|Addressing Homelessness: Words Matter! By Dr. Barbara J. Ehren
During an Empower Hour with the League (recording available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
Therefore, Kathleen’s point is not an incidental or trivial one. The language we use to talk about people who lack stable and appropriate housing at a point in time is critical to understanding the problem, our resolve to address it, and the approach we take. If we follow Kathleen’s lead, we would use different words from those typically used. For example, John is homeless becomes John is experiencing homelessness. It’s just an addition of one word and one syllable, and I do mean “just” in this context, because with a minor change in language we can change the way we think about the situation of homelessness.
Practically speaking, how might this change in language enlighten our understanding and provide a basis for more creative solutions? The word “is” is a powerful linking verb because it joins the subject (John) to what follows (homeless). It implies an identity: John = homeless. Using these words, in a way, dooms John to being homeless, because his very being is tied to it. On the other hand, using language to describe a situation John is experiencing (homelessness) conveys a different mental set. John is a person who has a problem. All human beings experience problems. A problem can be solved. The words do not connote that John’s identity is caught up in the problem. It is viewed as a temporary situation, not a life trajectory.
Using this new lingo we might say:
None of the above examples labeled individuals as homeless. The viewpoint expressed in those statements is one of possibility, with solutions seeking to change circumstances affecting people. The change is subtle, but critical. This orientation may unlock new dimensions in thinking about the issue.
Words matter, but make no mistake, even a simple change, as the one suggested, is not easy to accomplish. We are used to saying things in a certain way. We will no doubt continue to hear and see the word homeless. However, change begins by each of us taking responsibility for making a shift in our own language. Language is a dynamic process and changes occur with widespread use. Case in point, years ago we never googled anything, and look at us now!
If this language change has the potential to affect positively the way we approach housing insufficiencies, won’t it be worth the effort? Imagine how our community and elected officials might talk, think, and collaborate around solutions, if we saw homelessness as a situation rather than an identity. So the next time you hear yourself describing a person as homeless you might consider a self-correct and say instead experiencing homelessnessand then tell the person you are speaking with why you are making the change. If the members of LWV of Manatee County join Kathleen Cramer in using different words, perhaps we can help begin a new era of finding solutions in our county.
Dr. Barbara J. Ehren was a professor in language and literacy at the University of Central Florida and remains a language enthusiast. https://en.wikipedia.org/