In day-to-day life, you may hear these phrases a lot: “homeless [women/man/person]” or “what should we do about ‘the homeless’ in San Diego” or “the homeless [problem/crisis/issue].”

However, at Father Joe’s Villages, we use a different approach. We refer to “the homeless” on an individual level, humanizing and personalizing the phrase.

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Table of Contents


Why We Don’t Use the Terms “the Homeless” or “Homeless People”

A Better Way to Phrase “Homeless Person”

We should all attempt to humanize people experiencing homelessness in our everyday conversations. Just a few small adjustments can make a big difference.

“Homeless Woman”

  • Woman who is homeless
  • Woman struggling with homelessness
  • Women experiencing homelessness

“Homeless Child”

  • Child who is homeless
  • Homeless youth
  • Transitional age youth
  • Child in need
  • Child experiencing homelessness

“Homeless People”

  • People experiencing homelessness
  • Individuals who are homeless
  • Those struggling with homelessness
  • Neighbors in need

“Street People”, “Transients”, “Bums”

  • Those living on the street
  • Neighbors living on the street
  • Individuals living on the street“

Helping the Homeless”, “Feeding the Homeless”, “Care for the Homeless”

  • Helping those in need
  • Feeding hungry neighbors in need
  • Care for those who are homeless

Although these phrases can seem wordy or insignificant to some, we think this is an important distinction. This small grammatical change can make a big difference in how we view or treat people struggling with homelessness.

Where Did the Term “Hobo” Come From?

While experts are not sure where the term “hobo” originated there are many theories on how the word may have started. These theories are often centered around the early 19th century trend of “riding the rails,” where many people struggling with homelessness would jump from train to train in search of cities that held better opportunities.

One explanation is that the word “hobo” derives from the greeting “Ho, boy!” which was often used among railway workers in the early 1900’s. It has also been theorized that “hobo” could be short for “hopping boxcars,” since they could be seen hopping from one boxcar to the next, traveling in search of work or odd jobs. Another idea is that the term “hobo” came from Hoboken, New Jersey where many rail lines at the time converged, making the city a gathering point for people experiencing homelessness.

Today, there have been many discussions about whether hobo is an appropriate term. At Father Joe’s Villages, we find terms like “hobo,” “tramp,” and “bum,” to be offensive because they perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

Why Should I Use “Person Who is Homeless” vs. “Homeless Person”

In this day-and-age of political correctness, it can be challenging to know the right way to refer to people living on the streets or in shelters. However, for us, the wording is not about being politically correct.

It is about being “empathetically correct”: humanizing people who are often forgotten, objectified, and stigmatized by society.

“These are neighbors. They’re not strangers. They are somebody’s son, somebody’s daughter. They’re just in trouble, but there’s a way to help them.” – Father Joe Carroll

When people use the term “the homeless” or “homeless person” (even in the context of compassion and kindness, such as “helping the homeless,” “feeding the homeless,” and “care for the homeless”), they are characterizing all people who are homeless as one thing and one thing only: homeless.

However, we cannot define people solely by their homelessness. Each person experiencing homelessness contains a multitude: They are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, artists, writers, businesspersons, entrepreneurs, athletes, and so much more.

While, again, this might seem trivial to some, as Lera Boroditsky, a psychologist at Stanford University, once said:

“Even a small fluke of grammar can have an effect on how people think about the world.”

How Language Can Change Our Perspective of Homelessness

When people hear the term “homeless people” or “the homeless,” they might unintentionally associate that term with negative and harmful stereotypes. Through this phrasing, we might inadvertently be lumping together a negative stereotype with the human attached to the phrase.

In turn, these negative stereotypes encourage stigma, which can increase the shame and embarrassment of people experiencing it. In addition to the other barriers that people face when overcoming homelessness (including mental illness, physical illnesses, unemployment, etc.), shame can prevent people from seeking the help they need.

“It almost meant to me like I had nowhere else to go other than to be homeless now. Like I won’t even be able to get a job now because I am homeless or of course, ya know, the way people look at ya if they knew you were homeless and this is it; this is almost as good as it gets.” – Interviewee in a study conducted by the University of Iowa: Homeless Men: Exploring the Experience of Shame

Negative stereotypes and dehumanization can also increase discrimination, violence, and hate crimes against people who are homeless. When we objectify or dehumanize, it can make it easier to treat people poorly.

People who are homeless are 10 times as likely as people who are housed to be the victim of violent crimes.

However, we believe phrases such as “person who is homeless,” “neighbor in need,” or “person experiencing homelessness” underline the humanity and individuality of that person. First and foremost, they are a human—and, secondly, a human who is in the situation of homelessness.

Additionally, we never want to think of people who are homeless as inseparable from their homelessness. By wording homelessness as something that someone experiences vs. something attached to their personhood, we hope to empower our neighbors in need to realize that homelessness is not who they are. It’s something that they can overcome.

How Language Obscures Causes of Homelessness

Many people who are homeless are disadvantaged because they lack safety nets (such as a savings account, family support, or home ownership) due to poverty, systemic discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and gender, and sexual orientation, and/or disability or chronic illness. Many people experiencing poverty are often just a paycheck away from homelessness. Dehumanizing language obscures these facts.

LGBTQI+ Youths Who Are Homeless

Many youths who are homeless, for example, are in their situation because they are fleeing discrimination and abuse at home. They often don’t have the familial safety net or resources that would prevent them from falling into homelessness. According to Youth.Gov, LGBTQI+ youth make up a greater percentage of youth who are homeless relative to the percentage of youth who are LGBTQI+.

Roughly 1.6 million U.S. youths (ages 12 to 17) ran away from home and experienced one night of homelessness in 2002. Of that number, approximately 20 to 40 percent identified as LGBTQI+.

Black and Native American youth who identify as LGBTQI+ also make up a more significant percentage of LGBTQI youth who are homeless relative to their representation in the general population.

Survivors of Domestic Violence

According to The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), a survey of 25 US cities in 2014 found that 15% of all adults who are homeless identified as survivors of domestic abuse.

Domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness for women who are homeless.

Racial Inequalities

The NLCHP also reported that, relative to their share of the general population, Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) people’s share of the population of people who are homeless are disproportionate.

  • Black people: 39.8% vs 13.4%
  • Hispanic: 22% vs. 18.3%
  • Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander: 1.6% vs. .2%
  • American Indian, Alaska Native: 3.2% vs 1.3%
  • Multiple races: 6.5% vs 2.7%

Systematic racism underlies disproportionate levels of homelessness in BIPOC communities. For example, a practice from the 1930s called redlining allowed government-backed bodies to mark maps of minority communities in red and label them as poor financial investments. These deliberately oppressive policies are still felt by the residents in neighborhoods that were redlined nationwide.

Census data shows that Black households pay unaffordable rents and mortgages more frequently than white households: in 2016 in California, more than 60% of Black renters paid more than 30% of their income to housing.

Mental Illness

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, 70% of individuals experiencing chronic homelessness also suffer from disabling mental illness. Poor mental health makes one more likely to experience the three major contributors to homelessness: poverty, disaffiliation, and personal vulnerability.

  • Poverty: Poor mental health can make it more challenging to maintain a stable income.
  • Disaffiliation: Poor mental health can inspire people to avoid friends, family, and others who may help them. The lack of a support network can make an individual more vulnerable.
  • Personal Vulnerability: Poor mental health can make one’s thinking unsound, leading to poor decisions and undermine the ability to be resilient and resourceful.

Insufficient Income and Lack of Affordable Housing

The NLCHP reported that in 2012, there were 10.3 million renters whose income was low enough to earn the HUD classification of “extremely low income.” Meanwhile, only 5.8 million rental units were available that the over 10 million ELI individuals could afford. And, on top of that, out of every 100 units, only one was available.

Those figures have only gotten worse since then. The Census Bureau showed that in June of 2020, roughly 65 million non-elderly people lived with families whose total weekly earnings fell below the poverty line.

Disability and Chronic Illness

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, on any given day an estimated quarter (24%) of individuals experiencing homelessness are people with disabilities who met the federal definition of experiencing chronic homelessness. In San Diego, according to the RTFH Point-in-Time We All Count Report, 58% of those who are unsheltered have a disability as compared to 10% of the general population. 32% of those individuals have chronic illness.

Even worse, people living on the streets often have co-occurring conditions, including multiple chronic and disabling health and behavioral health conditions, resulting in frequent and costly hospitalizations and emergency room visits. However, consistent safety, comfort and warmth inside and away from the brutal exposure of the streets, use of emergency services can decrease drastically.

We Can All Make a Difference

We can all make small changes in our language that make a big difference in combating the stigma of homelessness. By adjusting the phrases we use to describe homelessness, we eliminate the shame that can often keep people from pursuing the help that they need.

By recognizing the humanity of people who are homeless, we can begin to address the underlying forces that contribute to and exacerbate homelessness. Thank you for being a part of our mission to end homelessness, one life at a time.