How The Streets Got So Mean

A look at the role capitalism plays in creating, perpetuating and criminalizing homelessness in U.S. cities.

Pedestrians walk past tents on Taylor Street in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Monday, Jan. 13, 2020. This year's JPMorgan Healthcare Conference comes as the city is grappling with heightened attention on its troubles, with its homeless crisis worsening, tech companies facing backlash and President Donald Trump lashing out at California's policies. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

By Mimi Kirk
May 18, 2020 —

When Don Mitchell was a master’s student in geography at Penn State in the late 1980s, he came across a newspaper article on homelessness that struck him. Homelessness was surging in many U.S. cities — from 1984 to 1987 the number of people living on the streets almost doubled — and the article attempted to explain the trend by looking into the characteristics of those experiencing homelessness: age, race, gender, work history, drug or alcohol abuse. That didn’t seem like a satisfactory approach to Mitchell.

“Individual characteristics don’t tell us much about causation,” says Mitchell, now a professor of cultural geography at Uppsala University in Sweden. “Some percent of homeless individuals have a substance abuse problem, for instance — but plenty of people who are housed do, too.”

That search for a better answer led Mitchell to delve into the deeper, structural roots of homelessness, approaching it not in terms of individual traits, but as a condition of society. The goal, he says, then becomes to figure out what this condition involves and what shapes it. In his new book, Mean Streets: Homelessness, Public Space, and the Limits of Capital, Mitchell examines the role of capitalism in the creation and perpetuation of homelessness, reaching as far back as the breakdown of the feudal system in 14th- and 15th-century Europe.

The problems faced by unsheltered people are getting fresh attention in this era of sheltering-in-place. Those who are already homeless are extremely vulnerable to Covid-19, and the economic devastation that the pandemic has triggered in the U.S. is putting low-income housed families at an increased risk of becoming homeless.

CityLab spoke with Mitchell about the history of urban homelessness, the laws that punish those without shelter, and strategies that could make capitalism’s streets less mean.

U.S. cities used to be more welcoming of homeless people. What happened?

Cities and the homeless population have both evolved over the past 125 years. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was young white men who were largely homeless. They were mostly migratory workers who followed the crops or moved in and out of lumber camps. They would stay in urban “skid row” neighborhoods when there wasn’t work or when they had money and didn’t want to work. Skid rows were often found in western U.S. cities, but also on the East Coast, like the Bowery in New York City. These districts had single-room occupancy hotels, cheap bars and restaurants, brothels, and missions, as well as public spaces where people could hang out.

In the 1950s, casual labor such as lumbering and longshoring was decasualized, and as that happened most of those who remained on skid row tended to be older white men. By the 1980s, the new wave of homeless people was significantly younger and included more people of color as well as more women and families. Many among this group were thrown out of work during de-industrialization. Assaults on the public welfare system and the closing of mental institutions also put people on the streets.  

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Up until this period, skid row was the locus for homelessness. With the transformation of the U.S. economy beginning in the 1970s,whole city districts were knocked down and gentrification took place. One of gentrification’s key targets was skid rows, since the land values were so cheap. Single-room occupancy hotels became boutique hotels or upscale housing, and soup kitchens became expensive restaurants, resulting in a mass increase of people on the streets.

These kinds of transformations are the root of American homelessness today. If we want to understand it, we have to pay attention to how cities have become increasingly commodified and how capital increasingly circulates largely though the built environment. This means that public space itself has become a primary commodity. This, coupled with the fact that capitalism requires a reserve army of labor, produces homelessness. And this newer type of U.S. homelessness is exacerbated by the lack of health care and mental health care for the poor.

Of course, homelessness goes back further than 125 years — and further than capitalism itself. You also write about how its origins provide clues as to how homeless people are viewed and treated today.

Because capitalism requires the circulation of bodies for labor, in its origins we see the uprooting and movement of vast numbers of people. As the European feudal system began to break down in the 14th and 15th centuries, many laborers were sent on the road. Those who encountered these mobile people saw them as strangers who “should be working.” Women were seen as more deserving than men, children more than adults, old people more than young people, whites more than blacks, native-born more than immigrant. Though these categories shift historically, the basic tenets have carried through, and much of how we organize our welfare and aid to homeless people follows such a logic.

Legislation targeting homeless people is also found in early capitalism. Can you explain?  

When feudal workers were thrown off the land in the 14th and 15th centuries, elites and the government, viewing this influx of the mobile poor as a threat that needed to be neutralized, started to regulate them through law. Karl Marx calls this an era of “bloody legislation” against the poor, and the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman termed it a time of “feverish legislative activity.”

When homelessness exploded anew in the U.S. in the 1980s, the first response in many cities was quite compassionate, both from residents and local governments. Churches opened their basements, cities opened shelters, and individuals opened their homes. But as the crisis continued and it became clear that simply providing shelter doesn’t address the problem, compassion waned.

“The pandemic is said to be an emergency, and it is — but we’ve already been living in an emergency.”

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, cities began to engage in “feverish legislative activity,” such as banning begging and sleeping in public. Though the courts largely threw out these bans, cities had more success with laws that regulate the time and place and manner of, say, begging. Laws began to dictate that a person, for instance, cannot panhandle “aggressively,” such as following someone or begging at an ATM, or begging in certain public spaces altogether, such as subway stations.

There has been some pushback. An appellate court declared a Boise, Idaho anti-camping law unconstitutional in 2018, with the Supreme Court recently declining to hear an appeal, and Minneapolis’s City Council rejected a 2006 attempt to ban all “strangers” from the city’s alleyways. Still, the movements and lives of homeless people are continuously regulated to keep public city space primed for capital accumulation.

What does the management of homelessness during Covid-19 tell us?

The fact that a number of states are putting people in hotels and empty apartments is important. The pandemic is said to be an emergency, and it is — but we’ve already been living in an emergency. The famous image from Las Vegas, where city authorities drew rectangles on the convention center’s parking lot and told homeless people to stay in them to keep space between them, says something important, too. It becomes something that people can organize around. Do you paint lines in a parking lot, or do you de-commodify housing? I don’t know where things will go, but it’s worth paying attention to.  

You argue that although homeless people are society’s most vulnerable, we are all at risk of persecution — though to different degrees.

The kinds of regulatory experiments on the homeless that order the streets and make them safe for capital accumulation implicate all of us and can criminalize us. It makes it impossible to be in public in ways other than that which serve the purpose of the social order. Some people, such as young black men, are much more vulnerable to this criminalization.

In this sense, homeless people are an indicator species, as those who are most vulnerable are targeted first. What happens to them is an indicator of the overall ecosystem. If it works to order and manage homeless people and we accept it, then it works to manage us and we accept it.

In your opinion, what should advocates for people living with homelessness do to better address this?

One strategy is to link movements advocating for homeless people with other kinds of anti-capitalist urban movements, or even movements aiming to make the streets open for bicycles and pedestrians — that is, for the enjoyment of living in cities rather than the perfect circulation of commodities.

The U.S. economy was organized differently from the New Deal until 1973. As incomplete, uneven, and racist as it was, social welfare and public housing worked to ameliorate the grossest injustices of the capitalist system. Capitalism was organized in a way that was less mean than it is now. The world can be organized such that it doesn’t simultaneously produce the people we call homeless and the thinking that we have to get rid of them.

This article courtesy of CITYLAB

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