When it was announced that Super Bowl LVI would be held in Los Angeles, advocates for the unhoused in the city knew what would come next. We’ve seen it year in and year out.
During the last week of February each year, the city hosts the Oscars at the Dolby Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. The red carpet rolls out, and some of the world’s most recognizable celebrities emerge from limousines to be celebrated for their work. But five blocks away, at The Center in Hollywood where I work with unhoused folks, the experience of the Oscars is much different. During this time, homeless folks experience targeted harassment, citation, and removal from the neighborhood.
Every Monday before the Oscars, like clockwork, officers on horseback begin roaming the sidewalks of Hollywood, ticketing people for minor offenses that are permissible at all other times during the year: loitering, possession of a shopping cart, smoking a cigarette near a public park. The city’s goal is to put the problem of homelessness out of sight and out of mind. As a result, unhoused people migrate to different areas of town or face fines or jail time. I’ve known many folks who have spent the weekend of the Oscars in jail, only to be released the following Monday, no charges filed.
It was only a matter of time before similar sweeps happened in the lead-up to the Super Bowl, which will be held on Feb. 13 at SoFi stadium in Inglewood, Calif., which is in LA County. In the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, workers from Caltrans, the state’s transit agency, cleared out two camps immediately near the stadium. In the sweep, residents lost mattresses and couches that have afforded them some modest comfort, as well as a variety of personal belongings. In the aftermath of these sweeps, homeless folks are forced to salvage whatever belongings they have left and set up new camps.
As we’ve all learned during the pandemic, isolation is a crushing, dehumanizing experience. For people experiencing homelessness, these sweeps disrupt communities, forcing people into isolation where they are unable to receive the help they depend on. Within encampments, unhoused people build trust and share resources, dispersing food to one another, sharing phone chargers, and taking shifts to supervise belongings while people run errands and work on their long-term housing plans. Sweeps like the ones done prior to the Oscars and the Super Bowl force people back to square one, as their belongings are trashed and their communities are scattered.
Whenever Los Angeles is in the national spotlight, the city scrambles to present an idyllic image. Like a messy household about to host company, the goal is not to actually put the house in order, but to focus on the areas that will be most observed. The “mess” remains, stuffed just out of sight to maintain the impression of decency. In this way, unhoused people are pushed out of public spaces and busy streets, especially ones near tourist destinations, to maintain the facade of a picturesque paradise.
Last year’s Oscars highlighted the two-faced nature of the city’s approach to homelessness. The city cleared multiple encampments surrounding the festivities before Nomadland — a thoughtful and compassionate film about homelessness — won Best Picture. This paradoxical mode of celebrating compassion in public while punishing poverty is baked into Los Angeles policy.
The city is largely overseen and governed by liberal Democrats with bleeding hearts, but bloodied hands. Officials in Los Angeles often run on “compassionate approaches,” but their version of compassion looks a lot like coercion. Last year, the city council voted to allow more of these sweeps to happen city-wide, despite the CDC Interim Guidance warning about the dangers of this during a pandemic. Councilman Joe Buscaino, a Democrat who has been outspoken on this strategy, is running for mayor next year; he recently announced a ballot measure that would ban encampments entirely.
Some religious leaders offer a similar approach: Rev. Andy Bales, who is the CEO of Union Rescue Mission, opposes the “housing first approach” for solving homelessness. Though Union advertises itself as “a refuge of help and hope,” many of their regimented (and often-faith based) programs require folks to learn skills like “better financial management” or complete 1,000 hours of “work therapy” before they can transition to independent housing. Unlike housing-first models, which provide people with their immediate, tangible needs without requirements, rescue missions like Union offer unhoused people transitional housing while they earning their way into permanent and safe living conditions. Those who don’t succeed are often told they failed the program, rather than the program failing them.
In considering the duplicity of these leaders’ words, I’m reminded of what Jesus said to the religious and political elite in Matthew 23:25-28:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
I’ve often heard this interpreted from an individualistic perspective, in which Jesus critiques the way we present ourselves while our inner lives are in turmoil. But Jesus ends this tirade in Matthew 23 crying out,“Jerusalem, Jerusalem!” There is a corporal, political dimension to God’s expectation for justice and righteousness. The God of Scripture calls cities and political bodies of all sizes to repent from injustice; this same God decries political and religious leaders who present themselves as holy while mistreating the poor.
Cities that tout compassion but prioritize displacement and compulsion stand before God in judgment. We must avoid the temptation to think unhoused people are lazy and should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” and be wary of those who don’t want the unhoused to flourish, but simply wish that they would just disappear.
Where local powers disrupt and dissect communities, the church can partner and facilitate places of rest, respite, and care for people experiencing homelessness. Churches can be champions of housing, care, and ethical treatment of unhoused communities year-round. When the eyes of the world fall on Los Angeles for the Super Bowl or the Oscars, they should see the homelessness crisis we have allowed to escalate for a century. My prayer is that they will also see people standing with the unhoused, fighting for justice against those who would abandon them, discard them, or try to hide them.