Rethinking the language around homelessness


The language we use to refer to people can reflect our attitudes toward them. Think: “undocumented immigrant” versus “illegal alien.”

In recent years, nonprofit workers and advocates have been trying to change how we describe unhoused people. Rather than say “the homeless” or “homeless person,” they prefer “person experiencing homelessness.”

It’s a people-first language, which focuses on the person, rather than their circumstance.

“People who are experiencing homelessness are subject to the worst types of stereotypes,” says Jessica Reed, a policy manager at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. “How the public sees them is informed by the language that we use. One thing that’s so important to remember is homelessness is not an identity, it’s a condition.”

Other examples of people-first language include “people with disabilities” instead of “disabled people,” or “people with schizophrenia” rather than “schizophrenic,” which many mental health experts prefer.

“It’s part of a larger movement in healthcare... to treat patients as active agents -- not to say people are their illnesses.” says Jack Tsai, a psychologist for the Veterans Health Administration in Connecticut and associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine. She works on issues related to homelessness.

While advocates don’t like to say “the homeless” or “homeless person,” these terms are an improvement over “bum” or “vagrant,” which were once commonly used. For example, a 1922 New York Times essay about being a woman experiencing homelessness is titled “The Lady Bum.”

A search of the New York Times archives from 1851-2002 yields nearly 23,000 mentions of the word “homeless,” but 82 percent of those uses are from 1980 or later. Not surprisingly, that coincides with policy changes like cuts to public housing and chronic homelessness becoming a more widespread and visible problem.

As for people experiencing homelessness themselves, Tsai says he conducted a small survey of formerly homeless veterans, asking their feelings about different words, including “bum,” “wanderer,” “vagrant,” “homeless person,” and “person experiencing homelessness.”

“They didn’t really care,” says Tsai. But the idea is to influence society at large, he continues, “I think there’s a lot of power in language, and it does impact the way the public thinks.” But he added, “It’s hard to tell if language changes first and then attitudes, or vice versa.”

--Written b
y Anna Scott