California’s Homeless Show the Way Forward

Los Angeles Homeless Tents

Echoing Friedrich Engels, Lenin once famously said, “There are decades where nothing happens. There are weeks when decades happen.” The novel Coronavirus has catapulted the consciousness of American workers decades ahead. However, the virus didn’t cause the new situation—it was only the accident that expressed a necessity which had been slowly building over many years.

Homelessness in America forms part of the background to this tragedy. In the wealthiest country in the world, some 8 to 11 million people do not have adequate shelter. This figure includes people living on the streets, in growing tent cities, and homeless shelters, as well as those stuffed into overcrowded rooms and apartments. At the same time, there is a national average of two vacant investor-owned homes for every one person who sleeps on the streets. This was the situation during the longest economic boom in the history of the country. The period we are entering will inevitably cast countless more people out of their homes. This is unprecedented in the history of humanity and is a glaring indictment of the capitalist system.

California is perhaps the national epicenter of homelessness and suffers from a housing crisis which readers of Socialist Revolution will be familiar with. The homeless population of Los Angeles alone is just shy of 60,000 people. Like their counterparts across the country, these people are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. The “social-distancing” measures proposed by the government to slow the spread involve avoiding public places and maintaining a distance of six feet between people. This is impossible without a home, in the shelter system, or when impossibly crammed in a relative’s tiny apartment.

The physical toll of their daily situation also makes the homeless more likely to have underlying health conditions which worsen the prognosis if infected by the virus. With containment policies an utter failure, all the conditions are in place for a horrific and deadly escalation of the pandemic. Even in times like these, when we’re told we should collectively rally to fight the virus, the attitude of the capitalist state towards the homeless is not one of sympathy and concern, but hostility and neglect. In times of both peace and “war,” they cannot expect any help from above.

However, L.A.’s homeless population is determined not to meekly submit to the fate being prepared for them. Several homeless people, among them, working families, have occupied a dozen homes owned by CalTrans, the state transportation agency. They have stated that they are doing this because they have no choice, both for their own safety and for public health. Since capitalism has failed to control the situation, the only solution left is the self-organization and activity of the exploited and the oppressed.

When responding to the question of homelessness, Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti stated, “We don’t have a ton of supply of vacant housing.” However, his reckoning does not include the homes owned by speculators—which are just as vacant as if no one held the title to them. The line separating people in need from existing shelter is an abstraction, increasingly arbitrary, and removed from the requirements of everyday life. We must recognize it for what it is and step over that line. In L.A., the homeless have begun to do so. Action like this accomplishes what a thousand petitions never can, and is a guarantee stronger than any legislation.

Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti with Police Chief, Michael Moore
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti / Image: Eric Garcetti via Flickr

News of events such as these spreads quickly, and the inspiration to follow suit can catch like wildfire. As the economic and public health crisis deepens, the occupation of vacant homes may well too spread throughout L.A. and other major cities, where the conditions are just as ripe.

In the current crisis, the attention of the authorities is temporarily elsewhere, so for the time being, they can tolerate this violation of a small bit of normally sacrosanct private property. But what lies in store when this epidemic is under control, order is restored, and they try to evict these families? When the banks and landlords come to collect their delayed rents, mortgages, and loan payments?

The experience of the Paris Commune is one to bear in mind. In May 1871, after enduring the economic dislocation of the Franco-Prussian War and a vicious siege, the entire city rose up. It established the first workers’ state in defiance of the ruling class’s attempt to reimpose the old status quo, which had been shattered by events.

The battle lines of the many future explosions of the class war are being prepared. The need to get organized is greater than ever—and we must prepare now to take to the streets as soon as we can leave our homes.

Ultimately, only a workers’ government with a consistent revolutionary socialist program can solve the many grave problems we face and which are impossible to ignore. Homelessness can be extinguished overnight with a fraction of the existing housing stock; it is as simple as giving the order. Revolutionary socialists propose that we expropriate the parasite landlords without compensation, place a moratorium on all evictions, and cap rent at no more than 10% of income. With the leftover vacant units, we could build emergency hospitals to treat the exponentially increasing severe cases of COVID-19.

However, imagining what could be done is only useful if it leads us towards the necessary action to make such potential a reality. We cannot have a workers’ government without a party equipped with a socialist program and rooted in the life of the masses. Such a party must have a presence in every workplace, neighborhood, and campus. It must play a leading role in every struggle of the exploited and oppressed and unite them into a single stream. But such a party will not emerge automatically, and its embryo must be built in advance—this is the urgent work the IMT is engaged in. If you agree with our socialist program to fight COVID-19 and the economic crisis, we urge you to join us!


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