CRITICAL EJ & HOMELESSNESS: As an NSF-Postdoctoral Fellow, I am the PI of RESTING SAFE, which addresses the urban political ecology of US homelessness. In the context of an ongoing housing crisis, an extraordinary climate emergency, and ever-shrinking social safety nets, an unprecedented number of people live unsheltered today. In dialogue with urban political ecology, geographies of homelessness, and environmental justice (EJ) research and organizing, and drawing on seven years of participant observation and a national phone survey of nearly fifty houseless community representatives, the first phase of RESTING SAFE charts an inaugural baseline critical EJ analysis of homelessness. Houseless people indeed suffer from noise, air, and soil pollution; mold, rodents, and pests; extreme weather; and more. But I argue that to understand the EJ experiences of houseless people, it is necessary to examine much more than just direct hazard exposure. Sweeps – evictions – in downtown and residential areas push people into dangerous spaces. In turn, cities overwhelmingly respond to environmental hazard concerns with more exclusion and displacement—creating a cycle of criminalization, dangerous living conditions, and serial forced removal. This incarceration-exposure-eviction cycle multiplies and magnifies other forms of violence that disproportionately impact people along lines of race, gender, age, (dis)ability, and so on.
Ongoing RESTING SAFE research includes analyzing climate change impacts on houseless people; examining fire (i.e., wildfire, open-flame cooking and heating, arson) as a window into the everyday role of the state in perpetuating a societal attitude of expendability toward houseless people; a series of site histories of land where houseless encampments have been located over the past century, as a window into the shifting relationship between homelessness and settler colonialism and racial capitalism; and the rise and spread of houseless-run communities and their roles in social and EJ movements. RESTING SAFE is funded by a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Grant, as well as the Antipode Foundation, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Common Counsel, Social Justice Fund Northwest, Meyer Memorial Trust, and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation..
RESTING SAFE EJ TOOLKIT: This critical EJ analysis of homelessness is informing creation of a harm reduction-inspired "EJ Toolkit", in collaboration with a Portland-based houseless-led group with which I have worked since 2013, Right 2 Survive. Our Toolkit includes a series of pamphlets, posters, and online resources created by and for houseless people, designed to help communities mitigate environmental hazards such as mold, fire, and rodents. And to enable houseless communities to test for air pollution in their encampments, we are developing low-tech, low-cost protocols with biophysical scientists that entail collecting spider webs to test for diesel particulate matter. Undergirding this Toolkit tactic is an understanding that local and federal public agencies cannot be counted on to intervene in the interests of houseless people—whether day-to-day, during extreme weather events, or following disasters. A response that simultaneously addresses immediate threats to survival, at the same time as it engages people and builds political consciousness that informs collective action against sweeps, is necessary. In addition to Right 2 Survive, this Toolkit project is in collaboration with Chris Hawn and Dillon Mahmoudi (UMBC), Melanie Malone (UW-Bothell), Nathan McClintock (PSU), and Anthony Levenda (U of Oklahoma).
SLEEP NOT SWEEPS: The Role of Business Improvement Districts in Criminalizing Basic Survival
Houseless people sleep, rest, eat, and perform other basic survival functions in public space. Yet, people are rarely able to conduct such life-sustaining activities in any one place with regularity: when police, private security guards, parks employees, vigilante group members, and others utter the words “move along”, people begin packing their belongings. Weekly and even daily sweeps – evictions – from public spaces are one of the most defining and traumatizing things about being unsheltered in the US. Sweeps cause houseless people to lose their survival gear, identification, medicines, and treasured mementos. Sweeps also generate fines and citations that create additional barriers to becoming housed. Over the last three decades, as part of a larger process of privatizing public space, Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) have become a driving force behind the proliferation of forced removals. BIDs are funded by local property assessments and have little public oversite. Unpacking how they operate is one key piece to understanding, as Staeheli and Mitchell (2008) put it, “how particular private interests prevail in public space”—the places where houseless people so often make their homes. Properly conceptualizing BIDs is also crucial for conceptualizing what constitutes legitimate activity, and by whom, on publicly-owned property—and therefore for organizing for more just cities. In collaboration with the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a coalition of houseless-led grassroots groups from California, Oregon, and Colorado, I am part of a community- and university-based research team investigating the rise, spread, and impacts of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) on human survival.
Green City Rising: Contamination, Cleanup & Collective Action in an Urban Harbor
"On one side is the fire department. On the other side is [an airfield]. There are lots of sirens and planes taking off and landing. Across the street is train tracks. We are at a nexus of noise pollution where no one would ever want to be."
"We are organized, we are taking control of our own resources. We create a safe place for displaced people to learn to interact with their neighbors, to build trust. We are supposed to be a place of transition. But there is literally nowhere else for people to go [aside from polluted land]."
So those things are said, and framed as concern for the people who'd be living otherwise under a bridge. But usually it's just used as a delay or a stop to keep people from coming in. It's a fig leaf to say you're concerned about their health. We've seen a few sites where a do-gooder neighbor under the concern about people's health will start a lawsuit to stop an encampment ... Like the fire [at an encampment] under the overpass in Georgia, it became a new ‘public health concern’, or the hepatitis outbreak [amongst houseless people] in San Diego. It's a way to blame, control, and stop people. Our motto is ‘don't let perfect be the enemy of good’. When you expect perfect sanitary conditions, you can't house people.
No-Cause Evictions: Culturally Specific Experiences of Housing Instability
This participatory action research investigated experiences of housing instability with three (often overlapping) groups: Black/African Americans, LGBTQ+ people, and elders. Tenant leaders who identify as members of these communities embarked on a year-long collaborative project to learn how to conduct research, analyze data in historical context, and disseminate findings via several mediums, in their own communities and beyond. This project is contributing to the Community Alliance of Tenants efforts to establish rent stabilization laws and a "just cause" standard for eviction for the state of Oregon. This community-based participatory research project is in collaboration with Dr. Moriah McSharry McGrath (Portland State University), and is funded by the Sociological Initiatives Foundation.
Equity Planning: The Community Watershed Stewardship Program
Portland Black Gardens portlandblackgardens.weebly.com/
A collaboration between MudBone Grown urban agriculture collective and Portland State University (led by Dr. Nathan McClintock and Dr. Julius McGee, funded by the Antipode Foundation), this project is focused on collecting, archiving, and sharing the gardening stories of African American elders, to honor their contributions to Portland's history and foodways, and to teach the wider community about this important legacy. What is the history of Black gardening in Portland, and in particular the Green Fingers Project, in a context of racialized segregation and serial displacement? How did city policies help or hinder Black gardening in Portland from the 1960s to the early 80s? How has gardening contributed to community self-determination and a sense of place for Black Portlanders? Recordings and transcripts will be archived in the PSU Library Special Collections, and will be publicly available online. This project is funded by the Antipode Foundation.
Sustainable City Uneven Development
This collaborative research project with Jamaal Green and Dr. Nathan McClintock drew on census data, popular media, newspaper archives, city planning documents, and secondary source histories to elucidate the structural origins of Portland's "uneven development", exploring how and why the urban core of this paragon of sustainability has become more White and affluent while its outer eastside has become more diverse and poor. We explain how a "sustainability fix"--in this case, green investment in the city's core--ultimately contributed to the demarcation of racialized poverty along 82nd Avenue, a major north-south arterial marking the boundary of East Portland. Our account of structural processes taking place at multiple scales contributes to a growing body of scholarship on eco-gentrification and displacement and inner-ring suburban change while empirically demonstrating how Portland's advances in sustainability have come at the cost of East Portland's devaluation. Read our paper here.