I’d like to share an excerpt from an email I got from my colleague John, Director of Outreach at Bethesda Cares, and a juggernaut about helping people suffering homeless move toward permanent supportive housing. But before I get to his email, I’d like you to take note of what I just wrote: “people suffering homelessness.”
Not, “people who are homeless.“
The distinction is crucial, and not just political correctness. We all know it: the way we speak of people both influences and reflects how we think of them, and that drives our behavior.
Consider someone with an illness. Would you say “Jane is cancerous”? Of course not. You’d say, “Jane has cancer,” or maybe “Jane is fighting cancer.” You’d do because you know Jane, and you know that there is a whole lot more to her than just a medical diagnosis. And you’d want to keep active the reminder that Jane may well overcome this horrible obstacle.
Cancer is not who Jane is. Jane’s a person dealing with cancer.
At Bethesda Cares, we’ve discussed the language around homelessness for several years. The issue boiled over last week, when a woman apparently complained to the police about “the homeless” whom she saw standing outside our offices, ready for our doors to open.
Why were they there? Because they are working toward better lives. They’re seeking access to our caseworkers. And because they need food and the privacy of a bathroom.
Well, that lady wants that standing-outside to stop.
I don’t know whether she’s afraid a client will leap up and snatch her purse, or whether the condition of some of them, after a rough night on our streets, simply makes her uncomfortable. But I can’t help wondering whether she ever complains about the mostly white crowd who gathers outside our nearby Apple store, or the line of tourists queued at Georgetown Cupcake. I wonder what she thinks forcing them to walk away would accomplish. I wonder what she thinks it would do for or to our clients.
I actually don’t really blame her, for her language. Her posture isn’t uncommon and probably indicates ignorance, not callousness. While I worked at a food bank, a teacher once phoned to ask if he could bring his class “to see the hungry.” I’m sure he didn’t realize that “see the hungry” sounded like a field trip to a zoo.
Maybe the teacher, or the complainer, hadn’t had cause to think this issue through. That’s a matter of education, right? Like so many things I’ve written about in this blog, I didn’t know better until I knew better, either. And while it’s an active topic of discussion in the field, it’s not on the front page of the Washington Post.
So here’s a look John’s email, as staff digested the woman’s complaint:
Traditional language: “The people waiting on the steps for our drop-in lobby to open are homeless and in need of assistance.”
Better language: “The people waiting on the steps are very poor, hungry, need access to bathrooms and have no other place to go. They come to us seeking assistance.”
Why am I changing my own language? Because “homeless people” or “the homeless” has become the all-too common stereotype language when referring to our population. The old language puts the people we serve into a stereotyped box together, as if they’re a herd of cattle…animals. As a result, the general public fails to recognize the people we serve for what they truly are: individual human beings with individual needs.
Bottom line: Homelessness is not a person. Homelessness is a situation. The people we serve are human beings, and they have dire needs that are being met by Bethesda Cares. The community needs to see these individuals as human beings who are very poor, hungry, and need our assistance.
Identifying people by their challenges dehumanizes them. A label prevents the speaker from seeing the individuality, the vulnerability and the suffering of the people—of the individuals—simply seeking help. We—you, I, the planet—need to use start using that same sensitivity, that same awareness, in how we talk about and to people enduring homelessness.
I’m pontificating, I know. But changing speech means changing a habit, which requires conscious deliberation, so I’m speaking plainly. And perhaps if that woman paused to shift her thoughts, she might shift her actions, too.