Why is language important in talking about homelessness?

Why is language important in talking about homelessness?

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July 1, 2024



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The term "homeless" often carries with it a heavy load of negative stereotypes, assumptions, and judgments:

  • "You're just lazy."
  • "You must be an addict."
  • "Are you too proud to ask for help?"

These assumptions oversimplify a complex issue and can do more harm than good. To address this, many social services and agencies now use the term "people experiencing homelessness."

Understanding People-First Language

People-first language prioritizes the individual over their situation or diagnosis. This approach originated in efforts to change how society talks about people with disabilities. Instead of terms like "crippled" or "blind," people-first language uses "person with a disability" or "person who is visually impaired."

While people with disabilities have often been pitied, feared, or ignored, they are, first and foremost, people whose contributions enrich our communities. Our vocabulary should reflect this reality.

The same principle applies to homelessness. Describing someone as "experiencing homelessness" rather than simply "homeless" focuses on their current situation without defining their entire identity. This humanizes the issue and offers those affected the dignity they deserve.

Humanizing Homelessness

"The words we use to describe people powerfully affect our attitudes and assumptions about them," says Jennifer L. Rich, Director of Communications for the US Interagency Council on Homelessness. "As advocates for people with disabilities have learned, labels generate strong emotional reactions that can create barriers to understanding and reinforce stereotypes."

A First Step Towards Change

Changing language alone won’t solve homelessness, of course. Saying "people experiencing homelessness" won't feed families or provide shelter. However, it is a critical step towards changing stereotypes and fostering empathy and support for those in need.

“I know that talking or writing about an 'individual experiencing homelessness' is structurally awkward,” Rich acknowledges, “but it’s so important for us to do it. To end homelessness in America, we need everyone to believe that people just need some help to fix a problem that they have. And isn’t that who we all are? People who sometimes need help to fix a problem?”

By adopting people-first language, we take an essential step towards understanding and addressing the complexities of homelessness with the compassion and respect that everyone deserves.

Source: Endeavors.org

Melissa is a communications professional with 30 years of experience in digital and print content production, editing, research, community engagement, and development. She specializes in telling stories that allow people not only to understand a topic but also to embrace a mission.

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Melissa Amour