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Resting Safe: Houseless Community Control of Urban Space

“Resting Safe: Houseless Community Control of Urban Space”

Erin Goodling (University of Oregon), Melanie Malone (University of Washington, Bothell), Christine Hawn (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) and Ibrahim Mubarak and Lisa Fay (Right 2 Survive)

RESTING SAFE (https://www.restingsafe.org) addresses homelessness not solely through a lens of housing, which is how it’s usually framed, but also as an interconnected police violence and environmental justice issue. One of the most defining and traumatizing things about being houseless is being swept – evicted – over and over and over. Something that most people don’t think about is that these sweeps are directly tied to exposure to environmental hazards for houseless people, including air pollution, soil contamination, fire danger, rodents, and floods. When police evict houseless people from commercial and residential neighborhoods, they often end up in highly toxic places, like in industrial areas and under freeway overpasses.

We’ve conducted interviews on the environmental politics and hazards of homelessness with nearly 50 houseless community leaders across the US over the last 9 months. One person described their community’s site: “We are on clay-ass soil that is hard as hell. This used to be a battery factory; we find batteries buried all over.” Another explained, “On one side is the fire department. On the other side is [an airfield]. There are lots of sirens and planes taking off and landing. Across the street is train tracks. We are at a nexus of noise pollution where no one would ever want to be.”

Speaking up about these direct hazards, it turns out, can be even MORE dangerous than the hazard itself. One activist put it bluntly: “People would live inside a nuclear reactor to avoid being swept.” We have heard over and over how concerns about hazard exposure is put forth by neighborhood groups and public agencies as reasons to evict people with literally nowhere else to go.

Houseless people are in a catch-22: speak up, and appeal to landowners and local public agencies to assist in remediating hazards, and risk eviction. Stay silent, and continue living in dangerous conditions.

A community-controlled solution is necessary, one that allows houseless communities, themselves, to diagnose and reduce exposure to hazards. A project of Right 2 Survive (https://www.right2survive.org), RESTING SAFE brings together houseless community leaders and activist-researchers to investigate and intervene in environmental hazards in the places where houseless people are building homes and communities. In addition to popular education materials, reports, articles, and a book, one important product of this project is a collectively created, environmental justice-focused “RESTING SAFE Toolkit”. So far, we have created a pamphlet with tips and tricks for preventing mold and mildew, and are in the process of developing a poster focused on fire safety, protocols for testing diesel particulate matter levels by collecting spider webs, and a pamphlet on dealing with rodents and pests.

This project is tapping into the deep expertise that houseless communities have already developed in response to dangerous living conditions, pooling collective knowledge to enable people to learn from each other across geographies. It is also arming communities with information about their sites’ types and levels of pollution, and providing tools for communities to reduce risks, themselves, or push public agencies to do so. Finally, it is contributing to Right 2 Survive and other groups’ efforts to build a national movement for Sleep Not Sweeps, House Keys Not Handcuffs.

Ultimately, this project aims to ensure that houseless communities establish greater control over urban space, emerging better equipped to fight for more just land use, housing, healthcare, and police systems.

Erin Goodling | eringoodling@gmail.com

22 April 2019

 

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