Changing the Way We Talk About Homelessness

The language we use in our everyday lives constantly changes, evolving alongside our political, cultural, and social climate as we add and drop new words to our vocabulary. The way we talk about homelessness is no exception, with the shift to person-centered language being the most recent progression. But what does that mean? What is person-centered language?

Language regarding homelessness has changed drastically over the years, as our standards for what is socially and morally acceptable has risen. Words like “hobo” or “transient” have transformed into terms such as “homeless person,” as the former options were deemed offensive and derogatory. Now, it is time to retire the word “homeless.”

Defining someone as “a homeless person” or people as “the homeless” can be dehumanizing and pejorative, as these terms diminish their experiences and identities to simple stereotypes. The word “homeless” often carries a heavy weight to it, whether it be a reminder of substance abuse or personal failings. What it does not acknowledge is the failure of the political and social systems, specifically the lack of fundamental resources and the hierarchy of class status, and instead blames the individual for their situation.

Furthermore, the word “homeless” implies that individuals who are unhoused do not have a home; while they may not have a physical house, this does not mean they have no home. In reality, a “home” is subjective and can mean different things to different people. To some, a home is a house, but to others, it is a community, city, group of people or even a feeling. In light of this, words such as “unhoused” and “unsheltered” are inclusive of people’s endlessly diverse experiences. 

So what language should we use when talking about homelessness? Many lexicographers and policy analysts suggest that the answer is person-centered language.

Person-centered language puts the individual and their story first and homelessness second. In May of 2020, the Associated Press updated its stylebook to highlight person-first language. Rather than using “homeless,” a dehumanizing term, we should use terms such as “people experiencing homelessness” and “people without housing.” 

When using person-centered language to talk about people experiencing homelessness, the main goal is to individualize the experience instead of grouping everybody together under the same umbrella. The experience of homelessness differs greatly from person to person, and as such, we should use language that acknowledges that fact. However, this also makes finding the so-called right terminology difficult, as there is not a single term or word that encapsulates everybody’s experiences. Ultimately, more specific and person-centered language is the step in the right direction and will help clarify and differentiate a person’s experience with homelessness.

Why is person-centered language so important? Changing the language we use to talk about homelessness can help to erase long-standing stigma and other harmful stereotypes, encouraging people to view people who are homeless with more empathy and compassion. The first step to helping those who are homeless is by treating them with dignity and as humans rather than another problem that needs fixing. Further, person-centered language is a significant reminder that someone’s current situation does not define who they are.

While you may make mistakes and have to correct yourself, using person-centered language is an important and necessary change to our vocabulary, one that we should all make. 


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