The Power of Person First Language, Part 2

by Rachael Kenney
September 10, 2010

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Recently, I blogged about the importance of using person-first language. Person-first language means to put the person before the descriptor, like saying “people experiencing homelessness” instead of “the homeless” or “homeless people.”

Once I was accustomed to using person first language, I started to think about how I could help others be more aware of the impact of language. One night I was in yoga class and the instructor asked us to sit “Indian style.” Another students spoke up and said that “Indian style” was offensive. She suggested “cross legged” would have been better. I agreed with the student, but I remember how uncomfortable the exchange made the rest of the class feel.

Because I am highly conscious of person-first language, I notice when people don’t use it. Recently, I attended a conference, and was surprised to hear presenters – people who have dedicated their lives to working to end homelessness – using the expression “the homeless,” to lump people experiencing homelessness together. I wanted to say something to them, but I didn’t know how to do so without creating a very awkward situation.

Besides, I’m not perfect. I’ve worked for the Homelessness Resource Center for three and a half years, but I still need to search my documents to make sure I wrote “people who experience homelessness” instead of “the homeless.” Every time I find “the homeless” in a document I want to throw up my hands in exasperation. Who am I to correct others when I make the same mistakes?

But, I believe it’s important to keep trying. Language is important, as it frames the way we perceive the world, and this has effects on the people we interact with. I continue to model person-first language. I ensure that the people who I supervise use it, too.

I’m learning that language can cause change. Last night, I was talking with my partner, who does not work in human services. In the midst of our conversation he said “consumers” instead of “the homeless.” I smiled. It made me realize that my language has an impact on how the people around me think about people who experience homelessness.

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Why I Use Person-First Language

by Rachael Kenney
July 19, 2010

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When I started working at the Homelessness Resource Center, one of the first things I learned was “person first language.” It means to put the person before the descriptor. Person-first language is saying “people experiencing homelessness” instead of “the homeless” or “homeless people."

It seemed like a lot of words to get a short point across. I would think about how awkward it would be to say “people experiencing wealth” or “people experiencing employment.” But, over time, I began to see why person-first language is so important.

Using person first language is more than just being politically correct. It helps to slowly chip away at deeply embedded stereotypes. When we talk about “the homeless,” it’s easy to have an “us versus them” mindset. This language fosters the belief that “they” are different from “us.” But we are not different – we are all people.

And there is no single face of homelessness. People experiencing homelessness include families and single adults, children and people who are elderly, people who struggle with substance use and people who are sober, veterans, people who identify as sexual or gender minorities, people who have histories of incarceration, people who are underemployed.

When I say “people who experience homelessness” it reminds me that homelessness is just an experience. It’s not an inherent part of a person. The experience of homelessness is just one out of many experiences in the rich tapestry of each person’s life. No one deserves to be defined by one experience.

Homelessness doesn’t have one face; according to HUD, it had 664,414 on a single night in January 2008. Some of those faces are now housed while others are still in shelters or on the street. All of those faces are as worthy of my respect as anyone else.

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Working With Giants

by Wayne Centrone
July 06, 2010

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One of the best parts about working as a technical assistance provider to homeless service programs is the opportunity to travel around the country and visit programs. The depth and scope of work being done to end homelessness is truly amazing. I recently spent time with the Mental Health Association in Tulsa (MHAT) and their Tulsa Housing and Recovery Program (T-HARP), a SAMHSA-funded Services in Supportive Housing (SSH) grantee. Services in Supportive Housing (SSH) funds 57 grantees nationwide to provide intensive services to prevent or reduce chronic homelessness.

T-HARP is a Tulsa, OK-based community mental health agency that has built an amazing housing program. They have over 380 housing units in scattered sites and integrated units. They offer housing options from "Safe Haven" (Housing First) to permanent supportive housing (funded by the SSH program). All of the housing I visited was impeccable.

I was very impressed by the organization’s business plan. It allows them to purchase new housing units virtually debt-free. The "debt-free" business model means that they have the flexibility to offer clients a range of sustainable housing options to meet the needs of clients in different economic circumstances. This is a "forward thinking" approach to sustainable housing for underserved populations. In essence, the program’s leadership has taken the best of the business world and merged it with the best of the not-for-profit world. I was very impressed by the program’s leadership – a sharp group of highly dedicated people.

While in Tulsa I had the pleasure of meeting a former consumer who works with one of the mental health service agency's housing programs. Sue (not her real name) shared her challenges with me. She talked about her struggle with addictions, homelessness, and incarceration. She told me that finding the program was her "lifeline." She shared that she had an ”awakening" when she was "finally" able to get into a permanent housing environment with caring supportive services and staff to help her. She told me about the "new life" she is living through helping others make it "out of a life of homelessness."

I can't help but feel a great deal of admiration for Sue. She described many, many struggles. To me, they almost seemed like they were too great to ever overcome. Yet, in spite of the seemingly insurmountable challenges, she was able to overcome them. Sue told me that it was the program that helped her make the change. But, having met her, I know that she is the one who made the change. I am excited to know that she is now working with other people facing similar challenges in their own lives. And I know that she will be helping others to live the lives they so desperately deserve.

As a technical assistance provider, I have the opportunity to meet with programs and projects around the country. My role is to act as advisor, counsel, and support. Most of all, my job is to learn about great people who are doing great work. I get to meet people who are truly giants in ending homelessness and changing lives!

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Category: HRC Insight

A One Year Chip

by Wendy Grace Evans
June 21, 2010

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Recently I listened to Joe*, a man in recovery talk about an experience that occurred shortly after his first year of sobriety. While his life had improved significantly as a result of intensive work with other alcoholics and the willingness to follow a spiritual program of action, he was still struggling, as many people do throughout the ongoing recovery process. Life does not cease to happen in the midst of finding recovery. It happens over and over again and people learn to live with the emotions and feelings that unfold without having to take a drink, or use any other substance.

He described walking in an urban area. Two men jumped him, took his wallet and the little cash he had. Both men were living on the street and in a desperate place. As they pulled the money from his wallet, his one year chip fell rolling to the ground, along with the money. In a moment, one of the men picked up the chip, ignored the money and turned it over in his hand, staring at it with recognition and reflection. The other man took off with the money. Joe describes this incident with a contemplative awe.

Chips are given out in recovery meetings to mark time periods of abstinence, starting at 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, 6 months, 9 months, one year, 18 months, and then annually for every year of sobriety. The chips starting at one year are solid, and rest with weight in your hand.

After staring at the one year chip for some time, the man who had originally set out to take Joe’s money, sat down on the curb. Joe describes the man as wearing soiled clothing, in need of a shower, very thin, and missing many teeth. He had been on the streets for years. As he turned the chip over and over in his hand, he told Joe that once he had been sober for four years. Joe sat down on the curb next to him and they talked for three hours. The man shared how beautiful his life had been. His family had returned to him. He had owned a business and a home. A sober life had been full of gifts.

Eventually the conversation ended and the two men went their separate ways. Joe explained that he never saw the man again, but believed their meeting was not a chance event as he continues to share the experience today with people who are often in need of stories that generate hope, compassion, and possibility.

*Joe’s name has been changed to protect his anonymity.

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HRC Training in El Paso Brings Hope and Help to Trainees and Trainers Alike

by Steven Samra
June 06, 2010

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I believe that there is something special about the people living in the Southwestern region of our great nation, and it flows into all that they do. It may be the effect of endless sunny days or the wonderfully low humidity common to most of the area, but whatever it is, I wish I could take a few gallons with me.

It's not that they're somehow better than the good folks in any other region of our country. Rather, they seem to wear their friendliness, compassion, and hope on their sleeve, where all can see it and everyone seems to benefit in some fashion from it.

I was reminded of this wonderful quality when I spent two days in El Paso, Texas as part of the HRC/PATH training team. Our team was there to offer a free two-day training on “Promoting Wellness: An Integrated Approach to Homeless Service Delivery”.

It is always a privilege for me to help others to improve their skill sets. And it is an even bigger privilege that I get to learn from those I'm charged with instructing. The folks attending this training didn't disappoint in this regard. They brought incredible knowledge and compelling personal examples to the sessions, not to mention an engaging and cheerful demeanor that made the overall effort so enjoyable!

Of special note, as a consumer/provider, I regularly disclose portions of my past concerning homelessness and recovery when training. The experiences I endured are often relevant to our discussions. Disclosing my personal history to the folks in El Paso brought an outpouring of support and encouragement. It took me by pleasant surprise and made me feel even more comfortable with sharing and exploring efforts to bring a better level of care to those we interact with on a daily basis.

I cannot thank the training attendees enough for providing me with an incredibly uplifting, informative, and invigorating experience. I hope I was able to reciprocate in some small way by leaving them with some new tools in their toolbox to better assist those who seek our help and care.

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Writing and Listening

by Wendy Grace Evans
May 25, 2010

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I write for the HRC from my kitchen counter in Albuquerque, New Mexico. During the day, I am alone, but I’m never lonely. Some days I interview people who work here in New Mexico, in person. But most of the time, I spend my days on the phone, talking to people about their work in the field of homeless services.

I was struck by HRC trainer Wayne Centrone’s blog post when he wrote about how people working in the homeless service field regularly experience loneliness, exhilaration, defeat, and the lack of time for reflection. People tell me the same thing all the time.

In the last year I have interviewed over 120 people around the country about their professional lives as homeless service providers, policy makers, and researchers. My goal is to share information about evidence-based and promising practices, successful program models, emerging research, and new policies that shape the field. But there is always a human story embedded in every interview.

I strive to make my interviews into collaborative conversations. I use open-ended questions to learn more about a person’s work. I try to make the interview into a space for reflection, asking people to share what sustains and inspires them, in their work and their lives. Last week I interviewed a Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing (HPRP) Program Coordinator in recovery, two Executive Directors, and a psychiatrist who works in Assertive Community Treatment and Outreach. The topics of the interviews included Motivational Interviewing simulations for medical students, the importance of meditation and self-care, approaches to HPRP funding allocations, street outreach, services for veterans, and historical reflections on building the infrastructure of homeless services.

People talk to me.

I listen to the people I interview, and we experience a connection that I have the privilege to share with HRC community members. I love the reciprocity of collaborative communication. Last week, two people shared with me that they never have to time to reflect on their work in this field. They thanked me for the opportunity to pause.

One man was a monk for 3 years before becoming the Executive Director of a men’s shelter and practices daily meditation for an hour every morning. This practice supports and informs his role as an administrator. Another man I interviewed shared that he is an engineer by training, a veteran, and a man in recovery. He believes he connects with people he helps through stories and understands some of his most tragic personal experiences are his best asset. One leader in the field is a yoga instructor and the principles of yoga inform her work and her way of being with others. Another provider has a painting given to him by a woman he helped on an outreach. He described the painting as an abstract representation of grief and relief, a reflection of her successes and struggles.

Every week brings new interviews, and each interview is a new opportunity for growth, reflection, learning, and sharing.

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Category: HRC Insight

Free Training in the Lone Star State – May 25 & 26!

by Laura Winn
May 11, 2010

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HRC is hosting a free two-day regional training open to all homeless service providers in El Paso, TX on May 25th & 26th. We’ll be offering the HRC’s core curriculum, Promoting Wellness: An Integrated Approach to Homeless Service Delivery. Join us to learn more about innovative strategies for providing homeless services and creating environments that are person-centered, trauma-informed, and recovery-oriented.

We’ve been working closely with local partners to offer sessions to meet training needs in the region. Local experts who will present include:

  • Carlos Marentes, Executive Director of Sin Fronteras, a program working with migrant farm workers, will share his program’s award winning model.
  • A Veterans Affairs liaison, Charm Mizer, will talk about resources in El Paso for serving veterans.
  • Jennifer Jones, a local school district administrator, will discuss educating immigrant kids who are experiencing homelessness.
  • Josué Lachica, a faculty member at the University of Texas El Paso, who works with students exiting foster care and at risk of homelessness, will share his insights.

In addition, HRC’s training team will share their expertise on Motivational Interviewing, Consumer Integration, Trauma-Informed Care, Self-Care, Housing and Outreach. Participants will learn how to address the needs of individuals coping with co-occurring disorders and the needs of the region’s veterans. HRC trainers include Ken Kraybill, Steven Samra, and Wayne Centrone, among many others.

Continuing Education Units (CEU) are available to participants who complete the training. Writing this makes me realize what a rich training this will be! Last month, I traveled to South Carolina to provide logistical support for the last HRC Regional Training. As my first experience interacting with providers, I realized how much HRC can learn from providers in different parts of the country. Everyone has his or her own unique story to tell.

I hope you can join us on May 25th - 26th in El Paso, TX to see the Homelessness Resource Center in action. We are SAMHSA’s training and technical assistance center for homeless service providers and we’re very excited to work with you. Register now for the HRC Regional Training or email me at if you have any questions.

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Look for HRC Around the Web!

by Justine Hanson
April 19, 2010

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One of the HRC’s goals is to make connections – to help connect people with peers and the resources they need to do their jobs. One of my favorite parts of the job is seeing how excited people get when they hear about the resources HRC offers – FREE training for homeless service providers, FREE webcasts, FREE open access to the latest research on homelessness, and FREE, easy, online access to training toolkits and information on the latest best practices.

So, I’ve been even more excited to watch the news of HRC’s work spread across the web, and I wanted to share some highlights with you.

Our friends at InforUm, an online nationwide dialogue about housing, poverty, and homelessness, have been re-publishing HRC feature stories on their website. Thanks, InforUm!

Meanwhile, the folks at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network asked if they could feature HRC’s work on parenting and homelessness on their homepage. It turns out that some of their members contributed to the articles included in the Special Section of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry on the theme of “Parenting and Homelessness,” guest-edited by the HRC.

The Special Section helps fill a gap in the research on the challenges of family relationships in the context of homelessness. HRC is sponsoring free open access to the full text articles.

Recently, our friends at The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth
published an article about the HRC in “The Beam,” their newsletter.

Then, just the other day I came across an article ("Gay and on the Street") in Q Notes about the challenges faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth who are experiencing homelessness. The article references an HRC article, " Supporting LGBT Youth and Their Families: The Family Acceptance
," about the importance of reaching out to families to help prevent the homelessness of these vulnerable youth.

HRC has also partnered with, a WETA website offering information and resources about preventing, treating and living with traumatic brain injury. is now pointing their users to HRC on their partner page, and we will be frequently sharing content across sites!  

It’s so gratifying to be able to share our work with a broader audience – and we’re so grateful for all our amazing partners!

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Category: HRC Insight

Reflections from the Road: Columbia, SC

by Wayne Centrone
April 12, 2010

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Working in homeless services can be a very lonely experience. As a service provider, some days you feel totally exhilarated by the success of a client. Other days, you might feel completely defeated by their struggle. Each day brings a new set of challenges. Rarely do you have time to slow down and process everything you experience in this challenging line of work.

Before I joined the Homelessness Resource Center (HRC) training team, I worked in direct service delivery. Back then, I looked forward to trainings and conferences as opportunities to connect with my colleagues, recharge my spirit, and learn new skills. Most of all, I looked forward to meeting other providers who faced the same daily challenges as myself.

Recently, a team of us from HRC and Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH) traveled to Columbia, South Carolina to offer a free two-day training called “Promoting Wellness.” The curriculum included workshops on Motivational Interviewing, trauma-informed care, how to work with hard to serve youth, Housing First, Critical Time Intervention, consumer involvement, and PATH data collection.

We had a strong team of trainers who represented a multitude of professional disciplines. Participants came from all over South Carolina and the Southeast (with someone who came all the way from Bingham, NY!). The agenda was packed with workshops on best practices for providers, based on the latest research.

A local artist shared his beautiful and provocative paintings with us as part of a presentation on “Homelessness and the Arts.” He is a participant in the South Carolina Department of Mental Health’s “Art of Recovery” program.

By the end of the second day, we were all friends.

Each workshop helped providers to learn tangible, concrete skills that they can use in their everyday work. The theme of “promoting wellness” was woven throughout, with a clear focus on promoting a person-centered, trauma-informed, and recovery-oriented approach to serving people experiencing homelessness.

The venue was the beautiful Department of South Carolina Archives and History. Everyone at HRC and PATH extends a big “THANK YOU” to all our partners in South Carolina who helped make the event a success.

As I’ve transitioned out of direct service delivery and into a supporting role, I’ve felt a little removed from the pressures my direct service colleagues face on a daily basis. But my time in South Carolina helped to reconnect and reinvigorate me. Through conversations with providers, I gained new insight into the wonderful people who have dedicated their careers to homeless services.

It made me realize that HRC’s work – the work of supporting the people who care for those experiencing homelessness – is extremely important.

I can't wait for the next training event!

Join the HRC in El Paso, Texas on May 25 & 26, 2010 for the next free, two-day “Promoting Wellness” training. Register now!

In June 2010, the HRC training team will head to Tacoma, Washington in June 2010. Stay tuned for registration details!

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Category: HRC Insight

Your Roadmap to “The Future of Homeless Services”

by Justine Hanson
April 05, 2010

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I’m so very excited to announce that the HRC Special Issue on “The Future of Homeless Services” is hot off the press! It’s published in the Open Health Services and Policy Journal.

The articles in the Special Issue are all available through free, electronic open access. Click here to read the Special Issue!

The Special Issue focuses on what we know about some of the most important services for helping people to exit homelessness. The issue includes eight research, review, and commentary articles by leading experts on homeless services, and was guest-edited by the HRC.

You’re probably already thinking – who has time to read eight journal articles?

That’s where we come in. Here’s my quick and easy roadmap to “The Future of Homeless Services” to help get you started:

The Homeless Services Workforce

Who are we? What kind of training do we need to do our jobs? This article is the first attempt since 1996 to get an idea of who makes up the workforce and what we need. Read the article to learn more about how building the homeless service workforce will help improve our nation’s response to homelessness.

Homelessness Prevention

For years our nation has focused on managing homelessness, not preventing it before it starts. Finally, homelessness prevention is starting to get the attention it deserves with HUD’s Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP). Yet, there is still so much to learn about what works. Read the article to learn more about recommended approaches to homelessness prevention.

Services and Supports for Families

There is no one-size-fits all solution for families experiencing homelessness. Read the article to learn about a framework for determining the services and supports appropriate to a family’s needs over time.

Outreach & Engagement

Anyone who works in homeless services knows it is vital to meet people where they are – on the streets, under bridges, in the woods. But what are best practices for outreach and engagement? Read the article for a synthesis of the research on outreach and engagement.

Trauma-Informed Care

We know that trauma-informed care helps providers care for people who have experienced traumatic stress. But what else do we know about trauma-informed care? Read the article for a synthesis of the research on trauma-informed care and a list of resources related to trauma-informed care.

Recovery-Oriented Care

We know recovery is possible – from mental illness, substance abuse, and traumatic stress disorders. We also know that many people who are homeless may experience combinations of all three. Read about why it’s time for homeless services to embrace recovery values and learn from recovery-oriented services in other fields.

The Canadian Perspective on Homelessness

Stephen Gaetz is a leading researcher and the head of Canada’s Homeless Hub. Read his editorial to learn more about his view of the Canadian response to homelessness.

Reflections on the US Response to Homelessness

Martha Fleetwood, Founder and Executive Director of HomeBase/the Center for Common Concern, editorializes about the past thirty years of responding to homelessness in the US.

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Category: HRC Insight