of course, this expansion cannot be totally enforced but is selectively enforced, as the law often is. I will not be prohibited from sitting in a park, and others perceived like me, in one way or another, will not be either, but some, perceived unlike me, in one way or another, will be, and those who will be will be decided by the police. For them, for anyone who has reason to believe they would be policed, there is no public space anymore. And therefore, there is no public space anymore at all. Unlike exclusion from private property, which is demarcated by walls, fences, and other tools of shared architectural language, exclusion from public space is not so marked - there are individual signs at the sites of encampments or former encampments within zones of exclusion, but never continual boundaries around entire exclusionary zones. So one cannot always know, for instance, whether they are sitting within 500 feet of a park they cannot see or don’t know is there, or can see but don’t know they are excluded from. So they must assume they are in a zone of exclusion at all times, that they are not in public space, that there is no public space except the space they are only to pass through - no sitting, sleeping, or lying.
But of course, they cannot always be passing through, they must sit, sleep, or lie sometimes, as they should. And when they do, they are at risk in a way I am not. And if they do not have private space to retreat to, after passing through the risk of seemingly public space, as the unhoused do not, they are at risk always, not just passing through on their way to privacy, but passing through always, without a way to privacy. Where they are prohibited from public space, I am promised public space… it is for my promise, that they are prohibited, as intended by the law.
The expansion of 41.18 is a significant but not singular event within the historical process of racial banishment. Racial banishment is the racialized enactment of banishment, where banishment is the legally imposed spatial exclusion by which targeted persons or populations are expelled from the body politic, exiled from a territory of sovereign rule, and subjected to civil and social death, and racism, following Ruth Wilson Gilmore, is the state-sanctioned “production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” Social death is death within the law, wherein targeted persons or populations are excluded from protection by the law while exposed to punishment by the law, and it often precipitates actual, premature death. The average life expectancy of an unhoused person in United States is 50 years, while the average life expectancy of housed person in the United States is 79 years, a difference of 29 years. In Los Angeles, 5 unhoused people die every day, and many are not counted.
Racial banishment in Los Angeles is situated within a colonial vision that is foundational to contemporary capitalism in the United States, wherein land and bodies have been seen as private property, wherein property and personhood have come to be interdependent and interchangeable constructs. Where there is no possession of property, there is no possession of personhood, and as the possession of property is controlled (excluded, accumulated, and allocated) by the state, so too is the potential of personhood, as evidenced by 56.11, the limitation of possessions by unpropertied persons, and 41.18, the delimitation of the existence of unpropertied persons in “public” space. Locke’s foundational concept of possessive individualism is inherently paradoxical. In it, individual freedom rests on the possession of property, but property is not freely or individually possessed, but dependent on the state. As such, the dispossession of property, and so the dispossession of personhood is so too dependent on the state. There is no individual possession which we can be individually dispossessed of, there is no individual possession a-priori, “we can only be dispossessed because we are already dispossessed”, since, “if we are beings who can be deprived of place, livelihood, shelter, food, and protection, if we can lose our citizenship, our homes, and our rights, then we are fundamentally dependent on those powers that alternatively sustain or deprive us, and that hold a certain power over our very survival. Even when we have our rights, we are dependent on a mode of governance and a legal regime that confers and sustains those rights. And so we are already outside ourselves before any possibility of being dispossessed of our rights, land, and modes of belonging. In other words, we are interdependent beings whose pleasure and suffering depend from the start on a sustained social world, a sustaining environment.” As the dispossession of property and personhood is produced, so the survivability of dispossessed populations is produced. The unhoused population is a dispossessed population whose survivability is subject to the power of dispossession that distinguishes those who are disposable from those who are not.
In The Value of Homelessness: Managing Surplus Life in the United States, Craig Willse builds on Marx’s concept of surplus labor, the population who could work but is kept out of work to maintain competition for low-wage jobs, to construct a framework by which the unhoused population could be understood as surplus life, the population who could live as full right-bearing members of society but is kept out of full rightful membership in society to maintain the commodification of housing and the unhoused. The management of surplus life, of the unhoused, “serves not only to reduce their impact on urban consumer economies, by getting them out of the way and off the streets, rather, their management is an industry itself. Surplus life circulates as numbers, such as costs to hospitals, or self-sufficiency improvement scores. Those numbers live through surplus life, and become the condition of possibility for it.” Surplus life is produced and managed to maintain a condition of just enough, “just enough to live, just enough to be economically productive, just enough to not cost too much in dying. In other words, surplus life is turned against itself, as it becomes a resource for strengthening neoliberal economic exploitation and the “good” governance technologies that make that exploitation possible.” The crisis of houselessness is used to develop tools of oppression, technologies of surveillance and management, economies of disposability, and boundaries of legality, effective beyond the unhoused, and to justify such systems as good governance, because of the unhoused. Surplus life is productively disposable, and those who live surplus lives are most attuned to that. My friend, who has been unhoused for two decades, recently remarked, unprompted, “They keep us alive because we create value for the non-profit sector, not because they value our lives.” Unfortunately, I have heard echoes of this understanding many times and from many others.
The loss of public space, precipitates the loss of a shared reality, which precipitates the loss of recognition of precariousness as a shared condition. In Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, Judith Butler writes, “Precarity designates that politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death… Precariousness implies living socially, that is, the fact that one’s life is always in some sense in the hands of the other. It implies exposure both to those we know and to those we do not know; a dependency on people we know, or barely know, or know not at all.” Since “we can only be dispossessed because we are already dispossessed,” precariousness is the constant condition under which we all live, to which we are each differentially exposed. To recognize precariousness as a shared condition, as opposed to an individual condition which some fall victim to while others prevail from, is to recognize the interdependency, as opposed to the individuality, of those who are most harmfully exposed. The protection of some and exposure of others is mutually constructive. Those who benefit from its differential distribution often blame or blind themselves to those who are harmed by its differential distribution because of a failure to recognize this mutual construction. The differential distribution of precarity is both a material and perceptual issue, “It would be difficult, if not impossible, to decide whether the ‘regard’ or failure of ‘regard’ leads to the ‘material reality’ or whether the material reality leads to the failure of regard, since it would seem that both happen at once and that such perceptual categories are essential to the crafting of material reality.” Perceptibility, whether we can perceive another within a shared reality, carries material effects.
The encampment at Echo Park Lake was exceptionally and intentionally visible. Residents understood that recognition across the spectrum of the differential distribution of precarity, between those who most benefit from it and those who are most harmed by it would be key to their success. A number of Echo Park Lake residents were directly gentrified out of the surrounding neighborhood of Echo Park and so themselves demonstrated the slippage of the spectrum, which the pandemic pronounced. The potential for those housed near Echo Park Lake to recognize those unhoused at Echo Park Lake as people they could get to know and care for was expanded beyond the norm, and that perceptual effect had material effect, causing committed material, organizational, and emotional support for the community, and preventing the quiet and quick destruction of the community. The potential for those unhoused at Echo Park Lake to recognize those housed near Echo Park Lake as people they could get to know and care for was determined beyond the norm, by situating themselves in such a bastion of gentrification and a central site of recreation, and that perceptual effect had material effect, inviting the material, organizational, and emotional support of the community, and guiding the resistance against its’ destruction. With this solidarity, the community thrived beyond the survival the unhoused are usually held to. The radical recognition that took place at Echo Park Lake is an example of the way the potential to regard leads to material reality. The radical banishment that took place after Echo Park Lake is an example of the way the failure to regard leads to material reality.
The potential to regard and the failure to regard are controlled and compelled. The management of visibility takes precedence over the management of vulnerability. The fence that was erected around Echo Park Lake is the same fence that has been erected around the city, under almost every underpass you’ll pass. Surrounding the more decorative deterrents, boulders along sidewalks, dividers along benches, are the more unremarkable obviations, posing as passable street signs and operating as zones of exclusion. Between the most obvious fences and the most unseeable signs, visible houselessness in Los Angeles has begun to disappear over time. From the elsewhere sent by sweeps, a further elsewhere has been unlocked, to where even people like me, who know more than most where to look, barely know where to find people we know. As phones are often lost, stolen, or if held, dead, it is not as if you can always call someone and ask where they are. Disappeared to a crevice between the railway and the river, or to a prison, or literally disappeared, passed away, the perceptual effect and so the material effect is the same for the majority who care not to know what form of disappearance has taken place.
Housing is a technology that distances our commonality and constructs our exclusivity. Despite and because of the extreme proximity housed people often have to unhoused people in Los Angeles, the drive towards competition and strive towards isolation is especially extreme, and engenders extreme embodiments of possessive individualism. But, despite the decreasing visibility of houselessness, houselessness is increasing, creating an enormous population of extraordinarily dispossessed persons, who have the potential to perform a tidal shift in the constitution of property and personhood, a relational flip from possessive individualism to dispossessive collectivism. As the community at Echo Park Lake demonstrated, those most dispossessed cannot and should not do this alone. Liberation depends on solidarity. Does solidarity depend on visibility? Obviously, the powers that be believe so, and if so, we must take the power of visibility back.
L.A.M.C. 41.18. “Sitting, Lying, or Sleeping or Storing, Using, Maintaining, or Placing Personal Property in the Public Right-of-Way.” https://codelibrary.amlegal.com/codes/los_angeles/ latest/lamc/0-0-0-128514
L.A.M.C. 56.11. “Storage of Personal Property.” https://codelibrary.amlegal.com/codes/ los_angeles/latest/lamc/0-0-0-138386.
After Echo Park Lake Research Collective. “(Dis)placement: The Fight for Housing and Community After Echo Park Lake.” March 23, 2022. UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy.
Residents at Echo Park Lake. “Dear Mitch, Don’t Evict Us.” Knock LA. January 23, 2020. https://knock-la.com/dear-mitch-dont-evict- us-8ed407d86f70/.
Stop LAPD Spying Coalition. “Blueprint for Displacement: Breaking Down LAPD’s Echo Park Rehabilitation After Action Report.” (2020). https://stoplapdspying.org/zine-blueprint-for displacement/.
Mejia, Kenneth. “41.18 Anti-Homeless Zones.” Resources and Tools, https:// mejiaforcontroller.com
Amin, Ash, et al. “Grammars of Dispossession.” Grammars of the Urban Ground, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2022, pp. 41–57.
Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? Verso, 2016.
Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. (2007). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death. (1982). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Butler, Judith, and Athena Athanasiou. Dispossession: The Performative in the Political. Polity, 2014.
Willse, Craig. Value of Homelessness - Managing Surplus Life in the United States. University Of Minnesota Press, 2015.
Roy, Ananya. “Dis/possessive Collectivism: Property and Personhood at City’s End.” Geoforum. 80 (2017): A1-A11.
Map of active 41.18 enforcement zones, marked in red and orange, as of November 20th, 2022.