Letter from LA: The homeless are internal refugees — victims on the run from neoliberalism

Ever since we moved back to LA, I’ve been shocked and horrified by how bad the homeless situation here has gotten in the years that we’ve been gone. And while everyone here is aware of this “problem,” no one with any real political power is willing to do anything about it — because to do so would require totally reconfiguring the way our society operates. Instead, the only thing that people here agree on is that it’s probably best to ship the homeless to gulags far away from the city. Way before corona hit, this been big area for agreement between local anti-Trump liberals and the Trump Administration.

Now with corona and the shutdown, the homeless “problem” has been pushed to forefront — with the Los Angeles Times doing cover story after cover story on the threat the virus poses to the unhoused and, by extension, the general population of LA. But again, other than cramming people into makeshift and poorly equipped shelters — shelters that could very well become a breeding ground for the virus — no one’s really doing anything. And while the city is on lockdown, there are reports from all over LA that city officials are still pushing the homeless out of their camps and seizing their property. And I won’t be surprised if, in the end, the city uses the corona crisis as cover for its partnership with the Trump government to ship the homeless out of the city and into quarantine gulags.

Does that look like 6 feet between cots to you? I’d say 3 feet max — if that.

But there’s that word: the homeless.

As a refugee myself — and as someone who’s been studying the history of refugees and “displaced persons” — it’s become clear to me that “homelessness” isn’t the best word to describe what’s happening here. It makes the whole thing seem so disembodied and abstract.

The truth is that homelessness is fundamentally a refugee crisis — an internal refugee crisis caused by economic and political warfare. The United Nations has a pretty good bureaucratic term to describe the tens of thousands of homeless here in LA: “internally displaced persons.”

Internally displaced people (IDPs) have not crossed a border to find safety. Unlike refugees, they are on the run at home. IDPs stay within their own country and remain under the protection of its government, even if that government is the reason for their displacement.

Naturally, the UN leaves out economic policies as a driver of IDPs and mostly restricts its definition to wars and natural disasters. That’s expected in our neoliberal world — where economic power has been written out of the everyday realm of politics and remade into an immutable law of nature. But put economics and politics back into the realm of human warfare (where they belong) and there’s just no getting around how well “IDP” fits the homeless.

The fact is our government and our society has been directly responsible for the internal displacement of these people. On just about every level — from local to state to federal to cultural and personal — our establishment has waged a political war against its own society on behalf of corporate and private power. The vast majority of us have been on the losing side and everyone’s been dealing and coping with this assault in whatever ways they can. The poorest and most vulnerable among us are just the most visible casualties of this war. They have nowhere else to flee, nothing to retreat to. So they’re scattered all over the streets here like human wreckage.

The coronavirus is exposing this political war like nothing else I can remember — and it’s gonna simply decimate the homeless.

Echo Park, Los Angeles

So the homeless are internal refugees — victims on the run from neoliberalism. But there is one big difference between the homeless and other “accepted” IDPs and refugees: the homeless are not allowed to have a sympathetic narrative.

Soviet Jewish refugees like me, Syrian refugees, Iraqi refugees, Bolivian refugees, and, hell, even Ukrainian Nazi collabos fleeing justice at the hands of the Red Army — all these groups are allowed to be seen as victims of external forces outside their control. But the homeless are given no such privilege. Their homelessness and misery and victimization is supposed to be their own fault. It’s all tied to personal choices they made — choices that exist completely outside of external political forces.

This narrative denial makes sense. Our political elite can’t smugly say that homelessness here is the fault of communism or that it was caused by the undemocratic policies of some bad authoritarian government. It can’t blame it on something foreign and external. And it can’t weaponize the homeless in service of its own ideology and power — like my fellow Soviet Jewish refugees and I were during the Cold War.

Our society is to blame for this disaster. It’s the one that’s waging war against its own people. And those in power today — whether liberal or Trumpist — do not want to stop it.

—Yasha Levine

PS: One of the groups that’s doing great work with supporting homeless internal refugees here is Street Watch LA.

PPS: Reps from the UN made several trips out to California and were appalled by the conditions in the camps here in makeshift homeless camps here in LA — noting that they don’t even come close to meeting basic international humanitarian standards that are provided to, say, Syrian refugees. But while UN reps criticized America’s homeless disaster, they never classified it as a crisis of internal refugees. But that’s what it is.


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