The last year has proven dire for unhoused people in San Francisco. COVID-19 has ravaged communities, particularly those who face homelessness. While the city claims to protect the most vulnerable, it is evident that the priorities of San Francisco, and of the United States, do not lie with its people. Amidst a global pandemic, neoliberal governance has only exacerbated wealth inequality and hardship for those on the streets. As gentrification in San Francisco expands, and homelessness continues to be criminalized, it proves to be an increasingly hostile environment.
Neoliberalism describes an economic system which seeks to privatize social services and shrink government. The term encompasses a number of policies and approaches that have furthered poverty, including opposing welfare programs and encouraging a profit-driven approach to public services. The constant push for economic growth is a slap in the face to any disenfranchised Americans who do not benefit from these policies, which are designed to help the rich get richer. In everything from foreign policy to housing, neoliberalism shapes American politics and more importantly, American injustice.
When COVID-19 hit the country, we saw how unprepared our privatized healthcare system was to deal with a pandemic. Many Americans lost access to their healthcare, and others were unable to be treated for other conditions as hospitals were overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. The United States has faced disproportionate death rates due to COVID-19 in comparison to other countries. To put the impact of the virus in racial terms, it is no surprise that it hurt communities of color far more than white communities: Last year, one study suggested that Black people account for 34% of the U.S. COVID deaths, but only 12% of the total U.S. population.
The toll of systemic oppression goes deep, as institutional violence impacts marginalized groups who are at higher risk for medical racism, incarceration, and housing discrimination.
In the last few months, we’ve seen promises from the Biden administration on everything from climate action to immigration reform to housing and homelessness. President Biden’s housing plan calls for Section 8 vouchers to be made available to all who qualify, which could vastly expand the options for folks trying to move off the streets. And his announcement that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would reimburse hotel contracts used to house homeless people during the pandemic has meant keeping many San Franciscans off the streets.
But we will have to fight hard if we want to see any structural changes. Progressives have long criticized the president for his moderate views and inaction on many pressing issues that face Americans. The promises made by Democratic politicians, however much better they seem than the hateful approach Donald Trump had taken towards poverty, may prove to be empty. Already, we have seen that the Democrats will not follow through on promises regarding immigration. The inhumane conditions in ICE detention centers and continued deportations of undocumented immigrants are evidence of these broken promises. The criminalization of homelessness and the horrific treatment of undocumented immigrants go hand in hand, as these immigrants are vulnerable and at high risk of becoming homeless.
As vaccinations become more accessible for individuals facing homelessness and the pandemic becomes less severe, we can only hope and organize for change, and reject neoliberal attitudes and policies in favor of building community power.