LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Let’s change the dialogue around homelessness

Vagrants, tramps and hobos — when it comes to labeling the over 52,000 people across Los Angeles County who lack access to stable housing, stigmatizing and dehumanizing rhetoric never fails to publicly manifest itself, whether in town halls or even in the halls of seats of power.

But these past years provide hope that a silent majority doesn’t want to criminalize homelessness or vilify those experiencing poverty and are willing to put their money where their mouth is. With the passage of Proposition HHH, a 2016 ballot measure approved by over 75% of voters that would generate $1.2 billion to pay for affordable housing construction coupled with the accompanying Measure H, which provides funding for ongoing services, Angelenos twice signaled their financial commitment to helping those worst hit by this severe housing crisis. And even with a rejuvenated Not In My Backyard movement, a recent United Way of Greater Los Angeles survey found 69% of respondents support permanent supportive housing in their communities.

But L.A. would be delusional if it believed that a few elections could turn the tide in the humanitarian crisis for those who are forced to live in the streets. The roots of both the problem and the solution lie in language, which forms ideologies that inform policy.

Our fundamental framing, and implicit diagnosis, of homelessness remains as broken as the systems which are set in place to exacerbate housing insecurity. Most dialogue centers around terms such as “the homeless” and “homeless people,” phrases which both recognize the difference before the person and treat entire populations as monoliths in a dehumanizing fashion.

The University of Maryland recommends, “instead of calling someone ‘homeless,’ you would refer to them as ‘a person experiencing homelessness.” This is called person-first language.’ This reframing not only reaffirms human dignity but also addresses homelessness as situational rather than as a defining condition.

Ultimately, homelessness represents a state of being that any American can experience. A 2017 study by Zillow, an online real estate database company, reported that a 5% rise in rent could translate into 2,000 more Angelenos living on the streets, revealing the precarious financial situation of thousands in L.A. Nationally, the Federal Reserve Board found that four in 10 Americans couldn’t come up with $400 in an unexpected emergency, meaning that a hospital bill or rent spike could potentially push millions of Americans from homes to the streets.

At any given time, 552,830 Americans experience homelessness. Each year, because of the broken social safety net, health care, veteran services, mental health and foster youth systems, countless individuals and families bounce from homes to shelters or to the streets, with thousands stuck in a cycle of unstable housing for prolonged periods of time, now referred to as the experience of chronic homelessness, raising the question of why we condemn vulnerable populations instead of the public policies that have and continue to fail them.

The responsibility then falls onto each member of the community to refuse to minimize the moral urgency of homelessness and to equip themselves with the vocabulary to support people and policies that move people that are experiencing homelessness into homes. Words matter and inclusivity matters. Movements arose to change the narratives surrounding disability and immigration — it’s time to reframe the dialogue on homelessness.

Alec Vandenberg

Class of 2020

Share a Meal USC Chapter President