One may be bothered by how poorly the homeless are being treated but still feel a bit uneasy about classifying them as a distinct social group. The designation seems to suggest that homelessness is permanent and out of the control of the individual. Is there some danger, or, at least, some irresponsibility in extending protections to people based on what some might call a temporary or even deserved condition? Will it lead to protections for any people who want to proclaim themselves a group?
“I don’t actually have any fears about that,” Garrow said. “Living without a house is not an immutable characteristic, but it is a stigmatizing label that targets them and changes their lives completely.”
I’m inclined to agree with Garrow, in part, because I don’t really see some slippery slope where every group that feels persecuted in any small way, like, say, conservative students at elite colleges, successfully lobbies the state legislature on behalf of its trampled rights. The unhoused seem like a clear social category, and the law should protect them from discrimination.
It’s also worth asking whether Californians actually have all that much control over their housing status. The affordable-housing crisis in the state, which, as the report points out, began with the defunding of subsidized and affordable housing when Reagan was president, does not leave much room for grit and human agency. Can every poor person in the state suddenly get a job that pays the $60,000 salary required to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles?
The enormity of the housing crisis in California has harmed nearly everyone, whether they are middle-class professionals priced out of the city, working-class gig employees who live in apartments with five roommates or the growing unhoused population that has fallen out of the system completely.
I am not sure whether classifying the unhoused as a protected group will persuade people to start thinking about their neighbors with more compassion or sympathy, nor will it clear the way for the extensive construction of affordable housing in their cities. But I also don’t think the two issues — the way the unhoused are brutally treated and the lack of housing in the state for them — should be separated.
The punitive policies detailed in the report will not stop encampments from sprouting up in public parks, under highway overpasses or in abandoned parking lots across the state. To understand why there needs to be more affordable housing in a community, you have to first accept that the people who are living on the street deserve to be your neighbors and are not just problems to be criminalized, jailed or expelled away.
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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”