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We should stop using the word 'homeless' to describe people

Updated: Jun 26, 2020

I recently reported on a story about how London Mayor Sadiq Kahn has embarked on a new mission to end homelessness by 2027. His radical vision is truly transformative and something that every city in the world should be keeping an eye on. But there was one piece of the story that really struck a cord with me. It wasn’t just the data or the plan or the amount of funding the government is willing to infuse into this system. It was the way in which the Mayor spoke about those living on the streets. In one of his remarks he said, “Ultimately, we need…an honest focus by ministers on the root causes of homelessness to end rough sleeping in London for good.”

Rough sleeping.

What a profound use of words. For many years now I’ve abhorred the word homeless. We’ve lost sight of its meaning as a society and stopped using it for what it means, without a home (ya know, less a home) and begun to use it as moniker. We introduce someone as homeless, it has become a title, an identifier. But the reality is that homelessness is a temporary state and not a permanent identity. Or at least thats how it should be!

I fear that in our society we’ve grown to think of it as an identity, and therefore no longer think of it as tempory, but permanent. That’s just what someone is. The acceptance of this sometimes seems like acceptance of the person. “Thats my homeless friend over there!” And it seems nice at first but is it really helpful?

Words have meaning and power. They cause us to react in different ways. Scream fire just about anywhere and you’ll see people respond. The same goes for what we call each other. There are words that can elicit an immediate emotional reaction out of people. And sure, this isn’t universal! I mean, I’ve got friends who call me loser and I know they don’t mean it and its done in jest. But if the average person on the street yelled, “you’re a loser” it would cut pretty deep. So saying our words have power isn’t really a hard concept for most folks to follow.

But when I tell people that the word homeless can be harmful and offensive to those experiencing housing loss, I often times get blank stares and arguments. We’ve grown comfortable with the term and its easy and compact. We all know what we mean when we say it… but the truth is what the word conjures up in our minds doesn’t always fit the script for what people are actually experiencing on the streets as they are “sleeping rough.”

What I love about the way the Londoners describe with that term is that is specifically talking about the sleeping arrangements of the individual or even the living conditions of a person but it’s not defining the person. Unlike the word homeless which has now become a descriptive term, “Steve is a homeless guy.” It’s substantially different than “Steve is sleeping rough right now.” It carries with it two different understandings. And I think the latter almost calls us to a challenge to change the circumstance. Its almost more truthful, it implies instantly that the conditions aren’t good and we, together as a society, must respond as quickly as possible. When we say it, we are acknowledging a call to action.

Homelessness has no normative. Every single individual’s experience is different and when we use words as identifiers they cling to us. It’s hard to escape them. But as different as each experiences is, one thing we can all agree on is that living on the streets is living rough and we should all do our part to make a difference to end that. And maybe it starts but just seeing people as people and not just their condition.

Nathan Monk’s new book, Charity Means Love, addresses many of our cultural blind spots in how we give. Pre-order your copy today!

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