“The Homeless”… We hear that phrase all the time. It’s even part of the names of some organizations created to fight homelessness. But at Talbot Interfaith Shelter (TIS), there is something about those words just makes us cringe. We humbly suggest doing away with that phrase and replacing it with the term “Homeless People.” Here’s why:
We as a society attach such a negative stigma to homelessness. There is an assumption that the majority of homeless people are mentally ill or drug addicts. Our mindset is often that, if someone is homeless, it is the result of something they have done – bad choices, laziness, etc. – and that they deserve whatever has happened to them. When we refer to them as “The Homeless,” we don’t have to think of them as people. We remove their humanity, and it makes it easier to ignore or dismiss them. It is simpler to see them that way – then we don’t have to think of homelessness as something that we need to help fix, and we certainly don’t have to think of it as something that can happen to us.
In reality, addicts and those with severe mental illness make up a relatively small percentage of the homeless population. It is much more likely that people will become homeless because:
- They have lost their job.
- They cannot afford housing.
- They are escaping domestic violence.
- They have aged out of the foster care system.
- They have been kicked out of their homes because of their sexual orientation, or because they have become pregnant and/or are in a mixed-race relationship.
- They have a chronic illness or injury.
- They served in the armed forces and did not get the support they needed when they returned home.
- They have experienced a death in the family or a breakdown of the family unit.
When we look at homelessness in this way, it’s much more difficult to dismiss it as something that has nothing to do with us, or that can’t happen to us. We can easily put ourselves in the shoes of those who are experiencing homelessness.
At Talbot Interfaith Shelter, we like to say that “homeless” is an adjective, NOT a noun. It describes someone’s situation, but it does not define who or what they are. Homeless people are just that – PEOPLE – and homelessness is simply the lack of a roof over one’s head. It is not something that automatically identifies someone in any specific way.
If we are going to fight homelessness in our society, we must first change the perception of what it looks like. By eliminating the phrase “The Homeless” and instead saying “Homeless People,” we can start to change the conversation. We can begin to humanize homelessness. We can work to create solutions that don’t include criminalization and lack of compassion, but rather address the root causes and acknowledge the individual challenges of those who are struggling with homelessness.
And then maybe, just maybe, fewer people will be defined by the fact that they are homeless, and more will be able to become “Formerly Homeless People,” “Working People,” “Financially Stable People,” and “Successful People.” But first, we have to acknowledge that they are people.
Jayme Dingler is the Marketing and Development Director at Talbot Interfaith Shelter.
To learn more about how TIS helps “Homeless People” in our community by addressing their individual challenges, call Julie Lowe at 410-310-2316 or visit talbotinterfaithshelter.org.