An estimated 3.5 million people now experience homelessness in the US each year, in the context of an ongoing housing crisis, an extraordinary climate emergency, and ever-shrinking social safety nets.* Today’s crisis is a direct result of ongoing cuts to federal funds for affordable housing and mental health programs that began in the early 1980s, as well as a housing system that privileges profits over the human need for shelter. Black and Native people are especially hard hit, due to landlord discrimination, racist policing practices, ongoing legacies of settler colonialism and racial capitalism, and other types of violence. People living on the streets contend with a host of issues, including exposure to extreme weather and disasters, lack of access to food and hygiene facilities, police violence, harassment by local vigilante groups, and illness and disease.

In response, a powerful grassroots movement centered around houseless-run communities has emerged over the last two decades. A growing number of houseless people in cities across North America have joined together to construct cooperative spaces for sleeping, cooking, eating, gardening, and other daily activities, and some of these groups are at the forefront of a movement for houseless rights. There are more houseless communities - including organized encampments, tiny house villages, rest areas, curbside communities, and other arrangements - now than at any time since the Great Depression. Communities run by and for houseless people reduce crime, give people a safe place to rest, and provide a place for residents to “feel human”.

Yet, houseless community residents congregated together, like people “sleeping rough”, independently on the streets, remain extremely vulnerable to environmental hazards. Air pollution, soil toxins, rodents, floods, landslides, harsh winter weather, drought, mold and mildew, fire danger, and more exacerbate the difficulties of surviving without stable housing. When communities are built on polluted sites -- often the only urban land not slated for development or planned green space -- people are exposed to dangerous contaminants. Many communities are in a catch-22: speak up, and appeal to local public agencies to assist in remediating hazards, and risk eviction. Stay silent, and continue living in dangerous conditions.

A community-controlled solution is necessary, one that allows houseless communities, themselves, to diagnose and reduce exposure to harm. A project of Right 2 Survive, RESTING SAFE brings together houseless community leaders and activist-researchers to investigate and intervene in environmental hazards in the places where houseless people are building homes and communities.

One important output of this project is a collectively created, environmental justice-focused “RESTING SAFE Environmental Justice (EJ) Toolkit. Our EJ Toolkit includes a series of pamphlets, posters, and other resources created by and for houseless people, designed to support DIY mitigation of hazards such as mold, fire, rodents, and air pollution. Undergirding this Toolkit tactic is an understanding that public agencies can rarely 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 builds political consciousness that informs collective action against sweeps and other forms of violence, is necessary.

RESTING SAFE takes the intersection of police violence and environmental hazards, rather than housing, as its entry point. This project is tapping into the deep expertise that houseless communities have already developed in response to dangerous living conditions, pooling collective knowledge to enable people to learn from each other across geographies. It is also arming communities with information about their sites' precise types and levels of pollution, and is providing tools for communities to reduce risks, themselves, or push government agencies to do so. And it is contributing to Right 2 Survive and other groups’ efforts to build a national movement for Sleep Not Sweeps, House Keys Not Handcuffs. Ultimately, this project aims to ensure that houseless communities establish greater control over urban space, supporting efforts to fight for more just land use, housing, police, and healthcare systems.

* We follow the lead of houseless-led activist organization Right 2 Survive in referring to people living without shelter as “houseless” rather than homeless: home is where the heart is, the thinking goes, and just because someone lacks a home, does not mean they lack a heart.



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