How to Use Respectful, Instead of Degrading, Language Around Homelessness

homeless man holding sign

The way we talk about homelessness is important. We know all too well there are many who don’t have compassion for homeless people. They think the unhoused are lazy or choose to live that way. They may assume they’re all mentally ill or addicted to alcohol or drugs. In the midst of our hurt and confusion, it’s tempting to assume they were born with these ideas and will always have them.

But we all develop our opinions over time. People with unkind views toward homeless people learned them from the media they watched and read. They may have friends and family who also view homeless people with contempt, and so took on these views while growing up.

Language surrounding homelessness is a powerful force for help and harm. Though it’s often used to show disrespect, it can just as easily be used to validate, show empathy, and offer to help.

The AP Stylebook is a guide for copy editors and journalists. It outlines respectful and disrespectful language around issues such as homelessness, sexuality, and race. It also denotes language that can be offensive. Since appropriate language changes, we could be using hurtful language without realizing it. The latest updates to the AP Stylebook, which were presented in May at the 2020 American Copy Editors Society conference, tell us exactly what language is harmful and why so we can change.

How can language become hurtful if it wasn’t before?

The answer is, those of us who’ve never been homeless can’t put ourselves in the shoes of those who have. We don’t know the real-life experiences of being written off, ignored, threatened, and abused because of our homeless status and all that comes with it. We don’t know what’s offensive until someone who has lived these experiences tells us. When they do, we need to listen and believe.

So, what changes are being made to AP style? Below are the major ones, with key takeaways you can start implementing in your speech and writing right away.

Avoid Using “The Homeless”

Collective nouns—words used to group people together based on one thing they have in common—are offensive. The same is true with terms like “the elderly” or “the disabled.” This term isn’t an effective way to describe homeless people, to start with. One person may be couch surfing while another stays in a shelter. Also, two people who are both homeless can be very different people. Grouping them together on the basis of a singular circumstance deprives homeless people of their identity as individuals.

Appropriate alternatives: “Homeless people,” “people without homes,” or “people without housing.”

Avoid Using “Homeless” as a Casual Identifier

This means describing someone as homeless when it isn’t necessary. Not being housed is only one part of a person’s life. Say you met a person on the subway who you learned was homeless. They shared an interesting story with you, and you want to share it with your friends. If you say, “I met this homeless guy on the subway,” you are reducing that person to one attribute.

You wouldn’t want someone to describe you as “that bald guy,” or “that disabled woman.” No one is defined by a single characteristic, and to imply a circumstance such as homelessness is a defining feature is degrading and dehumanizing.

Appropriate alternatives: Use “homeless” when describing an action, or leave it out. In this example, you could say “I met this guy on the subway,” or if relevant, “I met this person struggling with homelessness.”

Avoid Using Euphemisms

Don’t try to censor yourself and avoid the word “homeless” altogether. By trying too hard to avoid offensive language, you may end up needlessly complicating your language and confusing people. You also give the impression there’s something inherently wrong with being homeless. Tip-toeing around a hard issue is a by-product of society’s tendency to blame the victim, rather than the broken system.

An example of a euphemism is this case is “street-involved.” Its meaning isn’t clear, and it’ll leave people wondering why you don’t just say “homeless.” While “homeless” stirs up unpleasant and painful images, especially for those who’ve lived it, it’s important to be honest. What causes offense is the context the word is used in. Simply make sure you aren’t using it in one of the ways listed above, and place the blame where it belongs.

Appropriate alternatives: Use the word, but only in a respectful manner.

While we’ve already covered the most important updates to AP style, there are a few additional points to keep in mind as well. They’re especially important when it comes to educating people, raising awareness, and being an advocate.

There are often regional terms for issues pertaining to homelessness. For example, “unhoused” is a preferred term on the West coast. This evolved from the influx of newly homeless as a result of rapidly rising housing costs. Other regions have their own terms as well, so educate yourself on local issues related to homelessness.

Every time you talk and write about homelessness is a new opportunity. Respectful, validating language is a powerful tool. When you use new terminology, you have a chance to explain why you’re using phrasing like this. By explaining your choice of words, you draw attention and help others view homelessness in ways they haven’t thought of before.

Direct attention to the reasons underlying homelessness. Research shows when people think about homelessness, they tend to blame the individual person and their choices. We need to shift the public’s perspective and help them see it as a societal problem with real, achievable solutions. Talk about inequitable housing policies and wage gaps. Use hope-filled language like “He doesn’t have housing right now,” versus simply, “he’s homeless.”

Talking about homelessness, whether that be conversations with friends, on a blog, podcast, social media, or any other medium, continues to be a highly effective way of promoting change. These problems have real, identifiable causes, with real solutions. Hopefully, as you shift your language around homelessness to be more goal-oriented and hope-driven, you inspire others to adopt the same solution-driven mindset.

Victoria VanTol

Victoria VanTol


Victoria VanTol holds a master's degree in social work. She is a therapist and freelance writer specializing in topics related to social justice and mental health.

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