An Overlooked Group in the Fight for Environmental Justice

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By: Ruth Rodriguez, Communications Intern
As an intern for CHEJ, I reflect on environmental justice every single day. This leads me to ponder over the intersection of homelessness and environmental justice. We see environmental justice as an issue that affects low income communities and communities of color, but we fail to address those who do not really have a “community.”  The definition of “community” is important when discussing this issue. A community is a group of people living in the same place. But those who are unhoused are not located in one single location, rather they are all over the world, making it difficult to address this environmental justice issue. The ability to organize is difficult for those experiencing homelessness because they do not have a “community” by the sense of the definition. How do you organize for a group that is so widespread? Additionally, they do not have the resources often needed to fight for their rights to a clean environment. 
The effects of pollution can be catastrophic to communities. Those who are unhoused are at a greater risk of being exposed to pollution and environmental hazards. Homelessness has increasingly been regulated and even criminalized by the banning camping in safe places and “move-along” orders. This has led people to be exposed to even more hazards by forcing them to move into risky areas in terms of violence and crime, water and soil contamination, noise pollution, pests and rodents, and natural disasters. One of the biggest environmental risks, though, is air pollution and particulate matter like dust and debris. Health effects of air pollution and particulate matter include, premature death, heart attacks, chronic diseases, respiratory conditions, and lung disease. 
In some places those experiencing homelessness are viewed as environmental hazards for nearby communities. Some of the byproducts that arise from those who are homeless are trash, human waste, bodily fluids, needles, and fires. Urban development is in part increasing homelessness through increasing housing costs and gentrification. It is therefore, in part, feeding into environmental injustice. With COVID-19 comes more problems for the unhoused. Many do not have access to masks and cannot properly social-distance making their potential for exposure high. 
The exposure to pollution, homeless hazard, urban development, and COVID-19 issues could possibly be mitigated by providing housing. For example, vacant housing and empty hotels could be allocated for those who are homeless to quarantine or for housing in general.
In Austin, Texas there are about 2,506 people experiencing homelessness, with 1,574 being unsheltered. Recently, Austin cut its police department funding by one-third through the reorganization of a number duties out of police oversight. Some of the money saved from this reorganization could potentially be used to provide the housing previously mentioned. This is just one possible solution to get environmental justice for those who are homeless.

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