I recently asked my 11-year-old daughter what she thought when she hears someone described as a “homeless person.” She said it made her feel sad, defeated, like there was nothing to be done to help. Then I asked for her reaction when I described someone as “experiencing homelessness.” She smiled. “Oh, that’s just a person who needs some help to fix a problem they have.”
In a previous article, I wrote about the ways we need to talk about the work we do to build support in our communities for efforts to end homelessness. But how we talk about the people we serve is just as important. That’s why, at the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, we refer to the people we are working for as people first—as adults, young people, children, Veterans—who are experiencing homelessness. And we encourage you to do the same. Here’s why:
The words we use to describe people powerfully affect our attitudes and assumptions about them. As advocates for people with disabilities have learned, labels generate strong emotional reactions that can create barriers to understanding and reinforce stereotypes. For more than 30 years, advocacy organizations have been working to reshape how we speak about people with disabilities to focus on their individual strengths and capabilities rather than their medical or developmental conditions. “People-first” language for people with disabilities has been embraced by the CDC , the American Psychological Association, among many others, as a way to break down negative stereotypes and promote the self-worth of individuals. People experiencing homelessness should, of course, receive the same consideration.
More respect ful language about homelessness can lead to more positive attitudes and actions. People experiencing homelessness also suffer from a great deal of negative stereotypes that get in the way of the solutions we know work to end homelessness. As research from FrameWorks Institute shows , Americans tend to misunderstand the structural and societal causes of homelessness and instead believe that homelessness is caused by an individual’s choices. By separating individual people and families from emotionally charged labels, we can refocus attention on remedying the structural challenges—like the lack of affordable housing, challenges to accessing behavioral and mental health care, and racial inequities—that can make people unable to afford a home.
We need to both “walk the talk” and “talk the walk.” Communities across the country are striving to create person-centered responses to homelessness that are grounded in an understanding of individual’s specific strengths and challenges and that provide them with an array of housing choices that meet their needs. And many communities are already “walking the talk” by making those kinds of important changes in their programs and services. But when we talk about “homeless people” or “homeless services,” we’re not “talking the walk”—such language does not convey the vision of effective, person-centered responses that end homelessness, but instead can sound like we’re describing an intractable problem that is about people who are fundamentally different from us.
As our agency’s director of communications, I know that talking or writing about an “individual experiencing homelessness” is structurally awkward—and poses some daunting, Twitter-specific challenges. At USICH, we use a lot of grammatical gymnastics to make sure our language puts people first. But even my daughter can sense why it’s so important for us to do it. To end homelessness in America, we need everyone in America to believe—like we do—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 some help to fix a problem that we have?