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LA County Cancelling the Term “Homelessness” While Perpetuating It

While the LA Homeless Services Authority woke-scolds us on Twitter, it has itself fallen far short on its responsibility to LA County's huge homeless population.
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Let them eat person first language.

On August 22, 2022, the LA Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) tweeted an infographic urging its followers to adopt “person-first language” to refer homeless people. It offered a list of acceptable terms, including “people experiencing homelessness,” “people who are unhoused,” or “people living outside” in place of “the homeless,” “homeless people,” and “the unhoused.” The infographic instructs us to “acknowledge a person’s individuality” before we describe their status as homeless.

Twitter users soon swarmed and “ratioed” the post. Some pointed out that the very name of the “LA Homeless Services Authority” violates their own guidelines. Many current or formerly homeless people chimed in. One user wrote that when they were homeless, they were lucky to be called “homeless” instead of “bum” or “wino.” Another pointed out, “homeless are living outside, when they are also dying outside…” Several other respondents suggested language linking homelessness to crime or declining standards of living. The tweet also spurred several articles with click-bait titles such as NewsPunch’s “Los Angeles Attempts To Solve Homeless Crisis By Banning the Word ‘Homeless’.”

Person-first language is a construct that originated to refer to disability. The National Institute of Health (NIH) style guide now recommends person-first language when discussing someone’s disease or disability because it is “what the person ‘has’ rather than what the person ‘is.'” However, this proved to be a controversial statement for some in the disabled community. These people argued that the new language implies that disability is a shameful condition that must be talked around, rather than an accurate descriptor or even something someone could be proud of. After all, we don’t feel the need to talk this way about other groups — we don’t call a gay person a “person who seeks relationships with the same sex,” for example.

Insisting on person-first language seems particularly inconsequential when describing someone’s housing status, as it is not permanent or even inevitable. Is it “dehumanizing” to describe someone as a homeless person? Or is the dehumanizing part when a person to have so few supports from society that they live on the street and without safe, permanent, and private shelter–often also without adequate access to food or other things essential to living with dignity, like hygiene products, plumbing, or a comfortable place to sleep? Roughly 2,000 homeless people (5 – 6 a day) died in the United States in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, primarily from suicide or heart disease.

While the LA Homeless Services Authority woke-scolds us on Twitter, it has itself fallen far short on its responsibility to LA County’s huge homeless population. LAHSA counted 66,433 people experiencing homelessness in the county in 2020, an increase of 13% from 2019. The first report since 2020, released this month, indicated a 4.1% increase for a new total of 69,144 homeless residents in LA County.

In January 2022, the US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that the agency “did not fully meet the goals and objectives of the program and did not always follow program requirements,” leaving unused millions in federal grant dollars for Continuum of Care (CoC). The CoC program was designed to enable local governments to create initiatives to end homelessness, quickly rehouse people, and support rehoused individuals and families in becoming self-sufficient. The grant was meant to help address LA’s homeless crisis. But $3.5 million in CoC grant awards were never used and expired, while the agency also failed to meet the requirements for grant planning or performance reports. The OIG recommended that LAHSA amend its policies to prevent future failures and use non-Federal funds to support its services or repay the grants.

LAist reported that LAHSA funding is funded mostly by Los Angeles County and the City of Los Angeles, with just 5.7% of it coming from federal CoC funds. But it’s not as though homeless residents of Los Angeles had all they needed and there was simply no use for the expired, “surplus” $3.5M. The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, which receives funding and referrals from LAHSA, has remained been chronically understaffed and flooded with new referrals, consistent with the status quo for our country’s social services.

Misuse or “nonuse” of funding are not the only factors perpetuating the crisis at the housing authority. Entrenched bureaucracy also plays a significant role. According to a report by The Los Angeles Times, LA’s infamous skid row is currently the opioid/fentanyl overdose epicenter of our nationwide opioid epidemic. Skid row residents are left to find methadone treatment centers located miles away from the community. While strategically-located local treatment centers would reduce overdose deaths and improve addiction treatment and recovery rates, an opaque and multi-tiered approval process for building new centers constrains local efforts.

In another report from LAist, a man living at a Hollywood homeless encampment recounted the burden of securing transportation for various appointments and meetings in order to access support, and wished social workers and facilities were closer. He also expressed that he wanted “real” housing, not temporary solutions. And he is not alone. Many is not most homeless people prefer tents or vehicles to shelters while waiting for permanent housing, and even the temporary housing can feel undignified and dehumanizing. The report notably did not mention a request from any encampment residents to use a preferred term to describe their housing status.

In April 2022, the LAHSA’s commissioner Heidi Marston resigned. She posted an open letter arguing that LAHSA’s ability to reduce homelessness has been severely restricted by policies and decisions of the City and County of Los Angeles, resulting in under-funding for service providers and restrictive rules and bureaucracy for frontline workers. She highlighted the discrepancy between what these policymakers say they want and what they do:

Leaders at the helm of the homelessness crisis are quick to state they want to end homelessness. But, when given the opportunity to create housing security, I have watched those same people refuse to make the sacrifices necessary to effectuate that change. Decisions to obstruct basic equity principles like fair pay illuminate the fundamental gap between stated values and demonstrable action.

In this writer’s experience of working in social services, language and laws constantly change per state, federal or local law or policy change, requiring new or more extensive documentation, paperwork, and training on topics such as being ‘person-centered’ and ‘person-directed.’ Ensuring that those receiving services are treated as individuals and that they are the ones making informed decisions about their lives are very important principles. But these lofty goals crash into the reality that many who know exactly what they want or need are merely informed that the law, a funding shortfall, or limited service-provider availability means they will unfortunately continue to go without for another month or year (and must undergo another lengthy bureaucratic process). The workers implementing these policies are often reminded to embody the twisted logic of that lambasted LAHSA tweet: we should look a person in need in the eyes and use language that reflects that we appreciate their dignity and individuality as we deliver the bad news that our system is unable to help in any substantive way.

For the powerful, it is simpler and easier to ask us workers to change our language, learn new paperwork, or take new training than it is for them to adopt–even for a moment–a “person-first” perspective, let alone actually start fighting for the needs of the poor and working people they purport to represent.

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