Language Stops Us From Ending Homelessness
People on the left say there is an answer to homelessness. “House them.” Other people of all political leanings say, “Not in my neighborhood,” and, “Our property values will go down.” Others don’t know what to do. Their solution in Austin, Texas is to work to criminalize camping and pan handling by those experiencing homelessness.
Currently, liberal minority and white families are saying, “Don’t house them in my backyard.” They’re too young to know the history of the phrases, “Not in my neighborhood,” or, “Property values will go down.”
Some of the left who say “House them,” haven’t done any research on how to do so. Some have done the research and created solutions, but haven’t yet been effective in getting those solutions supported and implemented by cities
Those who want to basically criminalize homelessness don’t have a solution for what to do after that. They tend to be more conservative, but use phrases like “Save (insert any big city name),” which attracts moderates who do want their cities clean and safer.
Young people who live in suburban neighborhoods in large cities don’t know the history of White Flight. Especially those who aren’t white. When you are classified as a minority, and you live in a racially diverse suburb, you may not have heard of the White Flight of the 1960s and 70s.
They don’t understand why older liberals and those who know the history castigate them for saying, “Not in my neighborhood,” and “Property values will go down.”
White Flight was from urban areas to suburbs when Black people moved from rural America to the cities. When they got to the suburbs they established laws keeping Black people from buying houses in that suburb. Sometimes there weren’t actual laws, especially when those would conflict with the Federal Fair Housing Act. Instead there was intimidation and discouragement, overpricing and denial of loans. When someone did manage to move in, there were shouts of, “Our property value will go down,” and Black neighbors were harassed if they did manage to buy in the suburban neighborhood.
Not knowing the history makes it easy to apply the same phrases to the issue of homelessness. In fact, when presented with the history, their first reaction is often, “But I worked hard to leave the poverty of my family of origin, and to buy this house.” What that means is that they want a safe, clean neighborhood for their children as all parents do. But what does the language imply to those of us who know the history? It implies that those experiencing homelessness are shiftless and lazy. Sound familiar?
There are myths about those experiencing homelessness, just as there were and are about any stereotyped community. Like all stereotypes, there is some small basis of reality. Also like all stereotypes, they’re applied to the entire group. Like all myths, they are overblown. The make-up of people who are homeless has changed during the pandemic, and very little is known about that. So the old concepts are trotted out and the new diversity of those experiencing homelessness is ignored.
Those who say “House them,” which was always my knee jerk response, aren’t considering the diversity either. People who are homeless and addicted to drugs and alcohol have different housing needs than those who are mentally ill. Some are both addicted and mentally ill. Families have other housing needs, as do those who are alone or partnered but not addicted or mentally ill. There have been more of those who’ve lost housing during the pandemic. One housing solution doesn’t fit all.
People who say “Save Our City,” but only mean criminalize homelessness, don’t really mean save the entire city. The language of “Save Our City” comes out of concepts of privilege.
Many, if not most, of them were residents of the city before becoming homeless. So any effort to save the city must include solutions to homelessness.
The takeaway here is that all groups involved need to know the history of language and housing discrimination. Then, regardless of political leanings, they must come together to solve the issue of homelessness. Whatever the motive, whether it’s protecting your neighborhood, cleaning up your city and making it safer, or housing people because that’s what we should do as caring, inclusive people, we need to do it together. Spouting phrases and knee jerk reactions don’t build and provide housing to get people off the streets, or out from under underpasses and from the middle of medians.