Sticks and Stones Can Break Your Bones

Posted on March 15, 2013 · in Homelessness > The Race to End Homelessness


Most people have certain words they hate. Moist. Slacks. I hope not too many people stopped reading just then. For me, the phrase that makes me cringe is “those people.” Unless you are literally talking about a specific number of people near you, it is just not appropriate. Usually, this is a phrase used to fuel stereotypes. “Those people are homeless because they are drug addicts,” or “Those people are too lazy to get jobs.”

Word choice matters. Just like mass stereotyping, labeling people who are homeless can affect the way in which those who are not homeless understand and relate to this population. Instead of “homeless person,” many people in social service or outreach work generally prefer the term “person experiencing homelessness.” It may be a mouthful, but the extra second it takes to say can be the second when someone realizes that homelessness is a condition, not a definition. “Homeless” is not an adjective to describe a person, but rather a measure of the person’s housing situation. It is not the whole picture of an individual. People experiencing homelessness should not be reduced to being evaluated by their lodgings.

I am not trying to exaggerate small problems, and vocabulary is a molehill next to the mountain of homelessness. A friend told me that she recently saw a mother and child walk past a person sleeping on the street. As they passed, the mother instructed the little girl to spit on the person. Actions like that speak louder than any phrasing can. Still, the distinction between “homeless people” and “people experiencing homelessness” is important to service providers, lawmakers, politicians, and the public — those with and without housing.  This verbal reminder can serve as a strong tool; it reinforces the powerful idea that people are experiencing homeless today, but it does not have to be this way. Their “experience” can end.

Many cities have drawn up 10 Year Plans to End Homelessness. By defining individuals as homeless people, there is no room to understand a person’s many other traits and qualities. In Baltimore City’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness, the city’s homeless population is referred to only once as “people experiencing homelessness,” and more than 40 times as “homeless people.” Plans in other jurisdictions are written in much the same vein.

The particular words in each city’s plan probably will not be the reason it does or does not work, but the culture that is created with each phrase shapes the attitudes of those who are involved. If the writers and the planners in each city truly expect to see an end to homelessness, that should be reflected in the language used to describe people who are experiencing it.

IMAGE CREDIT. Courtesy of Leah Stirewalt.

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