Bramson: Words matter when talking about homelessness 
PATH social workers walked the Guadalupe River Trail in San Jose on Jan. 24, 2023 to tally the number of homeless people in the area. File photo.

The power of an adjective on a noun really can’t be understated when it comes to talking about socio-economic issues. For example, the “poor” is a large, undefined class of people who some way or another can’t make ends meet. The “working poor,” however, emerge as a resilient group of people fighting for survival but stifled by systemic inequities. Similarly, “poverty” is a marker in the economy indicating insufficient financial means as measured against a specific index. But “abject poverty” is a state of despair, deprivation, and hopelessness.

We always modify these words with a specific intent, and generally the purpose is to magnify an aspect of the condition to elicit sympathy, frustration, or concern.  Such is the case with the recent increase in usage of the term “unsheltered homelessness.”

A phenomenon that is overwhelmingly centered throughout the western United States, unsheltered homelessness is the condition of: 1) not having a permanent place of residence; and 2) living outside. As a result of the latter, we see far more people sleeping on the streets, along the highways, and by the creeks and streams that run through California cities from Redding to San Diego.

The 2023 Annual Homeless Assessment Report revealed that 181,000 people experience homelessness in California with 68% living without shelter, the highest percentage in the nation. Driven primarily by a lack of affordable housing, a high cost-of-living, and an insufficient social safety infrastructure to provide the resources necessary to keep people in their homes, the numbers are both staggering and unsurprising.

The question of what to do about this, though, is where words start to matter. You see, the truth is that if you have 181,000 sheltered homeless people or 181,000 unsheltered homeless people, you still have 181,000 people without a home. Yes, by providing temporary relief for folks we can get them out of the elements and offer safety, but it won’t provide a long-term solution for the underlying challenges.

Look at New York, a “right to shelter” city. The Big Apple has over 90,000 people sleeping in its municipal shelter system each night. This is the largest emergency housing network in the country, but now, despite billions of dollars spent annually to operate the beds, the government shelters are running out of room, with a rapidly growing population sleeping outside. This isn’t a criticism of the efforts to make sure everyone has a safe place to sleep; it’s just a testament to the reality that we need to do more than a bed if we want a lasting way out.

That’s why the words we use and how we use them are so important. If we’re thinking only of homelessness in terms of the unsheltered aspect of the crisis, we’re not addressing the complex set of interrelated circumstances that keep families from real safety and stability. We’re not increasing opportunities for economic independence and self-sufficiency. And we’re certainly not building up a foundation for the most vulnerable and fragile members in our community who will need deep and enduring care.

And sadly, we might end up taking shortcuts that don’t solve the problem or even make the situation far worse. So let’s choose our words carefully in this politically-charged climate of 2024, and think about what we’re really trying to do to make a change that will last.

San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Operating Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on X, formerly known as Twitter. 

Comment Policy (updated 5/10/2023): Readers are required to log in through a social media or email platform to confirm authenticity. We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, hate speech, excess profanity or make verifiably false statements. Comments are moderated and approved by admin.

Leave a Reply