We live in an era where words are carefully chosen when describing people. This same courtesy should be extended to homeless people. The public should stop using offensive labels like “bum,” “homeless guy,” and “bag lady” to help wipe away negative associations conjured up by these outdated terms.
When we say “homeless,” many thoughts come to mind depending on who you are and your experience. For example, people who use the term “bum” might be shocked that homeless people have cell phones. Even more shocking may be the reality that homeless people can stream shows and videos from their phones.
This may be possible thanks to a friend or family member who may not house the person but can at least help that person’s life suck a little less by including them on a family phone plan or giving them log-in credentials to view content.
The same person is viewed differently depending on how you describe them: “homeless” or “priced out of housing.”
The first causes the reaction of “How can a homeless person afford a cell phone?” versus accepting that the person who is priced out of housing might be able to keep a cell phone because someone has them on a family plan (as in my case) or they have a basic, bare-bones cell phone.
To be homeless is to be without a place to live. So, is living in a van homeless? Some argue no, and some argue yes.
Some may argue a vehicle is only a home if it’s equipped with a bathroom, kitchenette, and a place to sleep. This makes an RV a house on wheels, whereas a passenger car or van is not a home.
Then there is the word “houseless,” which perhaps describes someone living in a place that is not a house. A tent might fit that description, or maybe a vehicle does, too.
The phrase, “If you’re homeless, how can you afford ____? (fill in the blank)”. This question would not be asked by somebody who understands that modern homeless people often retain much of their life but cannot afford to house. Decisions get made when you cannot afford a vehicle and a place to live. Thoughts like, “I must be able to drive and get places, and the vehicle is more important than the apartment.”
If you say someone is homeless, it conjures one image. Still, if you say someone is “priced out of housing and forced to live in their vehicle or couch surf with friends,” it might describe an individual’s situation more accurately and with fewer negative references. But am I going to introduce myself that way every time? Should I change my name from “Homeless Loki” to “Priced Out of Housing and Forced to Live in a Van Loki”?
Then there is the phrase “housing insecurity,” which assesses how badly a person might need help.
Ok, that probably suits me well. After all, I do have access to options other than the street or under a bridge (for now), but I have no place of my own, and I am always at risk of losing everything and ending up on the actual street. I could say, “Hi, I am a disabled person who is also on the autism spectrum and is priced out of housing and experiencing housing insecurity.”
That would be accurate and probably doesn’t invoke the image of the “bum with the bottle” hovering over a fire in a trash can or sleeping on cardboard over a subway grating.
Words have been changed over the years to create greater acceptance and a more palatable image. One example is the word disabled or Handicapped instead of calling someone a cripple.
Before the Americans With Disabilities Act, people often used the word “cripple,” according to my adoptive father, who was a handicapped person. If you say, “the guy’s a cripple,” it invokes a different image than saying, “That man is disabled.” There is more respect for the latter.
However, I don’t think it matters if I say, “I am autistic” versus “I have autism,” but I’ve seen people argue. I could say, “I am an adult on the autism spectrum.” But I am not allowed to refer to myself as “an adult with high-functioning autism” because it is considered rude as it seems to imply that other people are low functioning.
Then the debate becomes, should I say, “I am an adult on the autism spectrum with no learning disabilities or mental illnesses, with an above-average IQ.” This should help the person I am telling interpret my skill level, intellect, and mental health status. You see how it gets very complicated very quickly.
So, do we say “homeless,” “unhoused,” “priced out of housing,” “experiencing housing insecurity,” or some other word or phrase?
Do words matter that much? Does changing the word we use from “homeless” to something else benefit us, or doesn’t it matter to the public?
The first article I ever wrote for Invisible People was about visual perceptions of homeless people. Homeless people wearing business attire could hover in bus and train terminals without harassment for a lot longer than if they “looked homeless.” Some of those people were extremely helpful, saving travelers a great deal of effort by not having to locate one of the few information booths in those terminals for gate information or where the bathroom is. Those same people were perceived differently by changing their clothes, even though they were the same person and still homeless. So is the use of words similar to those clothes?
I certainly wouldn’t dare to speak for all homeless people or for any agency trying to help homeless people. I can only tell you that I do introduce myself as “homeless” because, in my opinion, it is technically accurate. But I usually elaborate to clarify that I am priced out of housing due to being disabled.
People often tell me that I don’t “look homeless” because I am clean. Maybe that helps people change their perception of homeless people by meeting someone who breaks the stereotypes. I don’t know, but modern America is a deeply divided nation, and words play a role in that. Even the idea of being “politically correct” is split between those who say we need to be and those who say we do not.
Words do matter.
I have no definitive answer here. This is just a mind exercise: Something to think about. The old saying, “Sticks and stones might break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” tends not to be true for most people. Words can cut deeper than a knife and leave scars that last much longer than a broken bone.
The use of words is what differentiates us from other creatures. Though most lifeforms have ways of communicating with others of their species, it seems to be a definitive trait of the genus homo to be able to use words to communicate specific information. We should honor the gift of speech and language and use it wisely.