“For me, words are a form of action, capable of influencing change. Their articulation represents a complete, lived experience.”? Ingrid Bengis
Words matter. Everyone knows it. The idea that words can bring real harm extends far beyond the confines of the playground. Those who speak are accountable for their words.
Sometimes, however, people are not aware that what they are saying is actually hurtful. Sometimes insults can be so settle that the one delivering the insult doesn’t even know that he/she is being inconsiderate. It is the person on the other end that suffers, and is likely to suffer again.
There is a word that has been popping up more and more in the news. There is a subject being brought up more frequently at the dinner table. The word appears on the news, in newspapers, on church bulletins, in pamphlets and on cardboard signs. HOMELESS. Don’t misunderstand. The word ‘homeless’ is not a bad word. In fact homelessness can happen to anyone. Homelessness is an unfortunate reality that needs to be addressed.
At no point is this blog meant to shame. This article is meant to make the reader think. This article assumes that the reader has a heart for the homeless population. This article assumes the reader generally tries to be a kind person. The question this article wishes to address is: Are we using the word HOMELESS appropriately?
Homeless is an Adjective Not a Noun
The first point may seem subtle, but it is a necessary to continue the discussion.
Homeless is an adjective, not a noun.
The word homeless describes a person; it does not define a person. She is not a mansion and he is not an apartment. Why is he homeless? Anyone can be homeless. Just because he is without a home does not mean that one characteristic defines him.
Lose a Name – Lose an Identity
Objectification is the natural result of being diminished to one characteristic. What’s in a name? A lot. Hearing one’s name is enough to stop a person in their tracks. Not being addressed appropriately is enough to deter any self-respecting individual from wanting to engage further. Once a person is insulted, everything else is just chatter.
Lisa Hoffman and Brian Coffey of the University of Washington conducted a study focused on homeless service providers. Instead of looking at the numeric results of shelters, they examined how individuals experiencing homelessness felt about their interactions with service providers. The results were disheartening.
A 27 year old stated:
I had too much personal pride to be talked down to and to be treated like a child. . .I still carry a lot of pride being a veteran and I was not about to have somebody talk to me like I am a street fellow. . .They have the attitude, we can. . .treat you how we want because if you do not like it you can get out. . .there is 10 more guys waiting for your bed.
Imagine how differently his homeless experience would’ve been had he felt respected. Would he have eaten better, slept better, felt more appreciated?
Words are tricky things. It is hard to know how someone else feels. It can be harder to try to hear oneself through another person’s ears.
This doesn’t mean that seeking appropriate language isn’t worth the effort.
The University of New Hampshire has a pretty good definition for Inclusive Language.
Inclusive Language is communication that does not stereotype or demean people based on personal characteristics including gender, gender expression, race, ethnicity, economic background, ability/disability status, religion, sexual orientation, etc.
Inclusive Language isn’t intended just for persons who are homeless or who are a minority. No one wants to be defined by his or her wealth or lack thereof. Most people would much rather be defined by who they are, what they love, or generally – just how they wish to be perceived.