Talking About Homelessness: What Words Should You Use?

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This article is presented in partnership with Bombas

Homelessness is a situation that inherently lacks dignity and autonomy, as people experience unsafe living conditions and social isolation that strips them of their connection to others. 

But experiencing homelessness does not make someone less human, and how we talk about homelessness matters in building and maintaining human dignity for all. 

Besides, homelessness is not a personal or moral failure of an individual, but rather a failure of our systems and governments, that keeps people from accessing quality, affordable housing and support. 

However, in a time where there are so many buzzwords or “politically correct” terms, it can be hard to know the right thing to say when talking about homelessness — more specifically, individuals who are experiencing homelessness.

Language is an ever-evolving tool, and accepting the nuance and fluidity of the words we use helps us become more informed, thoughtful people. Plus, having a shared language helps us better describe things that can be difficult to understand.

So… we’re here to help! We’ve done the research and spoken with an expert to help you find the best ways to talk about homelessness, so you can be a part of the solution for all folks to live safe, dignified lives.

First, what is the proper term for ‘homeless?’ 

These days, you’ll find that the general consensus is not to use  ‘homeless’ as a noun (ie: “I want to help feed the homeless.”) but rather an adjective (ie: “I shared my lunch with a homeless person today”). 

Language guides, like those from the Associated Press, for instance, also suggest switching to person-first language altogether (like ‘person experiencing homelessness’), instead of defining someone by their living situation.

So, does that mean calling someone ‘homeless’ is offensive? 

Describing someone homeless isn’t necessarily offensive, as long as you’re using it as an adjective and not a blanket noun for a group of people. That said, some folks might prefer you use person-first language, or a different adjective like “unhoused” or “houseless.” 

Sarah Armour-Jones is the deputy director of Housing Narrative Lab, an organization that aims to change what the public feels and thinks about homelessness in order to build greater support for proven solutions. 

“When speaking directly with people who are or have been homeless or in unstable housing, we think it’s best to ask them what they prefer,” Armour-Jones told Good Good Good. 

“We recognize that labeling people based solely on their housing situation is limited and demeaning, but we also encourage people not to focus so much energy on the latest language and instead focus on being part of the movement to solve homelessness.” 

So, while you definitely should be thoughtful about your language, we should keep in mind that true dignity comes from listening to the lived experiences of unhoused folks first and foremost.

Take Sapphire, for instance. They are a TikTok creator who shares their perspective as someone experiencing homelessness.

“I cannot tell you how meaningful a shred of humanity feels to me,” they said. “I’ve talked many times on my page about how I don’t feel like a person, and when people interact with me, I feel like they don’t view me as a person. Using the terms ‘unhoused’ and ‘houseless’ help me regain some of that humanity.”

At the end of the day, there is no one “politically correct” term for homelessness, but rather a more nuanced consideration of what is going to do the most good. Here are a few more explanations to help you decide the best terminology to use: 

Considering new words for ‘homeless’

Unhoused vs. Homeless

‘Unhoused’ is a common alternative to ‘homeless.’ This refers to a more diverse set of experiences among those experiencing homelessness, as some people view a city or community as their home, rather than the physical building or property they occupy. 

In fact, Dictionary.com recently added ‘unhoused’ to its database as a unique term suitable for replacing “homeless,” though it is ultimately a matter of personal preference.

“Unhoused” also has a connotation that speaks to the societal and systemic failures of governments to house their people, as opposed to putting “blame” on a person for not having a house or home. 

This is another reason some people may prefer this term to “homeless,” since it re-centers the conversation on the many societal injustices that keep people from accessing stable housing. 

Houseless vs. Homeless

Similarly to ‘unhoused,’ ‘houseless’ is a term that reconsiders what we call a house or home. While folks may not live in traditional houses or apartments, they may live in a tent encampment, vehicle, or other location, which is indeed their home, since they spend their time there and store their belongings there. 

This is important to consider because sweeps, searches, and seizures of these kinds of shelters contribute to a loss of dignity and safety. Reconceptualizing “home” helps folks living in these shelters or camps reclaim their humanity.

The impact of how we use ‘homeless’ terminology

Ultimately, these words are one component of a larger issue: ensuring dignity and safety for all. When speaking with someone directly, you should ask them what they want to be called (probably just their name!), but when talking about homelessness as a large issue, it’s perfectly acceptable to call it what it is.

“Homelessness is a policy and budget choice. It is a solvable problem. We also know that we all benefit when everyone has a safe place to live – our communities are healthier, more vibrant, and safer places when everyone has housing,” Armour-Jones said. 

According to Amour-Jones, using the right adjectives is not nearly as important as the context in which they are used. After all, the word ‘homeless’ isn’t what’s stigmatized; it’s the experience of homelessness that is.

“The words we use and the images we share are the foundation of the stories we tell ourselves about the world – about our place in it, about our communities and our country. Stories connect us with one another, so language is essential,” she said. 

“But it’s not just our word choices, it’s also how we frame the information. When we talk about people as part of our community, we frame them as people who belong – we build connection and empathy. When we label people as criminals or drug addicts, we make it easy to see them as less worthwhile and undeserving of dignity. Language is powerful.”

For example, a messaging guide from Housing Narrative Lab suggests that we embrace the language of ‘solving’ homelessness, rather than ‘eradicating’ it, since it’s a collective social problem we can confront — not a disease or moral failing.

Plus, more specific terminology can help clarify the type of homelessness someone is experiencing. For instance, someone might have ‘unstable housing,’ which likely suggests that they don’t have a house of their own, but may be able to find safety and support by staying with friends or in shelters. 

While using the wrong words does not cause the same kind of harm that homelessness itself causes, using more thoughtful and meaningful words can bridge gaps and help us treat unhoused folks with more respect and dignity — and ultimately change the conversation around homelessness as a whole. 

Housing Narrative Lab aims to use language as a tool to articulate a positive vision of the future by establishing shared values and connection to the central goal: that everyone can afford a safe place to live and call home.

“Advocating for people to be housed … doesn’t have to be at the State House or in the newspaper — it can be around the dinner table or in a cab when the topic of homelessness comes up,” Armour-Jones said.

“We all have a role to play in changing what people think about the causes of homelessness and helping people understand that it’s solvable if we want to solve it.”

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November 3, 2023 1:55 PM
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