Every fence erected around a park represents LA’s continued failure to house houseless people. Every fence illegally placed on a sidewalk illustrates the “dirty divide,” primed, seemingly sanctioned and assisted by the government. Fences are the truest expression of banishment and death, faux care and failure, demarcation, and segregation. Much more than metal objects, these are borders and this is apartheid, plain and simple. State violence will be used to enforce the perimeter of public space denied to its poorest residents; those who are relegated to spaces where access to clean air, clean water, fresh food and proper sanitation are not a given.

The fences also point us toward another set of evictions happening simultaneously. While the public bears witness to the loss of community and services in our parks and neighborhoods, -they don’t see the behind-the curtain ejection of those in Project Room Key (the all but failed $100 million-plus program to repurpose hotels and motels emptied by the coronavirus as safe havens for medically-vulnerable houseless people) to make space for the new arrivals. Those who were temporarily housed through Project Room Key are again becoming houseless, and others previously houseless will become temporarily housed in carceral conditions, thus continuing a vicious cycle that doesn’t end in permanent supportive or affordable housing.

The Los Angeles County plan to lease hotel and motel rooms for 15,000 topped out at just over 4,300 guests, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. The goal was to find those people permanent housing while they stayed isolated in unused hotel rooms. Yet more than 1,200 of those L.A. County residents who took part in Project Room Key are still waiting for permanent housing,CBS2LA reported.

Ananya Roy, director of UCLA’s Institute on Inequality and Democracy, whose group has been in contact with residents who returned to the streets after their initial placements, said that it was unclear if residents in shelters would receive permanent housing. “People are scattered and disappeared,” she said. “And there’s just a waning of what I call COVID compassion. We’re on the brink of a regime of pretty severe exclusion,” according to the Guardian.

Only a minority of houseless people gain access to permanent housing. The majority are caught in a revolving door consisting of criminalization, temporary shelter and banishment. For them, permanent housing is a longshot at best.  Driven into the shadows, out of sight and out of mind, is the strategy of choice for the City of Los Angeles. Ultimately, it’s a failed strategy because there is no way to hide tens of thousands of people whose homes are currently in public space.

This will only get meaner and more violent unless the current trajectory is disrupted…and it will be disrupted! This “Dirty Divide” can’t be allowed to stand.  Deciding who can stay or go based on appearance is apartheid. Discrimination based on social status is apartheid.

The underperformance of Proposition HHH, the $1.2 billion homeless housing measure to add 10,000 supportive units for vulnerable Angelenos that is widely predicted to fall far short of its goal, highlights the ineffectiveness of the homeless services system in Los Angeles. 

Strategies based on criminalization that create barriers to unhoused people — predominantly people of color with an alarming and growing number of them women — have failed. It’s time for a new playbook to deal with L.A.’s housing crisis. 

The mayor and city council need to “Tear down these fences!”.

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