Sun, Jul

From Plain Speaking to Toxic Charity: How Semantics Shape Homelessness Advocacy


iAUDIT! - My parents believed in plain speaking.  Although my mother was an LA girl from the age of four, she came from Chicago Irish stock and didn’t mince words.  My father was a Missouri farm boy who passed through LA on his way to the Pacific in World War II. He liked what he saw (including my mother) and decided to stay when he came back in 1946. Missourians are known for speaking clearly and plainly. In politics, especially, they believe in speaking “off the bark”, or in clear, unvarnished terms so people understand exactly what you mean. Harry Truman called it “Plain speaking”.  I inherited my parents’ disdain for flowery ambiguous language, or corporate babble as I call it. 

My preference for clear language suited me well for a career in performance auditing.  Programs either work or they don’t.  People are either doing their jobs or they aren’t.  An auditor’s job is to find out why something isn’t working, what the consequences of the failure are, and to recommend improvements.  My job often meant cutting through obfuscation, rhetoric, and semantics to find the truth and objective facts. 

Last April, I wrote about how semantics have helped create a new underclass of permanent homeless. The paternalistic attitude of most advocacy groups reduces the homeless to mere symbols whose value lies in how they can be used to further a particular group’s ideology, or more coarsely, to guarantee a steady flow of income. Advocates’ power is based on maintaining a population of unsheltered homeless to whom the “proper” form of relief can be directed. What form that relief takes is left entirely up to the advocates, with little or no input from the homeless themselves. 

Semantics can be a subtle way of controlling the narrative about homelessness.  A good example is the terminology used to describe the homeless themselves.  The term has changed from homeless, to unhoused, to “houseless”.  While seemingly benign, each word change creates a different mental picture. “Unhoused” implies a person was once housed and has somehow become dispossessed of that home. While it is safe to assume almost everyone was once housed, people lose their housing for a variety of reasons. Using the term unhoused suggests some external factor has caused the person’s housing to be taken from them, rather than lost. If a person becomes unhoused because they cannot afford the rent, then a rental subsidy would be a logical way of restoring them to proper housing. That narrative fits neatly into many advocates’ argument. However, if a person can’t pay the rent because they lost their job due to a substance abuse problem, the cause is no longer a matter of affordability, but one of behavior, a narrative that does not fit the concept of No Barrier Housing First.   

Likewise, the terminology change from unhoused to houseless implies a different mode of being housed. Consider the word houseless in the broader context of many advocates’ efforts to define tent encampments and RV’s as homes. Using the term houseless then means a person has a “home” but the home just isn’t a conventional house. A home can be a tent or a van or anything else the advocates choose to make it. You can see the consequences of this attitude in an “open letter” the residents of an encampment on Atena Street sent to the Mayor in April 2023. In the letter, the encampment’s occupants provide a lengthy list of demands, including the right to remain in their “homes” if taxpayer-provided shelter doesn’t meet their requirements. Of course, the definition of “home” is decidedly one-sided, since the inhabitants pay no taxes nor utility fees, yet demand the same rights and services as a conventionally housed person. The same definition of “home” applies to derelict RV’s, making it extraordinarily difficult to remove RV’s once they have established a presence on public streets. 

The change in semantics also points to a more profound shift in the way government responds to homelessness.  The word homeless defines a situation rather than a permanent status. One could accurately say, “After the earthquake, we were homeless for three months and had to live in a hotel while our house was repaired”. Even though the person was truly homeless (or unhoused) for a certain amount of time, he or she would not define themselves as homeless in the sense of someone living on the street.  On the other hand, being houseless can be a permanent condition. The earthquake victim would not say “This hotel room is my home”. They would most likely say “We’re staying in a hotel until our home is repaired”. On the other hand, an unhoused person could say, “I don’t live in a house, but my home is an RV”. Advocates can then say, “The City can’t make these people move from their homes”. 

All of these semantics are symptoms of what Dr. Robert Lupton, founder of Focused Community Strategies, refers to as “toxic charity”. Toxic charity is defined as “trying to address chronic ongoing issues through one-way giving. It often looks like this: people with resources give to those who lack resources. This kind of giving approaches inequity as though the core issue is that people don’t have the same amount of “stuff.”  

Lupton writes, “Toxic Charity shares stuff, but not power or agency. It usually doesn’t engage with systems or multiple drivers of inequity. As a result, it tends not to have a long-term impact on the issue it purports to address. A food pantry does not solve food insecurity. A Toy Drive cannot address the economic realities that mean some families can’t afford toys. The cycle of injustice continues”.  

Applied to homelessness and advocacy, toxic charity keeps people locked in perpetual homelessness. Advocacy organizations like Knock LA, the group that helped the occupants of the Atena Street camp draft its letter to Mayor Bass, dictate what the rights of the homeless are and how they should be treated.  Rather than advocating for substance abuse or mental health services, job training and other restorative support, advocates insist the homeless have the right to stay in squalid camps or derelict RV’s. Ashley Bennet, City Controller Kenneth Meija’s Director of Homeless Accountability, infamously opposed clearing Echo Park, urging camp dwellers to resist attempts to shelter them. She referred to camps as “visions of love and community”, even though encampments are notorious for drug use, sex trafficking, and sexual assaults.  In fact, at the time Ms. Bennet was praising the tent “community”, an 18 year-old woman died of an overdose in an Echo Park tent.  Advocates may support periodic camp cleanings but they oppose moving occupants to shelters where they can receive services. Quite literally, as both the UCSF Benioff Report on Homelessness and a recent L.A. Times article detail, advocates want to give the homeless more “stuff”, in the form of an apartment or cash payments, with no support or training on how the make the best use of either. 

One of the best examples of toxic charity is the approach to affordable housing.  Rather than addressing underlying causative issues like wage stagnation, and a system that promotes high-cost housing, advocates are creating a structure that will turn future generations into perpetual renters.  As a union leader told a news reporter, hotel workers are striking for higher wages so they can live near their work. Wage equity, combined with more housing that people want, will reduce the affordability crisis. Advocating for housing construction without addressing wage and cost of living issues will never solve the problem because the government will have to create ever less-expensive housing as inflation consumes more and more of workers’ income. 

Government agencies and advocacy groups use semantics and toxic charity to create a smokescreen to mask how their policies perpetuate homelessness.  Rather than taking meaningful action to reduce homelessness, they shift words and redefine their goals to create the illusion of success.  Meanwhile, organizations like the Union Rescue Mission, Dream Center and Solutions for Change, all of which practice a form of Housing Readiness, show far greater success reintegrating the homeless into society, and at a fraction of the cost of Housing First agencies.  

The remedy to toxic charity is stripping away the semantics and focusing on facts and results. No matter how much advocates and elected officials want us to think their programs are succeeding, the results prove otherwise.

(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.)