The deadly spate of winter storms and frigid temperatures that swept across the country this week threw into relief the inhumane treatment of unhoused populations in the United States. In defiance of pandemic guidelines, city agencies and police across the country have refused to suspend the practice of demolishing encampments and driving out those who have sought to make shelter, potentially exposing vulnerable people to dangerous temperatures and worsening viral spread.
Municipalities including Denver, Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, New Orleans, Dallas, San Jose and numerous others continue to carry out forcible evictions of the unhoused during a record-cold winter. Such tactics involving physical displacement and the seizure of personal effects by city employees, contractors and police are known as “sweeps.” This euphemism, in addition to implying that unhoused people are akin to trash, obscures the brutal dispossession and immiseration attendant to the act.
“Sweeps” are violent on their face, and at times can shade into truly egregious cruelty. In 2019, Boston police executing a sweep threw away multiple wheelchairs. The same year, advocates in San Francisco reported that cops sharply increased sweeps during heavy rain, seizing tents and cold-weather gear. Last week, the City of Tulsa confiscated firewood hours before a winter storm descended.
And now, with the ever-present threat of COVID, sweeps pose an even greater danger to life and health, as dispersing populations can drive increased rates of contagion. Nevertheless, authorities are so committed to the sweep strategy that they’ve violated clear directives from the CDC, which issued guidance in August 2020 that all encampment sweeps should cease. Portland, Oregon had initially halted sweeps due to COVID, only to resume them again over summer. Sweeps continued in Portland and nationwide as the pandemic attained a new order of magnitude. The Bay Area cities of San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and Cupertino all broke their pledges to forego sweeps during the pandemic. And Sacramento, in conducting sweeps last fall, countermanded its own county health directive well-nigh immediately after it was ordered. In the latter case, the displaced were given referrals to shelters. The shelters were closed.
Crackdown in Bellingham
In coastal Bellingham, Washington, opposition to a recent sweep brought tensions around the homelessness crisis to the fore. Since November, Bellingham’s City Hall had played unwilling host to Camp 210, a settlement that served as both shelter and clarion call. Built by a coalition of unhoused people and organizers, Camp 210, also known as the Bellingham Occupied Protest, had harbored around a hundred people, supported by mutual aid groups and donations from locals. Its establishment on the grounds of City Hall was pointed: a deliberate statement by people experiencing homelessness about the dearth of affordable housing and shelters in Whatcom County, and a demand that their hardship be acknowledged.
After resisting an initial attempt to clear the camp, organizers had managed to bring the city to the bargaining table, aiming to secure funds to house encampment residents. The demand was for 100 units; the city responded with an offer of 25. When the advocates refused, insisting that all be accommodated, the city broke off negotiations and declared its intention to evict Camp 210 on January 29. Its forces struck a day early.
Police in body armor brandished semiautomatic weapons, positioned snipers atop buildings and rolled out their Bearcat armored vehicle. Customs and Border Patrol made an appearance alongside multiple other agencies. Protesters helped residents move their possessions and held a line against police, but they were soon overpowered; the camp was dismembered with excavators. Tents and belongings were heaved into dump trucks. Four demonstrators were arrested.
Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood ascribed the pushback to “outside agitators.” The City insisted that a tactical response was warranted due to the threat from “extremist groups.” Online, reactionaries gnashed their teeth, indignant at the display of solidarity. The Daily Mail attempted to make hay out of the fact that, at an earlier action, some protesters had torn down a flag, broken a lock and walked into City Hall. (They left peacefully when asked.) Mayor Fleetwood likened the incident to the January 6 incursion into the U.S. Capitol. Meanwhile, Bellingham’s unhoused population continues to suffer through the cold.
Sweep operations are as counterproductive as they are inhumane. By rousting people from their shelter, disposing of their possessions — which can include medication, documents and survival gear — and, often, disconnecting them from camp-adjacent social services, sweeps perpetuate the misery of the unhoused and undermine their ability to escape their situation. The chief effect of sweeps is to render already marginalized people even more destitute than before and chase them off to another location where they remain subject to future sweeps.
This feedback loop is a microcosm of a broader cycle of privation. Economic precarity, prohibitively expensive housing and health care, and scarce social services lead to worsening homelessness. The state responds with surveillance and punitive measures, which exacerbate the crisis while diverting resources from actual remediation. Sweeps are only one particularly glaring manifestation of such. The criminalization of homelessness appears in many guises, including legislation like sit/lie ordinances (which make it illegal to sit or lie down on sidewalks), bans on food provision, burdensome citations and selective enforcement of minor infractions, shunting the unhoused into the carceral system. All of these practices amount to the illegalization of functions necessary for living, which, lacking any alternative, so many are forced to perform in public.
Coercive sweeps, deployed by authorities almost as a reflex, do not derive from good-faith aims to ameliorate social problems, despite the oft-invoked pretense of “public health.” They instead represent the state, and its monopoly on violence, mobilized to appease constituents and business interests, registering their distaste for the proximity of the unhoused. (Seattle has an anonymous app for just that.) That sweeps are utterly useless as both a health measure and a solution to the homelessness crisis belies their purported intent — but they are not only ineffective and callous. In winter, to say nothing of a pandemic, they can be fatal.
Nationwide, hundreds and hundreds of unhoused people die in the cold each year. Countless more suffer needlessly. Some efforts are made to protect them; when temperatures drop, cities might open warming stations and dispatch special services like roving “hypothermia vans.” New York City’s “Code Blue” procedure eases shelter intake requirements in cold temperatures. (Gov. Andrew Cuomo also once planned to bring people wintering on the street into shelters by force.) But emergency shelters, while lifesaving and necessary, remain stopgap measures. They fill rapidly, and pandemic restrictions have shrunk already restricted availability. When unusual cold hit Texas this week, shelters in Dallas overflowed immediately as official responses floundered. During November in Sacramento, a city with an abysmal shelter-to-need ratio, Greg Tarola died of exposure — only an early loss among the many to come over the course of winter. Last month, in that same city, a storm claimed Karen Hunter.
The number of shelter beds is miserably inadequate year-round in many states across the West and South. And existing shelters can put up barriers: substance use policies, curfews, gender stipulations that debar LGBTQ+ individuals, and other means of precluding access. Unsafe conditions, overcrowding or mental health-related fears lead some to avoid shelters altogether — making them “service-resistant,” in city agency parlance. But this “resistance” often has more to do with bureaucratic obstacles and unaccommodating shelter settings than personal recalcitrance. Branding the shelter-averse as such is in line with the kneejerk tendency to individualize the onus of homelessness.
Those who for whatever reason cannot enter shelters remain at the mercy of both sweeps and the elements. Over New Year’s in Kansas City, Scott Eicke, displaced by a sweep, died alone in the cold. In temperate Los Angeles, more homeless people die from hypothermia than in New York City and San Francisco combined, purely due to the immense number of people on the streets: over 66,000. While many local governments set temperature thresholds under which, they assure the public, sweeps will not be ordered, the boundaries are effectively arbitrary. Encampments are regularly demolished in potentially life-threatening conditions. Portland, Oregon, for example, touts that it does not perform sweeps on days below 25ºF, or 32ºF in rain — but hypothermia can set in at temperatures up to 50ºF.
Last November, in Portland’s Laurelhurst Park, a wealthy area, cops issued citations while contractors dismantled a camp of 75. Housed residents of the tony neighborhood had verbally abused those living in the park, stolen and burned city-provided portable toilets and harassed organizers trying to serve food. Learning of the eviction plan, Stop The Sweeps PDX and other advocacy groups rallied in opposition, to no avail. The park community was disbanded. Earlier this month, in even harsher weather, those who had returned to Laurelhurst were swept yet again. Mayor Ted Wheeler, weaseling, called the sweeps “a humane response.” It is difficult to square that kind of assessment with what happened to Debby Ann Beaver, who died in Portland in the summer of 2019 after a sweep confiscated her medications.
A Clear Solution: Provide Housing
Sweeps should not exist, not only because they are senseless and cruel, but also because there should be no one to “sweep.” None should be forced to live outdoors. The fact that we see it fit to define a condition called “homelessness” is enough — enough to condemn this social architecture under which we find ourselves, and the penury intrinsic to it.
Homelessness is overwhelmingly not a choice freely made. We must resist the narrative that it is voluntary or a product of personal failings. The current flourishing of the crisis can be traced to the Reagan-era gutting of public housing and mental health treatment. It is an effect emergent from the ravages of an unjust system: the racial disparities, yawning inequality and threadbare social services endemic to latter-day American capitalism. Any death that occurs at this nexus of disenfranchisement, repression and inclement weather is a social murder.
The homeless crisis persists in the face of a self-evident, proven and less expensive solution — namely, providing homes. Housing is a human right. By the extent to which a state deprives people, directly and indirectly, of that right, we may take a measure of its moral desolation.