At his May press conference for the state budget revision, which detailed unprecedented action to address homelessness in California, Gov. Newsom referred to California freeways and underpasses as “too damn dirty.”
The comment felt much too tongue-in-cheek for the issue at hand, and also much too similar to “The Rent is Too Damn High” slogan popularized by New York politician Jimmy McMillan. Though it’s true, the rent is too damn high in California, Newsom’s comment didn’t address the impact of that on California’s homeless population. Instead, it focuses on the optics of homelessness, which is dangerous and unproductive.
Inequitable housing policies, exorbitantly high rents, lack of safe, stable, and affordable housing, high costs of living, and low wages all contribute to California’s housing and homelessness crisis
Widespread homelessness is a crisis decades in the making, and is the result of many systemic failures. We are encouraged by the governor’s financial commitment to the issue, but have to speak up against references to our unhoused neighbors as “dirty.” Words mean things, and words like those only serve to stigmatize people experiencing homelessness — they have no place in legitimate public discourse.
California’s inequitable housing policies, exorbitantly high rents, lack of safe, stable, and affordable housing, high costs of living, and low wages all contribute to California’s housing and homelessness crisis. Throw gentrification, displacement, and a global health crisis in the mix, you have a recipe for more homelessness. The solution is not to “clean up” places where people experiencing homelessness are forced to live due to criminalization, stigmatization, and draconian laws, but to enact meaningful solutions and provide necessary wrap around services.
The governor’s comment reflects an affluent government that permits major human rights atrocities in one of the wealthiest states in the world. His proposal to partner with CalTrans for freeway underpass cleaning is especially troublesome, given CalTrans’ history of engaging in illegal sweeps that displace already vulnerable communities.
Not only do sweeps traumatize, harass, and victimize our unhoused neighbors, they’ve also caused over $5.5 million dollars in settlement lawsuits. If history is any indication of our future, the Governor’s proposal sets up ample opportunity for more sweeps.
When the governor talks about illegal dumping and mattresses littering freeway underpasses, he makes invisible the people sleeping on those mattresses or living under the freeway. Announcing funds to address homelessness while also denigrating the people we’re purporting to help feeds a dangerous narrative about 160,000 Californians — a narrative that can and does incite violence against one of the most vulnerable populations in the state.
Violence against unhoused people is a major problem in California, and “dirty” rhetoric perpetuates it.
What’s more, a majority of renters currently at risk of eviction in California are Black and brown, and a majority (70%) of people experiencing homelessness have a history of incarceration, which also disproportionately impacts Black and brown people. A white governor can’t go around linking an issue disproportionately impacting Black and brown people to uncleanliness. That’s a tired, yet still utilized trope — literally ‘justification’ for separate public spaces under Jim Crow.
With the largest budget windfall in California history, we can spare the extra dollars to support our unhoused neighbors, not sweep them under the rug
Newsom, purposefully or not, set up a split California, pitting housed and unhoused neighbors against each other, as if our unhoused neighbors are any different from the rest of us. The fact is, many Californians are one paycheck or eviction notice away from homelessness — the pandemic made that very clear. Still, people experiencing homelessness are criminalized, stigmatized, and discriminated against daily.
In a moment when the governor announced a grand vision for “California’s comeback,” including massive spending on programs to help struggling Californians, he ostracized a huge number of the constituents he claims to be helping. Newsom missed a chance to lead by example, showing the people of this state what real support for our unhoused neighbors looks like.
California must be better than this. With the largest budget windfall in California history, we can spare the extra dollars to support our unhoused neighbors, not sweep them under the rug. We’ve come together in the past to solve big problems, and we’ve done it without demonizing vulnerable groups of people. We need solidarity from our elected officials, not insults, and we need our leaders to speak to our highest instincts and innate empathy for each other, not to stereotype-driven fears.
Editor’s Note: Tina Rosales is a housing policy advocate at the Western Center on Law & Poverty, where she focuses on land-use policies, housing production for people with low to no income, landlord/tenant law, homelessness, fair housing, and other housing-related issues.