What Does Spatial Justice for Unhoused People Look Like?

Op-Ed: As we develop policies affecting unhoused people in Los Angeles, we must first turn to what they say about their own lived experience.

Los Angeles unhoused activist Theo Henderson. (Photo courtesy We The Unhoused)

This is your first of three free stories this month. Become a free or sustaining member to read unlimited articles, webinars and ebooks.

Become A Member

In just the first few weeks of summer, Los Angeles experienced heat wave after heat wave. Amid the blistering heat, Angelenos braced themselves for what some have grimly joked is the hottest summer yet, but the coldest of the rest of our lives.

Yet the effects of extreme heat are compounded for those who are experiencing homelessness. With no escape from the heat and easy access to water, the unhoused population brace themselves for a long summer. It’s just one issue that thousands of unhoused individuals face in navigating the city’s policies that restrict and threaten their livelihoods – and their lives.

Historically, public officials have attributed the problem of homelessness to be an effect of mental health and drug abuse, rushing to implement policies that pathologize and incarcerate the unhoused community without addressing low wages, police violence and lack of affordable housing. In addressing homelessness we seem to keep missing a very obvious piece of the puzzle: What do unhoused people have to say about their own lived experience, and how can this shape our policy and understanding of homelessness?

In June, We the Unhoused Times, a newsletter by unhoused Koreatown activist and podcaster Theo Henderson, reported that a formerly unhoused individual named Victor Monarque was killed by police outside of his Section 8 housing. Monarque had previously been displaced from Echo Park Lake, following the city’s forced removal of the park’s homeless encampment early in the pandemic. He had recently been able to secure long term Section 8 housing before he was killed outside of his home, leaving behind a partner and two kids. The We The Unhoused podcast’s memorials of unhoused people who died at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department make clear this was not an isolated incident.

Unhoused Angelenos are more vulnerable to climate change, unprecedented violence at the hands of LAPD, displacement from their communities, from transit, and nearly any public space in the city. They are perpetually criminalized and policed. Spatial justice for the unhoused requires acknowledging the diverse and ill-defined nature of these problems and turning to direct, qualitative data from the unhoused themselves in order to craft policy solutions.

The city’s removal of Echo Park’s encampment had ripple effects on the lives of many unhoused individuals. Researchers at UCLA document the ways in which 183 unhoused individuals were displaced from Echo Park Lake during the pandemic. The city and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority failed in providing many unhoused individuals a pathway into permanent housing after evicting them from the park.

While officials pledged that all of these individuals would be placed in “stable, secure housing” within a year, researchers found that only 17 had been placed in stable housing by June. The ineffectiveness of this policy uncovers the ways in which the city of Los Angeles engages with unhoused communities.

In addition to sweeps that forcibly push people out of encampments, for example, the Los Angeles Municipal Code (under Section 41.18) restricts people from sleeping in and sitting in public spaces. Many community members and local activists recognize this as a direct action against unhoused people. This ordinance criminalizes people for sleeping on the street, in parks and on public transportation. The city enforces this strictly. The budget for policing on transit is massive: In 2017, L.A. Metro awarded five-year contracts totalling over $645 million to the LAPD, L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and Long Beach Police Department, Those contracts were subsequently voted in 2021 to be increased to over $681 million. People experiencing homelessness and advocates for the unhoused have repeatedly explained that high fares hinder accessibility to low-income people and that police surveillance makes many transit riders feel unsafe.

In a recent L.A. Times article, UCLA urban planning professor Anaya Roy spoke with Henderson, the local unhoused activist, about how to stop the erasure of the unhoused community’s voices. Henderson shared his experience facing discrimnation and violence while navigating Los Angeles as an unhoused person. He expressed the importance of unhoused community building, art and youth as part of the movement. “There is no school that can educate you on the realities of unhoused people,” Henderson told her. The result, he said, is city leaders and housed locals “coming around claiming that they have solutions for you” while devastating and displacing unhoused communities.

During the pandemic, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority launched a program called Project Roomkey to house people in empty hotel rooms during the pandemic. Unhoused individuals criticized the program for its constant surveillance, policing and strict curfews. People living in the hotels expressed getting treated like criminals. The project initially sought to help unhoused people during the pandemic – and in the next month the city plans to evict the remaining tenants from the hotels.

In March, former Echo Park Lake encampment members expressed to The Guardian their devastation of being displaced from their community. “They should’ve just left these f***ing people alone,” Victor Monarque, the man who would be memorialized by We The Unhoused weeks later, said then.

This sentiment is not new and echoes the voices of unhoused people through nearly a century. During the Great Depression, the mayor of a Hoover Town encampment in Seattle once noted, “These encampments provided a sense of home that was unavailable in the charitable private shelters of Los Angeles, affording a measure of privacy, autonomy, regularity and dignity.” Shortly afterward, the encampment was raided and destroyed.

Homeless communities like the one once found in Echo Park Lake have shown resilience through communal care. What many Los Angeles organizations Like We The Unhoused, J-Town Action and the Alliance for Community Transit have been trying to communicate is that unhoused people demand the same rights and dignity as everyone else. In realizing that, the conversation begins to revolve around homeless people’s autonomy, dignity and right to housing.

“These are human rights violations,” tenant rights activist Dannie tells Henderson in episode 44 of We The Unhoused, which covers a sweep on a canal on the border of Hawthorne and Gardena. “Housing is a human right. Just because someone is living in the street or in their car as I have as well…just because someone doesn’t live in a building, does not mean it is not their home.”

Most recently, protestors, unhoused activists and homeless advocates protested City Council’s vote to expand Los Angeles Municipal Code 41.18, banning encampments 500 feet from any public or private school. The unhoused community and homeless advocates have made their voices heard and made their demands: They demand the abolition of 41.18. They demand that the city purchase Project Roomkey hotels in order to protect current tenants from eviction. Yet time and time again decision makers choose personal interests over the well being of unhoused individuals.

With the summer heat, rising Covid cases, the eviction of Project Roomkey tenants and the expansion of 41.18, there’s never been a worse time to be unhoused in the history of Los Angeles.

As the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles worsens, Angelenos face a reckoning with engaging and extending our hands to our unhoused neighbors. With the election around the corner, summer temperatures rising to all-time highs amid a global pandemic, police tensions and rent prices continuing to soar, there is no time to lose.

Like what you’re reading? Get a browser notification whenever we post a new story. You’re signed-up for browser notifications of new stories. No longer want to be notified? Unsubscribe.

Lupe Velez is an urban planning graduate student at UCLA, working with Pacific Urbanism, a community-serving enterprise that specializes in policy research and evaluation.

Tags: los angeleshomelessnessstorytelling

Next City App Never Miss A StoryDownload our app ×

You've reached your monthly limit of three free stories.

This is not a paywall. Become a free or sustaining member to continue reading.

  • Read unlimited stories each month
  • Our email newsletter
  • Webinars and ebooks in one click
  • Our Solutions of the Year magazine
  • Support solutions journalism and preserve access to all readers who work to liberate cities

Join 1105 other sustainers such as:

  • Bruce in Muncie, IN at $60/Year
  • John in Dayton, OH at $120/Year
  • Andrea at $100/Year

Already a member? Log in here. U.S. donations are tax-deductible minus the value of thank-you gifts. Questions? Learn more about our membership options.

or pay by credit card:

All members are automatically signed-up to our email newsletter. You can unsubscribe with one-click at any time.

  • Donate $20 or $5/Month

    20th Anniversary Solutions of the Year magazine

has donated ! Thank you 🎉