When the local homeless shelter was full, Katrina slept in its parking lot. She figured she could bang on the shelter door if she needed help. But she wasn’t safe. Police officers often woke her up around midnight and threatened to charge her with sleeping in public—a criminal offense—if she did not leave. “When police drive me out of the shelter parking lot in the middle of the night, it feels like they are saying, ‘Yeah, go out there and hopefully you will get attacked and die. It will be one less person for us to worry about,’” Katrina told me.
Negative beliefs, attitudes, and practices toward unhoused people like Katrina are as toxic and destructive as racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. Yet, they are often difficult to challenge under current law, which does not recognize housing status as a category that is protected from discrimination. And these beliefs and practices are spreading as local governments learn from one another.
How California Criminalizes Homelessness
Since the early 1980s, the United States’ affordable housing programs have been gutted while the cost of market-rate housing has skyrocketed. California, the nation’s epicenter of houselessness, illustrates the devastation that is wrought when lawmakers pursue policies that segregate, banish, cite, and imprison unhoused community members instead of adequately addressing a chronic shortfall of affordable housing.
Not surprisingly, persecuting those most impacted by our affordable housing shortage has not solved California’s houselessness crisis. California is home to about 12 percent of the nation’s population but over half of all houseless people who are living in places not fit for human habitation, such as parks, cars, and abandoned buildings (51 percent), and a little over a quarter of all people who are unhoused (that is, all houseless people, who are those either living in places not fit for human habitation or in shelters and transitional housing). The risk of housing displacement falls disproportionately on Black people, who, as a result of the nation’s history of institutional and structural racism in employment, housing, education, and access to other opportunities, make up about 6.5 percent of California’s population but about 31 percent of its unhoused population.