Continuum of Carcerality

How Liberal Urbanism Governs Homelessness

After Echo Park Lake Research Collective

Published in Issue 4.1 // The Long Read

Keywords: Homelessness, carceral, encampment, liberalism, displacement, tenancy, shelter


A distinctive regime of the spatial governance of poverty is underway in Los Angeles, one in which the criminalization of homelessness is yoked to placements in carceral shelter and framed as the right to the housing. In this essay, we uncover the state violence inherent in such liberal urbanism by showing how such placements insert the unhoused into a system of carcerality while promising that they are the path to permanent housing. Seeking to trouble and critique the dominant paradigm of U.S. homeless management, Continuum of Care, we conceptualize a continuum of carcerality that stretches from encampment sweeps to seeming housing solutions. We find that the placements are a ruse, reproducing housing insecurity through exclusion, expulsion, and waiting, a structural condition that we term permanent displaceability. By focusing on an emergent mercenary entity, Urban Alchemy, and its expanding contracts for displacement and security, we show that there is a distinctive political economy associated with the continuum of carcerality. Our analysis is rooted in an ethnographic research methodology that centers the radical praxis of unhoused comrades. To this end, we foreground the demands of a homeless union that formed during the COVID-19 pandemic, UTACH, Unhoused Tenants Against Carceral Housing, which uses the framework of ‘carceral housing’ to hold the state accountable to its promise of housing while refusing the carceral contracts that accompany such a promise. We take up their critique as an example of the ongoing reinscription of the terms of tenancy under conditions of global racial capitalism.

The After Echo Park Lake research collective is based at the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy and brings together university and movement-based scholars with unhoused comrades to study displacement in Los Angeles. We analyze and challenge systems of housing insecurity and scrutinize the investment of public resources in the criminalization of poverty and in carceral housing. Our research is a counterpoint to racial banishment and seeks to advance housing justice in Los Angeles and worldwide. Collective members include Ashley Bennett, Jennifer Blake, Jonny Coleman, Hannah Cornfield, La Donna Harrell, Terrie Klein, Sam Lutzker, Hilary Malson, Jessica Mendez, Carla Orendorff, Gustavo Otzoy, Annie Powers, Chloe Rosenstock, Ananya Roy, Rayne Laborde Ruiz, and William Sens, Jr.

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