For nearly two years my family was one of many unhoused families in Los Angeles. We lived in two Culver City motels, moving between the two every 28 days. Despite my mother working over 40 hours a week as a waitress, cleaning tables, and taking orders, we were still not financially secure enough to rent. In response to my father’s addiction, the state incarcerated him on nonviolent drug charges, leaving my mother to be our breadwinner.
This is what displaceability is like – always being on the verge of displacement despite efforts to be housed. In one conversation with my mother about our housing insecurity she told me, “That’s how families get stuck. You can’t pay monthly rent, and you end up spending your check on motel expenses.”
My family was privileged enough to move into an apartment but even while housed there was looming anxiety over me that we could one day be evicted. My experiences with housing insecurity influence my goals as a Public Affairs undergraduate at UCLA. I want to explore the connections between policing and property in Los Angeles, a topic I hold very close to home.
Latinx people accounted for about 42% of unhoused Angelenos in 2022. The pervasiveness of homelessness among our Latinx community has increased by 26% since 2020. Our Black population in Los Angeles is greatly overrepresented among unhoused Angelenos, representing 9% of our city and 30% of unhoused Angelenos. Behind each of these numbers is a person just trying to survive in Los Angeles, but our city has taken actions that clearly do not see them as such – people. Los Angeles has taken strong actions to criminalize our unhoused Angelenos, with Black and Latinx folks experiencing displaceability.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, government officials issued stay-at-home orders to limit the spread of coronavirus. But for our unhoused Angelenos, what did it mean to “stay-at-home?” Martha Escudero, a Latina mother of two was unhoused when stay-at-home orders were in place. This prompted Escudero and other unhoused people to reclaim vacant publicly owned homes in El Sereno, California.
According to El Sereno’s Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, there are 143 vacant CalTrans homes in El Sereno, 10 of which are inhabited. These homes were purchased by CalTrans in a failed effort to demolish them and expand the 710 freeway in the 1960s. These El Sereno homes are left vacant despite mass demands for equitable and affordable housing.
With Reclaiming Our Homes, Escudero reclaimed one of these homes. In the face of a housing crisis and a global pandemic, Reclaiming Our Homes took control of their housing futures.
Reclaiming Our Homes reminds us that there are more vacant homes than unhoused people in Los Angeles. Reclaimers assert that they have a right to these vacant homes. Reclamation of vacant public-owned properties was an organized community effort. Volunteers fixed the vacant homes and local contractors inspected for mold and asbestos.
The occupation of CalTrans homes challenges the criminalization of unhoused families by taking housing back for their predominantly Latinx community. Reclaiming Our Homes won their fight in 2020, given the “right” to occupy these homes by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA). But now, Reclaimers are risking the threat of eviction.
In a recent update, Escudero revealed in news reports that she received a 3-day eviction notice. Escudero and her two daughters have lived in their home for two years. During this time, they have become deeply connected with their local community. The HACLA program that gave Escudero and other Reclaimers a “right” to their homes had a 2-year expiration.
But who gives one “rights” to a home? Escudero’s work with Reclaiming Our Homes displayed that they took this right on their own despite state apathy. Eviction from their home does not strip their right to a home, it policies their personhood.
Housing injustice like those experienced by Reclaimers is a result of racialized banishment. Our Black and Latinx communities are expelled from society through policing and punishment. Racial banishment and racialized policing keep unhoused people, renters, low-income people, and communities of color constantly susceptible to displacement. Racialized policing experienced by many Black and Latinx Angelenos is used to regulate property by criminalizing community members like Escudero. To criminalize a person for being unhoused is to police their existence because they do not have “property.”
Instead of displacing Reclaimers, these homes should be returned to the community. These CalTrans homes are up for auction, which has caught the attention of the community. If El Sereno Community Land Trusts took ownership of these El Sereno homes, the homes would be in the hands of Reclaimers. This would ensure the homes remain affordable, challenge displacement, and uphold Reclaimers’ tradition of community collaboration.
To keep people housed, we need to understand that these scenarios are the results of design and intention. In order to see lasting change in housing insecurity, we need to reconsider what housing looks like. Reclaimers challenge us to reconsider housing futures and who has the “right” to a home. Housing is a human right, but our current system does not treat it as such.
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