Abstract: "Our Names Are Not Homeless": Challenging Narratives of Poverty through Frontline Work (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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"Our Names Are Not Homeless": Challenging Narratives of Poverty through Frontline Work

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Paradise Valley, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Rachel Wells, PhD, Assistant Professor, Lewis University, IL
While processes within social welfare can help maintain ideologies around deservingness and personal responsibility, this study focuses on community-based organizations (CBOs) that seek to disrupt this dominant poverty knowledge, or offer new ideas through ‘unthinkable poverty politics’ (as discussed in Elwood & Lawson, 2018). However, even when CBOs counter dominant values, CBOs exist in relation to poverty governance (Roy, 2015). As CBOs seek to change practices within larger systems, these larger institutions respond to counteract changes (Dozier, 2019). This ethnographic study looks at how CBOs challenge ideas and refuse normative categories while working within this context. I use the case of memroials for unhoused community members to show how CBOs can challenge dominant narratives while offering an alternative, more caring form of services.


The CBO for this ethnographic study, Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), was selected due to its combination of service and organizing and their critique of traditional service provision. Working in a neighborhood with concentrated poverty, over-policing, and multiple service providers, LA CAN helped community members to question practices of service providers. Thus, this study provides an opportunity to highlight an alternative approach to social welfare. Ethnographic data includes participant observation between 2019-2020, interviews, and document review.


For this paper, I draw from two frontline events- a memorial for an unhoused community member and the Homeless Memorial March- to show how LA CAN provided communities of care that differed from traditional service provision and were able to challenge narratives through this frontline work. LA CAN offered support to community members dealing with loss and provided a space to express sadness and anger. At the same time, through responding to media headlines, LA CAN offered a new form of poverty politics that emphasized humanity and identified government neglect and structural causes as responsible for houselessness. This communication challenged portrayals of low-income communities; instead, LA CAN’s portrayals featured the love, culture, and determination within the Skid Row community. I describe these events, including how LA CAN drew from their history of organizing and community relationships, how this influenced narratives among other organizations in Los Angeles, and the potential risks when more mainstream organizations begin to adopt narratives.

Conclusion and Implications

LA CAN’s twitter bio in 2019 ended with “Human rights defenders and truth tellers, not asking for permission”. This paper shows how this truth telling with multiple audiences is part of an organization’s work for social change. Actions happened alongside friendship and communities of support, and through these relationships, community members helped to shape narratives of poverty. As Maskovsky (2018) described how organizing helped to insert new claims around political citizenship, this study demonstrates how frontline work was a reminder to government officials that “people’s names were not homeless” and centered community members’ political citizenship in the face of neglect. This study discusses how this type of work can lead to new forms of poverty politics and why LA CAN saw changing narratives and how people talk about poverty as “an issue worth fighting for.”