July 19, 2010
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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