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Labels Are Not Helpful When Applied to the Homeless

Tag: Community

“Giving a phenomenon a label does not explain it.” – Taylor Caldwell

In my early 20’s, I worked for the Harbor Regional Center for Developmentally Disabled Citizens. This was in 1980, when the state’s regional center system was less than a decade old.  I recall one of the first lessons I learned:  avoid labels when referring to clients.  The agency’s title led by example:  it was not called “for the developmentally disabled.”

That lesson has remained top of mind for 35 years. We continue to see how dysfunctional it is to label and generalize.   Today, making assumptions about “all Muslims” or “those Republicans” or “people from Texas” leads to bias, misinformation and distrust.

And so it is with “the homeless.”  I cringe when I see sweeping generalizations made about a group of individuals, who, for a variety of reasons, are living unsheltered on our streets or in their vehicles.  By labeling so broadly, it assumes that everyone arrived at this place through the same portal.  We assume that their life circumstances are all similar.  And since they all fall into the same category, then presumably the answer is simple:  reverse the direction of that label and give them a home!  Somehow, by standing under the big tent label, it suggests that this problem is inherently manageable.

The homeless” has devolved into a stereotype, and even the media has taken refuge under the big tent as they report the story. Here are just two examples.

August 28, 2015. LA Times Editorial: “Respecting the Rights of the Homeless”

April 17, 2015. LAist blog: Los Angeles Spends $100 Million a Year on the Homeless

I have written about the complexities of this issue before. Last year, I laid out six reasons contributing to the rise in homelessness on our streets. I also shared the results of about 100 (admittedly un-scientific) interviews of new faces on the streets of Hollywood. The results corroborated what we had guessed;  Hollywood’s new homeless population is diverse, not altogether indigenous; many had arrived in just the past year.

So, I will posit in this blog that under the big tent of “the homeless” lives at least nine different cohorts of people facing different challenges and requiring different responses from our society and systems.  Merely providing a home is not the answer in every instance.

  • People who suffer from severe mental illness and are chronically homeless [1]
  • People who are struggling with substance abuse and are chronically homeless
  • People experiencing health challenges or physical disabilities and are chronically homeless
  • People who experience two or all three of the above
  • People who choose to live an itinerant lifestyle; inclined to travel from place to place
  • People who have become recently homeless owing to economic upheaval of some sort – and some of these people may still be living in a vehicle
  • People who are victims of domestic violence (can be spouses or children) and find themselves recently homeless
  • Young people, emancipated from the foster care system, who are recently homeless
  • People recently discharged out of the criminal justice system who find themselves homeless

Against this background, the road toward a safe place to live may be relatively straightforward (rapid rehousing assistance for those who have fallen into recent homelessness) or extremely complicated (involuntary hospitalization for someone suffering from acute schizophrenia and considered gravely disabled by our courts).

And finally, where two labels are hitched together – “homeless advocate” — we have a double-whammy big tent.   One of the most infuriating articles of the past year was written by a Rhode Island[2] based writer published by The Atlantic Citylab,  LA’s Homeless Advocates Unimpressed with LA’s State of Emergency.  The author interviews Carol Sobel, an ACLU-affiliated attorney who, in the writer’s words, “spends much of her time filing lawsuits over anti-homeless policies.” Another individual, Gary Blasi, a professor of law emeritus at UCLA and now with Public Counsel, is also described as “a longtime advocate for homeless people in L.A.

A lawsuit runs the risk of applying a big tent orientation to a multi-faceted problem.  The resulting big-tent legal “solutions” do little to address the root causes.   Let’s all pledge to eschew labels and be willing to embrace the complexity of the human condition.

[1] The definition for “chronic homelessness” was modified by the Federal Government in December, 2015, in order to ensure that permanent supportive housing (PSH) was earmarked for those most in need. In effect, for a person to have experienced chronic homelessness, they must have a disability and have been living in a place not meant for human habitation, in an emergency shelter or a safe haven for the last 12 months continuously or on at least four occasions in the last three years where those occasions cumulatively total at least 12 months.

[2] This author lives in a state where the January 2015 point-in-time (PIT) homeless count was 1,111 people. Most (96.8 percent) were staying in residential programs for homeless people, and 3.2 percent were found in unsheltered locations.  (Source:

Kerry Morrison is the founder and project director of Heart Forward LA. She is the former executive director of the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance and served as a Mayoral appointee to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA).