How COVID-19 has Fostered a New Architecture of Displacement

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It’s no secret that 2020 has been the year of adversity. For many, nationwide shelter-in-place orders have meant Tiger King marathons, at-home workouts, and banana bread. Yet, for the most vulnerable communities in our society, shelter-in-place orders have provided more permanent settlement opportunities, giving rise to larger, more robust homeless encampments. 

Unhoused communities are uniquely vulnerable to the seemingly endless line of environmental calamity, extreme weather, social unrest, and pandemic outbreak that have consumed this year. Alastair Boone, editor-in-chief of Street Spirit, reports: “There have been a few notable [COVID-19] outbreaks [among unhoused communities]: The virus ravaged a congregate shelter in San Francisco, for example. But the type of widespread contagion many feared has yet to arrive. While a relief, this doesn’t mean that COVID-19 isn’t impacting homeless people. Instead, the pandemic has impacted unsheltered people in ways that are less visible but just as lethal.”

California is home to one-quarter of the nation’s unhoused population, a statistic made painfully visible on its city sidewalks, under freeway overpasses, within urban parks, and even in its suburbs. Following federal health guidelines adopted throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, city officials promised not to force unhoused individuals to move until the pandemic subsided in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. Consequently, the prevalence and size of homeless encampments have grown exponentially, especially exacerbated by economic recession, shelter closures, evictions, and unemployment rates not seen since the Great Depression.

These marginalized populations are now facing “overlapping crises,” as shelter-in-place orders continue to bar unhoused individuals from necessary services and amenities, leaving them even more vulnerable to potential outbreaks and precarious circumstances. For instance, there has been a sharp decline in volunteer support due to these shelter-in-place orders, which, among other aid, helped to collect and properly dispose of waste and trash. Adequate medical care and testing infrastructure has become impossibilized, leaving many untreated for chronic ailments and disabilities. Less pedestrian traffic has made panhandling more difficult, and recycling center closures no longer allow individuals to trade plastic water bottles and other recyclable materials for some extra cash. Moreover, the closures of public spaces, such as libraries and cafes, have denied access to public restrooms or WiFi and outlets that would otherwise enable individuals to stay in touch with friends and family, keep updated on COVID-19 guidelines and information, and attend public forums to weigh in on discussions that are especially relevant to their lives. 

In the early stages of the pandemic, California Governor Gavin Newsom launched Project Roomkey, a program that aimed to shelter particularly vulnerable unhoused individuals in hotel rooms. However, providers across the state denounced the program as only reaching a “sliver of those in need,” and in some cases, hotel owners have been unwilling to participate in the program. Nearly six months later, with federal funding sources soon to expire, many Bay Area counties are closing those hotels.

Even in more ‘normal’ times, the conditions of homeless encampments throughout the Bay Area are not unlike the world’s largest slums or refugee camps. In 2018, the United Nations declared the treatment of Bay Area homeless a human rights violation, comparing the region’s homeless encampments to the slums of Pakistan, Brazil, and Mexico. In San Francisco, though not unique to the city, people sleep openly on sidewalk grates, under storefronts, and in makeshift tarps and tents. Mounds of garbage and food scraps attract rats. Thousands of used heroin needles discarded in the street illustrate the open-air narcotics market. Open piles of excrement and urine scattered throughout public spaces seem to be more common than animal feces (see San Francisco Human Waste Reporting Map from 2011 to 2019). 

In the State of State Address earlier this year, Governor Newsom used an impassioned and urgent tone when speaking to California’s housing and homelessness crises, declaring: “Let’s call it what it is, a disgrace, that the richest state in the richest nation — succeeding across so many sectors — is failing to properly house, heal, and humanely treat so many of its own people…The problem has persisted for decades—caused by massive failures in our mental health system and disinvestment in our social safety net—exacerbated by widening income inequality and California’s housing shortage…The State of California can no longer treat homelessness and housing insecurity as someone else’s problem, buried below other priorities which are easier to win or better suited for soundbites.”

Will the advent of these larger and more permanent forms of displacement — a crisis that municipalities and pedestrians alike try to invisibilize — finally push city officials to invest in such safety nets? Will COVID-19 finally push officials to invest, empower, and uplift these unhoused communities? Ultimately, these camps testify to the severity of polarizing inequity that have led to the Bay Area’s pervasive and profound homeless crisis, one that has been driven by decades of racial discrimination, urban renewal, and executive mismanagement.

Cities such as Cupertino have already begun to sweep its homeless encampments. Yet, Project Roomkey and other initiatives proved that the Bay Area is capable of quickly mobilizing a vast amount of resources and personnel to attack the homelessness crisis. Now, it is up to city officials to decide whether tens of thousands of unhoused individuals will become a priority on their housing agendas. 

Affordable housing initiatives that exclude those without housing fail to address one of the largest communities affected by the housing crisis. Temporary shelter programs such as Project Roomkey are merely band-aid policies for housing insecurity. Though they address one of the most visible symptoms of the housing crisis, these policies ignore underlying issues of social, political, and economic inequity that have led to this new generation of homelessness — a displacement and poverty crisis that is comparable to nations who are still deemed “developing.” Instead, stronger, united action must be taken among the nine Bay Area counties to attack homelessness as a human rights issue, rather than one inherent in urban spaces.