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“Interactions,” “Mental Health Intervention,” “Cleaning Up Encampments”: The Squishy Euphemisms Media Use to Make Liberals Feel Good About Criminalizing Homelessness
How Democratic mayors address homelessness is a balancing act of carrying out the demands of capital but wanting to seem really nice when doing it. Here's how the media assists them.
Over the past few weeks, as February temperatures across the country routinely dropped below freezing, a new wave of anti-homeless measures in major cities took shape—namely, New York. Mayor Eric Adams, the same day he quietly announced a proposed cut of $615 million from the city’s homeless department, announced a new “Subway Safety Plan” to “remove” homeless sleeping on the subway. The coverage of this new crackdown from major publications in New York—the New York Daily News, the New York Post, and the New York Times—provides a window into how inhumane policies are carried out with the explicit and tacit approval of a nominal liberal constituency.
To achieve this, media outlets will frequently adopt, either deliberately or through ideological osmosis with government PR officials, certain curious words or phrases that make the otherwise cruel policies being implemented seem more sterile. Below are four popular ones worthy of note.
One term Mayor Adams’ administration repeatedly uses is “interactions” to describe city officials—be they social workers or police officers—presumably removing homeless people from the subways system. It’s a term popular with many mayors, and it’s been repeated by several reporters despite its suspiciously ambiguous meaning. When The Column reached out to one New York Daily News reporter, they acknowledged that their use of “125 daily interactions” had no fixed meaning. It sounds unseemly to say “125 arrests,” or “125 involuntary commitments”—even though this is very well what it could mean. But “interactions” gives the reader the faint impression that there could be 125 instances of social workers handing a homeless person a cup of soup and escorting them to a cozy mental health facility. Reporters and watchdogs should ask what exactly a politician or government official means when they claim they had X amount of “interactions” with homeless people.
“Mental health interventions”
One of the means by which liberal politicians and media outlets make “cleaning encampments” or “cleaning out subways” seem anodyne is by using language of mental health funding and social services. This can be true to some extent, but in most contexts, especially that of Adams’ plan, it’s under-funded window dressing. The New York Times article announcing the plan says in the sub-headline, “the plan calls for stricter enforcement of transit system rules and more mental-health services and housing options for those being cleared from stations and trains.” But the article proceeds to only list the “stricter enforcement” part with no indication of how the mayor plans on providing more housing or non-carceral mental health services. Indeed, the only actionable plan presented for “mental health” is involuntary hospitalization—which many homeless advocates insist is simply another form of imprisonment.
“Dozens of mental-health professionals with the power to order the involuntary hospitalization of people who they deem a danger to themselves or others will be added to outreach teams systemwide,” the Times notes. Are there millions more for preventive mental health services? No, but it makes arresting people and forcing them into cages better if it’s done under the auspices of “mental health.” The goal is simply to get them off the streets while making it as palpable to Times readers as possible. Left unmentioned by the Times is that sleeping in the subway, even during freezing temperatures, is per se considered by the state to be evidence of mental illness and violent disposition, according to the state’s official guidelines. As Greg G. Smith reports for the City:
State Office of Mental Health guidelines released shortly after the mayor’s news conference state that a person on a train who appears to be mentally ill can be removed to a hospital for observation if the person “displays an inability to meet basic living needs even when there is no recent dangerous act.”
State and city health officials interpret that to mean that the mere choice to live on the subway provides enough evidence that the person is a danger to themselves and thus eligible for involuntary commitment.
The “choice” a human makes to go to the only reliably warm place in New York so they don’t literally freeze to death is seen as per se evidence of mental health problems and violent tendencies worthy of involuntary commitment.
To the Times’ credit, they did interview a spokesperson for the Coalition for the Homeless who told them that the “the plan would criminalize mental illness and homelessness.” But reading the article, one gets the distinct impression this is a genuine mental health intervention rather than the use of “mental health” to carry out the forcible removal of inconvenient humans from a public space simply for the crime of trying to stay warm.
“Solving the homelessness crisis” vs. “Solving the homelessness crisis”
A rhetorical sleight of hand popular with politicians, pundits, and reporters alike is the slippery description of the problem itself. A seemingly benign statement such as, “We have to fix the homelessness problem,” often means something completely different to different parties. (1) Leftists will hear, “We have to end the conditions of homelessness.” (2) Conservatives will hear, “Cops will come by and deal with the problem by any means necessary.” And (3) liberals will hear a vague squishy feeling of cleanliness but likely not think much about how the sausage is made. Eric Adams is a candidate specifically tailored for (2) and (3).
Indeed, electeds have made an art out of this double game—speaking in generic “solving” terms about a “problem” that needs “fixing,” but knowing full well that different audiences will hear different things. The point is it has to sound good, and carceral solutions, which are central to Adams “safety” plan, must be dressed up in liberal-ese of mental health and housing alternatives.
One such example of appealing to both audiences was in the announcement of the plan. Via USA Today:
Standing next to Gov. Hochul at the Fulton Street station in Lower Manhattan, Adams announced the plan will involve sending teams of cops, mental health workers, and homeless services specialists throughout the transit system to engage — and, in some cases, remove — people in need of help.
“You can’t put a Band-Aid on a cancerous sore. That is not how you solve the problem,” he said as he stood flanked by several top city and state officials. “You must remove the cancer and start the healing process.”
Here, Adams casually refers to the unhoused as a “cancer”. But is he calling them a cancer on New York, or is he calling the fact of homelessness a cancer? Adams knows what he’s doing, and knows he’s speaking to both (2) and (3) with these types of statements. Shelly Nortz, the deputy executive director for policy for the Coalition for the Homeless responded to Adams comments, saying, "It is sickening to hear Mayor Adams liken unsheltered homeless people to a cancer. They are human beings.” But Adams and his defenders can have it both ways: arguing he was talking about the fact of homelessness rather than the people. This vagueness—never called out by our media—helps politicians speak in both liberal and semi-genocidal language.
As I noted in my September 27, 2021 post on the topic of anti-homeless media tropes, this is a rhetorical tactic also used when politicians or pundits talk about “cleaning up” encampments or “cleaning up” the streets: It can be both about regrettable social failure that needs fixing or a comment about regrettable humans whose existence needs fixing.
In the same manner, there’s how billionaire Davos attendees talk about “the problem of inequality” versus how progressives or socialists talk about “the problem of inequality”: The meaning varies greatly depending on context. To the former, inequality is in scare quotes—a threat to be neutralized not by actually creating a more equitably world, but with surveillance, militarism, and more refined bread and circuses. To the latter, it’s a moral stain to be fixed by making a fairer and more just world. So when ABC News carries a headline saying “Inequality on the top of the agenda at Davos,” it is absolutely not speaking about the “problem” in the same way you and I would. Same goes for the hundreds of headlines we see every year warning the Pentagon is “concerned about climate change.” To them, it’s a risk to military bases and U.S. military readiness they have to prepare for. They are not “concerned” with climate change in the same manner climate activists are: They do not want to meaningfully reduce global emissions, they want to better guard against rising sea levels. Forces of capital, militarism, and concentrated wealth do not want to “fix” massive social failures in any meaningful sense, or in the same manner regular, moral humans do. They want them policed, managed, and removed from sight, whether it be inequality, climate or homelessness.
Vague, unenforceable promises of “housing” that are never follow up on
Moving over to D.C. now. A February 24 push poll and misleading headline in the Washington Post shows how consent for cruel policy is casually manufactured in liberals cities. The headline reads, “Majority of D.C. residents support clearing of homeless encampments, Post poll finds.” But upon further inspection this is not at all what the poll found.
The question actually asks if the respondent supports "shutting down tent encampments" if "some have been offered a one-year housing voucher from the city." Note the weasel word “some” doing a lot of work towards vague promises of housing. A sizable percent of the population will not agree to simply purge an area of unhoused people if there is no alternative housing provided. Thus, policy makers and public opinion curators often make unspecific, unenforceable promises or simply gesture towards a goal of trying to provide housing in lieu of concrete, measurable promises of long-term housing solutions. In the same manner, Chipotle says, “Local and organically grown produce when available,” which simply means, “We will never use local or organic ingredients because LOL they’re too expensive.” The point is to signal a vague effort so as to make liberals feel good. Thus, the “majority of D.C. residents” do not “support clearing of homeless encampments”: They only do so when a fuzzy commitment to “some” housing is dangled in front of them. Indeed, as D.C. housing organizer Jesse Rabinowitz notes, the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services acknowledged that of those evicted from encampments since the new policy went into place, only 53% were offered housing vouchers—and this even with the department’s own unverified, juiced up numbers. Thus the question in the poll should read, “Knowing that half of those evicted will not be offered housing, do you support shutting down tent encampments,” which would solicit a completely different answer. Or, if the Post wished to accurately reflect the poll that was commissioned, the headline would read, “Majority of D.C. residents support clearing of homeless encampments if free housing is provided, Post poll finds.”
This isn’t to say that many city workers and electeds wouldn’t prefer moving the unhoused into housing—they are, fo the most part, not evil—But the economic incentives pushing them to over-promise, fudge, or make vague commitments before any political will or funding for robust housing is available are too great to resist. Especially post reaction to the 2020 uprisings, the push to be “tough on crime” and “clean up homeless encampments” far outpaces the public’s willingness to fund housing for the poor. The media helps this process of obfuscation by rarely following up on the central issue of free housing, parroting push polls that subtly bifurcate the issue of “closing tent encampments” with free housing, and sanitizing the “cleaning up” part—which is really just displacing the unhoused to a different part of the city, or out of the city.
As a general rule, media consumers and reporters should be skeptical of fuzzy claims about “mental health” and “housing” that are front-loaded onto plans heavily reliant on arms of law enforcement. While it’s true they often involve elements of the liberal state, these can very much be pretextual and token, especially when police crackdowns are presented alongside social services without any corresponding guaranteed, enforceable budget or manpower increase to these social services. If there isn’t one, or it’s not clear, or it’s not being headed up by public health officials, then it’s likely the social services element is window dressing so liberals don’t feel too guilty about using cops to purge unwanted populations from public spaces.