‘You are killing us’: Lives Lost to Involuntary Displacement, aka Sweeps

by Robbie Powelson

Joel died on or around April 20, 2022 in a gutter in San Rafael.

I received the news, like most everyone from our encampment in Sausalito, around noon while about a quarter of our camp attended a court ordered settlement conference with the City of Sausalito.

Joel was 24 years old, with a big goofy grin. The last time I saw him, he was catching a pigeon in the center of the city-operated camp in Sausalito.

Joel had a child who lived up north. About two months prior, he had left his campsite to visit them. While he was away, the City of Sausalito stole his tent and belongings. When he returned, they refused to allow him back in the camp under orders of the City. City officials were not allowing anyone to return as they sought to eradicate the camp by attrition.

Joel had been in and out of drug treatment, going between addiction and recovery. He had numerous overdoses at the camp, from which people at the camp would revive him. People looked out for him.

When he left, he had no one to look at for him. So on 4/20, when he took too much in celebration of that notorious holiday, there was no one around to catch him as he slipped into the gutter—no one to call the ambulance or administer Narcan. He stopped breathing there, dead at 24, in San Rafael where had moved involuntarily.

Joel’s story happens all across the world. Involuntary displacement of people who don’t have housing is a leading contributor to overdose deaths.

A recent study at University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus showed long-term health effects of involuntary displacement of people experiencing homelessness who inject drugs, using data from 23 U.S. cities. The model suggests encampment sweeps, bans and move-along orders could contribute from 15 to 25% of deaths among the unsheltered population over 10 years.

Other dangers shown in other studies show that former encampment residents experienced a 28% rise in arrests and a 35% increase in risk of physical assault after an encampment sweep.

Everyone wept in the middle of the settlement meeting. “You are fucking killing us,” someone accused the City leaders in attendance. The meeting adjourned early.

We were in the settlement meeting for a series of restraining orders our folks at the camp won against the City of Sausalito that had been issued shortly after Joel had been evicted. Those restraining orders stopped the eviction of people from our camp—and poor Joel was just unlucky that we hadn’t figured out how to do these mini-restraining orders sooner.

We didn’t have the knowledge back then—but if we had, we would have likely been able to get a restraining order to allow Joel to get back into the camp. Then he wouldn’t have OD’d—someone would have been able to call the ambulance and administer the Narcan.

The eviction caused him to be in a more dangerous situation. When he died, no one was around to catch him. Because of that, he died. While the drugs caused his body to shut down, the reason no one was around to revive him was because of a state-created danger.

Reprinted from Poor News Network/poormagazine.org