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Homeless Agencies and the Art of Doublethink

LOS ANGELES

THE ORWELL FACTOR - Among the many linguistic gifts in George Orwell’s 1984, the words doublethink and doublespeak stand out.  Doublethink is what we now refer to as cognitive dissonance, or the ability to hold and believe two opposing thoughts at the same time.  Doublespeak is doublethink’s verbal expression; an online dictionary defines it as “the practice of using ambiguous language regarding political, military, or corporate matters in a deliberate attempt to disguise the truth.” It is a lie disguised as truth.  The best example of doublethink in Orwell’s book was the three-line slogan of The Party (INGSOC): “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength”. 

The modern masters of doublethink are Los Angeles’ homeless intervention agencies.  Their ability to deploy an intentionally conflicting cloud of messages concerning homelessness disguises the reality of the homeless crisis while obscuring their own failures. 

Consider the oft-repeated slogan that homelessness is a housing problem.  It has been repeated so often by so many in authority, it has been accepted as an unquestionable truth. It seems self-evident: rents are exorbitant, and homes are priced beyond the reach of the vast majority of working people.  The L.A. Times did an excellent job reporting on overcrowding in the central city, with low-wage earners living four or five to a room to keep a roof over their heads.  

And yet the idea of homelessness as a housing problem is flatly refuted by the true nature of the homeless population.  As reported in the LAist and elsewhere, increasing homelessness has been driven by untreated mental illness and skyrocketing substance abuse, especially fentanyl and methamphetamines. The cost of housing is its own crisis, but one of policy, not of making people homeless.  Even the L.A Times, a primary source of homelessness as a housing problem messaging, occasionally admits there is more involved than economics, as a recent column supporting expansion of mental health care for people on the streets explains. Referring to the state’s abdication of its obligation to treat the indigent mentally ill, the reporter wrote, “Former patients — and thousands who should have been patients — wound up sleeping on downtown streets or in city parks or under freeways.” 

The Party in 1984 used perpetual war as an excuse to squash personal freedom. As long as the homeless industrial complex can perpetuate the idea that homelessness is an economic problem, it can justify the billions of dollars spent building permanent housing.  The problem, of course, is that relatively few of the actual homeless can live independently, at least without treatment.     

The treatment issue brings us to the second case of doublethink. If the primary cause of homelessness is the cost of housing, why is there such a crying need for mental health and substance abuse recovery services? And if there’s a need for such services, why aren’t unhoused people receiving them? The reality is that between 50 and 75 percent of the unhoused population have serious mental health and/or substance problems. And very few of those people receive the services they need, despite millions of dollars given to service providers. Contract management in both the City and LAHSA is notoriously lax, resulting in few people receiving the consistent care needed for recovery, as described here

The actual number of people on the street is shrouded in doublethink and doublespeak.  LAHSA’s farcical 2022 point in time (PIT) count claimed a small overall increase in the homeless population, but large decreases in L.A.’s Westside. The supposed decreases were touted by everyone from LAHSA’s Interim Director to Mayor Garcetti and then-Council member Bonin as “proof” Housing First works. When City Council and media inquiries revealed serious flaws in the count, (such as failing to count more than 260 unsheltered homeless in Venice), LAHSA’s leadership suddenly  changed its story.  It claimed the count is a “regional estimate” to be used for planning purposes, and not intended to be used for interventions in specific communities.  Yet its own website continued to tout the “success” of Housing First on the Westside, and its service contracts are based on the estimated homeless population in each service area.  So, when it is convenient for them, leaders use flawed numbers as proof of success in specific areas, while at the same time claiming those numbers shouldn’t be used for evaluations in specific areas.  Is there a better example of doublethink? 

Leaving people on the street, unsheltered and unassisted, leads to one of the most malignant doublethink myths: that encampments are communities of like-minded unhoused people, brought together by mutual need.  In Mayor Bass’ words, encampments are “small communities that serve as support systems for their inhabitants.” Or as Ashley Bennet. City Controller Mejia’s Director of Homeless Program Accountability calls them, “providing a ‘new vision’ of homeless communities” (She made that comment in refence to the camp at Echo Park, the site of at least four deaths, one of which was an 18-year-old girl who died from a drug overdose). 

Yet these same advocates oppose transitional congregant shelters because they are dangerous. But if the people who populate shelters are the same as the ones who live in encampments, how can they pose a danger in one setting but not the other?  How can advocates explain that people in encampments are subject to crime at far higher rates than the housed population? How do “communities of mutual support” account for 54 percent of LAFD’s fire responses? 

Advocates insist anyone who disagrees with them lacks compassion for the homeless, yet they are content to leave the unhoused in tents and derelict vehicles until their idea of proper housing is available. In reality, most people who oppose encampments want them cleared because their residents need decent shelter and the proper support services.  It is the “compassionate” advocates who say people with chronic mental illnesses should be given “personal agency” to decide if they need treatment, even if they pose a danger to themselves and others. It is “compassionate” to provide No Barrier Housing First “solutions” for substance abusers, who damage their taxpayer-funded housing with remarkable regularity and are soon turned out to the streets again. Advocates’ compassion is the primary reason five people die on the streets every night. 

In 1984, The Party persecutes the protagonist, Winston Smith, as a thought criminal because he refuses to accept the state’s lies.  In similar fashion, many so-called homeless advocate groups accuse people who oppose encampments of being entitled and just wanting the homeless out of their neighborhoods. But if you read the Knock LA Letter to Mayor Bass, it is a litany of what people in encampments demand as residents of a “community” in The Valley.  They demand regular onsite medical care.  They demand to be allowed to live on public land unless and until they are offered housing they voluntarily accept.  In reading it, the first adjective that comes to mind is “entitled”.  The encampment’s residents are entitled to all of these services despite the fact they pay no property taxes nor utility fees. They believe they have no obligation to contribute the cost the rest of the city must bear to give them the services they feel they deserve. Apparently, the housed community owes them everything they feel entitled to. Imagine the uproar if such a manifesto came from the camp’s housed neighbors.  The advocate community would use every epithet from NIMBY to elitist—and “entitled”. 

In 1984, The Party says anyone who doesn’t practice doublethink is mentally ill and needs a “cure”.  The book carries that thinking to its logical conclusion "In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it .”  It is the same with the homeless advocate lobby.  It demands we deny the reality that most encampments are squalid, filthy, disease-ridden and dangerous for their inhabitants and the communities around them. They would have us believe Housing First is the only answer to homelessness, even though many of the unhoused are incapable of caring for themselves, and only a fraction of the promised housing has been built.  Anyone who states the truth runs the risk of being attacked as “hating the homeless,” and needing to be “educated”.  If you cite the egregious failure of No Barrier Housing First, you are vilified as uncaring and hateful, and leaving people to languish, unaided, on the street is “compassionate”. 

In Orwell’s book, the Party’s power is based on its ability to completely control public discourse and private thought.  The homeless industrial complex may be unable to control private thoughts, but it is doing its best to use doublethink to control public discourse. In 1984, War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength.  In the advocates’ world, Neglect is Compassion, Squalor is Home, and Lies are Truth.   

(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.)

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