Homelessness in Southern California:

Street-Level Encounters with the State and the Structural Violence of Performative Productivity

Deyanira Nevárez Martínez

Published in Issue 3.2 // The Long Read

Keywords: homelessness, structural violence, state, poverty, performative productivity


For the unhoused, the criminalization of their existence amplifies their entanglement with the state. Drawing on interviews and over 200 hours of ethnographic observations in Southern California, US, this paper focuses on everyday interactions between street-level bureaucrats and unhoused residents to examine when and how discretion is exercised and how unhoused residents experience these actions. It elucidates the ‘performative productivity’ employed by street-level bureaucrats to perpetuate ‘the myth’ that housing is available and that the central reason we still have homelessness is that unhoused individuals are service resistant. Performative productivity is a set of practices employed by actors including frontline government workers, non-profit workers, and interfaith and other volunteers as the terms of service. They include setting up meetings, filling out countless forms that require invasive sharing of information, signing up for waitlists that go nowhere, and surrendering rights and often accepting an externally imposed moralistic framework. If a person wants any services at all the terms are non-negotiable, thus compelling the unhoused to participate in the performance or risk loss of eligibility for any housing and non-housing services they have been able to attain, as minuscule or limited as these may be. I contend that this is tantamount to state violence. To make salient this point, I include a series of vignettes that present the street-level presence of the state in the lives of unhoused individuals and places it in a global context to highlight the ways in which the system is arbitrary, unhelpful, and potentially fatal.


Deyanira Nevárez Martínez is an assistant professor in the Urban & Regional Planning Program in the School of Planning, Design and Construction at Michigan State University. Her research focuses on the role of the state in homelessness and housing precarity and informality.

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