How We Speak About Homelessness

Published on: Author: Amy Shea Leave a comment

Homeless, unhoused, unsheltered, houseless, hobo, bum, vagrant, transient, street person…

‘Homeless Jesus’ – bronze sculpture by Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz 

At the start of 2021, I submitted my PhD thesis in Creative WritingNot All Deaths are Created Equal: Essays Exploring the Intersection of Death, Inequality, and Homelessness, to a book publisher for consideration. My book is a journey to understand what happens to someone who dies while experiencing homelessness. Through creative and critical elements woven into personal essays that are informed by research on medical care, end-of-life care, and post-death care for those experiencing homelessness, as well as loss and grief, I aim to bear witness to the disparities in death and dying faced by some of society’s most vulnerable and marginalized.

In my work, I seek to engage a broad audience by utilizing the vast tools and creative elements provided by the essay form and structure such as narrative, scene, and dialogue while incorporating the rigour of academic research in a readable and engaging manner. The intention of this work is to increase awareness around the intersection of death, dying, and homelessness in order to advocate for a better quality of life and death for all, including those who are too often left behind.

One of the reviewers, who had been sent a copy of the proposal and sample chapters by the publisher, wrote of my use of the word ‘homelessness’:

the term ‘homelessness’ is now commonly seen as derogatory and Shea does not seem aware of this…. There is MUCH literature on this, and the fact that Shea doesn’t address why she prefers the term ‘homeless’ over ‘houseless’ reveals a deep lack of knowledge of the topic at hand.

To say I was taken aback is an understatement. As a writer, and writing on this topic in particular, I fully expect to get some push back on the things I’ve written. Although I am confident that I did my due diligence while researching and writing this book, for a brief, terrifying moment I was worried this reviewer was correct. Yet, after some digging, I could find nothing of substance to support this claim. In fact, what I did find seemed to directly contradict this statement.

There are many articles and blog posts written by people including some who self-identify as ‘houseless’ and they use this term to differentiate themselves from those we would call ‘homeless’. They have made a deliberate choice to not live in a house, a very distinct difference to those who are homeless (contrary to what some believe) who have not chosen such a life. In the article “Stop Confusing Homeless and Houseless”, Joe Omundson writes, “Defining homelessness simply by whether or not you have a home completely misses the point. I was houseless, yes; I was living without a traditional housing arrangement. But I was doing it on purpose, because I enjoyed it. That’s a big difference.”

A little more digging uncovered other articles on the subject of what word(s) to use when writing about someone who is homeless. One article for copyeditors referenced the AP Stylebook, “Do not use the collective noun ‘the homeless,’ just like we don’t use ‘the elderly’ or ‘the disabled’… Instead, the Stylebook recommends ‘homeless people,’ ‘people without housing,’ or ‘people without homes’” (Walker & Alpern). Another article by The Oaklandside, a local news organization based in Oakland, CA, notes that when referring to people in their news reports they “try to not make those decisions on our own, listening instead to community members about the language they feel reflects and represents them” (Orenstein).

I whole heartedly agree with all of these points. In fact, what that reviewer hadn’t seen, was that I’d written an entire chapter titled, “Homelessness Embodied”, which explores the language and words used to discuss homelessness and how those have implications for the treatment of people experiencing homelessness from health care to death. Additionally, I published a poem that appears at the start of my book titled, “Indexing the Life and Death Experiences of Homelessness” that explores the denotations and connotions of language used to describe people and how that effects the way we see each other and ourselves. While researching for my book, I had also adopted the phraseology “people experiencing homelessness” after seeing its increased use in medical journal articles and other materials that were coming out of health care for homeless people, such as Boston Health Care for the Homeless.

But ultimately, this entire exchange of academics and professionals pontificating on naming conventions is meaningless in the face of actually solving the issue of homelessness. In fact, I believe we may unintentionally do more harm than good by further “othering” those we are aiming to help. Such conversations will only be relevant when they are inclusive of those whom they are about and directed at. Language is nuanced and not always perfect. Flexibility is an important skill to have and terms describing experiences and identities are fluid, ever-changing. So, I will take my lead on how to proceed, not from an academic reviewer or even the Associated Press, but from those who have the lived experience of homelessness. As Mark Horvath, founder of the Invisible People organization, and who was homeless for a number of years, writes:

HELL YES, I’M HOMELESS! But [this] doesn’t define me. The totality of who and what I am could never be expressed on a spreadsheet. They are but components to my life. Seems to me more energy, time and effort are spent on sanitizing and making politically correct the very toxic issues that plague homeless [people]. It’s interesting how the views of people working in the homeless sector conflict with the views of homeless people.

If you’re unsure on how to reflect someone’s experience or identity through language, just ask. Assuming a blanket stance will only make those who deserve to be seen even more invisible.  

References:

Horvath, Mark. “Let’s talk about homeless people, a.k.a. ‘people experiencing homelessness’”. Invisible People, 15 Feb. 2019, https://invisiblepeople.tv/saying-people-experiencing-homelessness-will-not-influence-change/.

Omundson, Joe. “Stop Confusing Homeless and Houseless.” Medium, 2 Sep. 2019, https://medium.com/ecofrugality/stop-confusing-homeless-and-houseless-39b055d29ea3

Orenstein, Natalie. “Homeless? Unhoused? Unsheltered? Word choice matters when reporting on Oaklanders who don’t have permanent housing.” The Oaklandside, 10 Nov. 2020,  https://oaklandside.org/2020/11/10/homeless-unhoused-unsheltered-word-choice-matters-when-reporting-on-oaklanders-who-dont-have-permanent-housing/.

Shea, Amy. “Indexing the Life & Death Experience of Homelessness.” The Portland Review, 29 Apr. 2021, http://portlandreview.org/indexing-the-life-and-death-experience-of-homelessness/.

Walker, Alissa & Emma Alpern. “How We Talk About Homelessness is Finally Changing.” Curbed, 11 Jun. 2020, https://archive.curbed.com/2020/6/11/21273455/homeless-people-definition-copy-editing.

Categories: PhD

Amy Shea

Amy Shea is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. She is a member of the Glasgow End of Life Studies Group.

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