Your choice of words matters when addressing those without a home.
The language we use to refer to people who don’t have a permanent, sheltered home is important. For years, journalists and society have contributed towards generalising people that are unhoused.
Using terms like “the homeless” or “homeless person” shapes someone’s entire identity and labels them. Basically, othering them.
With over 2 years of running Leiho and working quite closely with vulnerable individuals that don’t have a secure place to live, we hear a lot of them say “This is my home - my tent is my home”. On top of that, a lot of people staying in hostels or homeless shelters also call their accommodation a home. Our favourite is a lovely friend that used to live on the street where he built himself a “penthouse” with cardboard boxes - with every right, reason, and creativity to!
There are better ways to phrase people experiencing homelessness by attempting to humanise them in our everyday conversations rather than identifying them as a “homeless person”.
In this day and age, your choice of words matters, especially for those hearing you describe them.
So, how do we change the way we address those without a home?
For starters, instead of saying “the homeless” or “homeless people” we should be saying “people experiencing homelessness”, “individuals who are homeless” or “those struggling with homelessness”. Just by rephrasing the way you address these vulnerable people, you immediately remove the negative stereotype of “homelessness” and you end up simply describing someone’s state of living. You are humanising that person.
Let’s try that again. So, instead of saying “homeless women”, we should be saying, “a woman experiencing homelessness”, “women struggling with homelessness” or “a woman who is homeless”
Don’t worry. This has been a standard way to describe homelessness for decades and we’ve learnt our lesson too! Have a look at the changes from our very first Leiho bamboo socks labels when we first launched in December 2019 to what they looked like a year later.
Photo of Leiho bamboo socks label in 2019
Photo of Leiho bamboo socks label in 2021
We learned that people are generally quite open just as long as they are being described with respect. However, we can all make a huge difference in people’s lives by just changing our language and the way we speak about them.
Written by Joey Li