Mon, Jul

How Semantics Created Structural Homelessness


UNHOUSED - In his recent analysis of Housing First and the problems of creating universal housing for the homeless, Christopher Legras does a superb job of showing the financial and human consequences of decades of poor policy decisions and an obsessive devotion to a single solution for homelessness—building permanent housing for every unhoused person in Los Angeles. In an interview from 2022, Jess Echeverry, the Executive Director of SOFESA, a Westside homeless intervention non-profit, said the homeless have been robbed of their identify by being excluded from the rights and responsibilities of living in their communities. 

Although they come from very different perspectives, Mr. Legras and Ms. Echeverry discussed a common subject; how the homeless industrial complex has used semantics to objectify the homeless so it can maintain its stranglehold on the billions of dollars being spent on a fruitless effort to build our way out of the homelessness crisis. 

It may seem odd to say homeless advocates objectify the homeless.  After all, they are the first ones who insist we need to show more compassion to our unhoused neighbors, and that we have a societal obligation to find decent housing and care for them. They accuse others of seeing the homeless only as vagrants or criminals.  Advocates use the word “victim” to describe most homeless people, as if victim were a nationality; they say some unhoused people are victims of a labor market in transition; others are victims of substance abuse or domestic violence, or a biased justice system. As victims, they have no choice but to sleep in tents or RV’s. 

Controlling the narrative through semantics benefits advocates in two ways: it keeps the homeless in perpetual victimhood and it demonizes critics of Housing First. If someone is a victim, there must be a perpetrator, whether it’s a person or an act of nature. Victims are owed something by the perpetrator.  Therefore, we as a society owe them housing as the only just and compassionate response. Anything less continues the victim/perpetrator relationship.  When it comes to demonizing Housing First critics, advocates define shelters are “carceral,” and asking the unhoused to respect community norms is classist—at best.  Anyone who suggests there might a be a spectrum of options between encampments and permanent housing is branded a “homeless hater” or of “criminalizing poverty”, and of course, is a NIMBY. 

Semantics also glosses over the grotesque failures of current Housing First policies that guarantee the homeless industrial complex an inexhaustible supply of victims. An unholy alliance of developers, labor unions, and advocates has convinced political leaders that Housing First is the only solution to homelessness, so other, more practical, realistic and faster solutions have been ignored. As several studies have found, the number of shelter beds declined sharply after Housing First became HUD’s official policy in 2013. Not coincidentally, the number of homeless people began climbing a year later and has continued to increase. 

As Housing First came to dominate homeless intervention policies, various groups sensed the smell of money in government waters.  Non-profits, already benefiting from no-bid service contracts, saw the opportunity to expand into managing housing projects; in 2021, Venice Community Housing stood to make $10 million in fees for three proposed projects. Others, like the decidedly sketchy Urban Alchemy, won contracts based on unsubstantiated claims of successful streets-to-housing programs. Labor unions were able to insert prevailing wage contracts into construction contracts, inflating building costs. And government bureaucracies, always willing to fortify their siloed service models, added more structure to manage all these projects and services.

By objectifying the unhoused, the Homeless Industrial Complex has adopted a 21st century version of paternalistic noblesse oblige, or what Christopher Legrass accurately calls “a highly profitable system of human exploitation.” Only advocates know what is right for the homeless.  The homeless themselves, to a great extent, have no say in where they live—they must be told what’s good for them by their more knowledgeable handlers. The Complex has achieved an unprecedented ability to profit from human misery, while doing virtually nothing to alleviate that misery, because it has been able to reduce the homeless to a monolithic population of victims, all of whom need permanent housing. In an astonishing trick of logic and wordplay, the advocates have dehumanized the unhoused in fact, while accusing others of dehumanizing them in words. To suggest that many people would benefit from transitional housing until they get back on their feet is heresy, and sentences them to institutionalized “warehousing”.  The whole structure depends on maintaining the homeless as faceless victims, who need the remedy they are told they need.  There is no room for individual needs in the Complex’s homeless factory. 

As the interview with Ms. Echeverry points out, homogenizing the homeless robs them of their individuality.  It also absolves them of any responsibility for lifting themselves out of their situation, or in participating in solutions, or of acting like responsible members of the communities where they live.  As several interviewees in the devastating documentary “Lost Angeles” said, the homeless themselves are rarely given a seat at the table when “experts” make policy decisions. The Homeless Industrial Complex dominates the conversation to ensure the myth of victimology is maintained. 

A 2023 RAND survey (page 16) asked the homeless themselves why they would refuse housing.  The two most important factors are a lack of safety and privacy.  While 85 percent of respondents prefer permanent supportive housing, 87 percent would accept permanent stays in motels or hotels. Six in ten would accept interim housing with support services, and just under half would accept living in tent facilities. The survey reveals the Homeless Industrial Complex’s dirty secret; while advocates insist only new housing is the answer, the homeless themselves would accept a wide range of shelters, interim, and permanent housing. Safety and privacy, the two things they value most, are denied to them while they languish on the streets waiting for housing that may never be built. 

The RAND survey also exposes the horrible job agencies are doing with outreach.  The leading reason unhoused people haven’t accepted housing isn’t the “carceral rules” in some shelters; it’s that they’ve never been offered housing in the first place (44 percent).  In fact, only 25 percent said they would refuse shelter because of curfews (page 15). 

The RAND survey reveals how the Homeless Industrial Complex operates.  It insists permanent housing is the only solution.  It defines anything else in pejorative terms like carceral or warehousing.  It has created a system of outreach that ensures people stay on the street for as long as possible, thereby guaranteeing itself the clientele it needs to fill whatever housing it manages to construct.  It takes so long to build new housing that, by the time the first batch of people are housed, they’ve been replaced by a new, even larger population of unhoused.  By assiduously ignoring the dual causes of easy access to cheap drugs (meth and fentanyl) and untreated mental illness, the Complex ensures itself of a constant supply of newly minted homeless. 

The Homeless Industrial Complex has succeeded in creating a permanent underclass of the unhoused—structural homelessness.   It is a system remarkable for its efficiency and Satanic in its consequences.  As Rev. Andy Bales from Union Rescue Mission said in the Lost Angeles documentary, if L.A. had tried to invent a system to guarantee the worst possible response to homelessness, it could not have done a better job. Jess Echeverry, SOFESA’s director, said, for the first time in L.A.’s history, we are seeing generational homelessness, where children are being born into being unhoused.  The best analogy I can think of is the dystopian future from The Matrix.  The Complex is, in effect, creating a perpetual population of the dispossessed, destined to feed the system’s insatiable hunger for revenue. 

I wish I could end this piece on a hopeful note, but I see no signs of the Complex losing control of the narrative any time soon.  Everyone, from HUD to Newsom to our Mayor, seems to be in the thrall of the Homeless Industrial Complex and its Housing First machine.  

(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process. The opinions expressed by Tim Campbell are not necessarily those of CityWatchLA.com.)

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