Like Many Things, the Answer Depends on Who You Ask, and Too Few People Are Asking Those that it Actually Affects
Lately, there has been a lot of discourse surrounding the language used to refer to people living without stable shelter. More and more people are turning away from the most common term, “homeless,” in favor of alternatives like houseless, unhoused, unsheltered, and many more variations.
This might confuse the casual observer about the difference between these terms and which one they should use. The simple truth is that different people use different terms for different reasons. When in doubt, it’s best to ask the specific person you’re referring to which term they prefer for themselves.
Or, you could just call them by their name.
But when we’re speaking more generally, a uniting term is helpful. So let’s look at some of these different terms and their use.
Houseless is a term that rose mainly in response to the fact that while they may not live in traditional houses, many houseless people feel that they do have homes. Whether they’re living in a tent encampment, sleeping in their vehicle, or returning to a specific spot each night, the area where they spend their time and store their items is their home.
This distinction is important when conceptualizing the harm that houseless people endure from encampment sweeps and searches and seizures of their property. These actions aren’t just unfortunate public interactions. They are sanctioned home invasions. The places where houseless people live are their homes. They should be recognized as such and treated to the same legal protections any other home enjoys.
Unhoused is probably the most popular alternative to the word “homeless.” It’s undoubtedly the one I see most often recommended by advocates. But it doesn’t have a meaningful difference in connotation from the more common term, “homeless.”
Proponents of the word say using it dodges the stigma inherent in the word “homeless”. While it may be true that hearing an unfamiliar word might cause people to stop and think a second longer, that benefit will disappear once the word becomes sufficiently common.
Unsheltered is a more general term that is only sometimes meant as a synonym for homeless. In everyday use, it could just mean “exposed to the elements” like an unsheltered bus stop. When it comes to homelessness, it usually refers to someone who is living in an area that is not meant for human habitation, like a car, sidewalk, or park.
In that sense, it would exclude homeless people who are living in shelters or other temporary housing. It’s a useful term when you want to talk exclusively about people who are “sleeping rough” like that. But it’s not a catch-all term you can use to refer to all homeless people.
Homeless is the common term that most people learn first. It’s used by many shelters, government bodies, and other service providers. For many people, it may be the only term they ever hear to refer to this group of people. Though some advocates are starting to push back against its use and change their own language, most homeless people do not consider it to be an offensive term.
Of course, everyone has a right to choose which terms they prefer to be referred to with, and you should respect that choice. But “homeless” isn’t a bad choice as a go-to term since it’s widely understood and not considered harmful by most.
Just avoid blaming all your city’s problems on “the homeless” and making other sweeping generalizations. A lack of understanding and respect for the people you’re talking about is much worse than word choice in this case.
So Why Do We Have So Many Words?
Now that I’ve said that most homeless people don’t find use of the term “homeless” offensive, you might be wondering why we even have so many alternative words for it. And, while terms like “houseless” and “unsheltered” provide useful distinctions, the frontrunner of the pack, “unhoused” bases its value on being as of yet free of the stigma attached to the word “homeless.”
But the thing is, the word homeless isn’t inherently stigmatized. It’s the entire concept of homelessness that’s stigmatized. All the biases, stereotypes, misunderstandings, and hatred people have for homeless people don’t dissipate the moment they’re called unhoused people.
All of that will carry over to the new word, whatever it may be.
Are the Terminology Debates a Distraction?
As is often the case, the voices lobbying loudest for a change in language are not the voices of the people actually described by the language. Most people typing out angry comments or loudly lecturing others aren’t homeless, houseless, unhoused, or unsheltered themselves.
It’s usually someone who considers themselves an advocate for the people they’re speaking about (or over) and is looking for a way to “help out” that will give them some instant gratification. After all, it’s much easier to shout at someone for saying homeless instead of unhoused than it is to confront the entire system of government and capitalism that keeps poor people marginalized and mistreated.
This is not to say that no one living without housing cares, because some people certainly have a strong preference for one term over another, and we should always respect that. But for housed people who are just looking for a way to help out, policing language isn’t the most helpful thing we could be doing. It’s certainly not our place to decide what other people should be called.
My advice is to sit this one out. Refer to individuals as they identify themselves to you. Use the more general terms in the appropriate context, and don’t worry about trying to correct other people’s language unless they’re saying something really heinous. You may even find that taking a back seat in the terminology discourse frees up some of your energy to advocate for your homeless neighbors in a more tangible way!