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. For example, instead of “the homeless man” we refer to him as “a man who is homeless” or “a man experiencing homelessness.”
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.
Why Should I Use “Person Who is Homeless” Vs. “Homeless Person”
In this day-and-age of political correctness, it can be difficult to know the right way to refer to people living on the streets or in shelters. However, for us, wording is not about being politically correct. It is about being “empathetically correct”: humanizing people who are often forgotten, objectified and stigmatized by society.
Why is This Language Important?
“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” (source).
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 that they need.
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. Sadly, as it is, people experiencing homelessness are much more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than people are housed (source).
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. They are, first and foremost, 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 that is 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.
A Better Way to Phrase
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, struggling with homelessness, experiencing homelessness
Homeless people -> People experiencing homelessness; Individuals who are homeless; Those struggling with homelessness; Neighbors in need
Street people, Transient, 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 -> Help those in need, Feed hungry neighbors in need, Care for those who are homeless
We Can All Make a Difference
We can all make small changes in our language that make a big difference in combatting 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.
Join us in recognizing men, women and children experiencing homelessness as our neighbors in need. Thank you for being a part of our mission to end homelessness, one life at a time.