Homelessness Myth #7: “Oh, No! A Transient!”

Also published on The Huffington Post

“Transient” is the new “N” word.  Although commonly used, the word, “transient,” is often used to disparage homeless people, much as the “N” word was used in the past to disparage African-American people.

By formal definition, the word, “transient,” comes from the Latin, transire – to go over, to go.  Dictionary.com gives definitions for this term as an adjective as in “passing with time; transitory” and as a noun, “one that is transient, especially a hotel guest or boarder who stays only for a brief time.”

Some housed people use the term “transient” to ridicule homeless people.  They use that term to mean a person who is an untouchable, an undesirable, often a lazy, possibly a bad person who is not a member of their community, but only staying in their community to utilize the available services and then the homeless person will be on their way.

However, the majority of homeless people in a certain place may not have come from somewhere else, nor do they intend to go anywhere else — so they can hardly be called, “transients” under any definition.  For example, the 2005 City of Los Angeles count of homeless people found that 78 percent of the homeless people living in LA were housed in LA when they became homeless.  They didn’t go to LA from anywhere else to become homeless in LA, nor did they leave LA upon becoming losing their housing.  Housed or unhoused, these people live in LA, they are Angelinos!

Where people live is their residence. The concept of residency is an easy one to discuss when people are housed because there are formal rules that apply to them.  For example, for tax purposes, we can only have one primary residence. Of course, we can have “second homes” or more, such as summer or vacation homes.  Wherever our second home is, we retain our legal residency at the location of our primary residence.

Establishing residency for homeless people is less obvious because homeless people, by definition, have no houses with a street addresses.

I believe a compelling argument can be made that unsheltered homeless people reside where they live, that is, on the streets.  Support for this argument may be found in voter registration materials.  Each of the 50 states set forth the voting registration requirements for federal elections and elections in their states.

For example, the California Secretary of State, Debra Bowen’s website (www.sos.ca.gov/eletions/election_faq.htm) sets forth a list of voting registration prerequisites. In order to register to vote in the State of California, a person must:

• Be a citizen of the United States;
• Be a resident of California;
• Be at least 18 years of age as of the day of the next election;
• Not be in prison or on parole for the conviction of a felony; and
• Not be deemed by an appropriate court to be mentally incompetent.

This website further raises and answers the question of how long a person must live in California in order to be a “resident:”

Q: I have just moved.  Am I required to re-register?
A: Your voter registration should always reflect your current residence.  However, if you have moved from your home into a temporary residence that you do not intend to use as your permanent residence, you can continue to use your prior permanent residence where you were previously registered to vote as your address for the purpose of voting.

Thus, a person becomes a resident of the State of California for purposes of voting by living there and intending to be a permanent resident.

But without a formal house address, how can an unsheltered homeless person identify where they are residing?

The California Voter Registration Form, line 6 provides the answer, “If you do not have a street address, describe where you live (Cross streets, Route, N, S, E, W).”

In other words, unsheltered homeless people become immediate residents of the State of California by living in the State and intending to permanently reside there. Their “residence,” their address, for voting purposes, is the street intersection or route nearest to where they live.

Of course, in order to receive voting materials, homeless people need to supply a mailing address (CA Voter Registration Form, lines 7 – 8), which can be any address or  P.O. Box where they can receive mail.  Homeless people often receive mail, including voting materials, through the cooperation of local social service agencies who let them receive mail at their address.

A further thought… My homeless friend, Maurice, informed me that the City of Santa Monica, CA, has a transient occupancy tax (TOT).  I was curious about his comment, so I researched the topic.  I found that the State of California Revenue and Taxation Code Section 7280 permits legislative bodies of cities and counties in California to convey a transient occupancy tax (TOT) based on the total amount paid for the rental of a hotel/motel rooms on any person who is not exempt.

In Santa Monica, the TOT is a 14 percent tax on the total amount paid for the rental of a hotel/motel room in the City.  Government employees on official business as well as person occupying the room for 31 or more consecutive days are exempt from this tax.

A question comes to mind:  if there is a “transient” occupancy tax upon persons, unless exempt, who rent hotel/motel rooms, does this, by definition, make these people,  “transients?”

Answer:  Visitors to Santa Monica, as well as elsewhere, might take offense if they knew that they were considered “transients” in the negative use of that word.

So, in the State of California, we really have only two kinds of people – residents and tourists.

It’s time to stop using the word, “transient,” to refer to homeless people.  How should we refer to people without homes?  Just that way… we can say, “people without homes, “homeless people,” “unhoused people” or any other descriptive language that is emotionally neutral, bias-free and respectful.