My ears perked up on a call recently when I heard someone talk about “people living homeless.” This was a new phrase for me. I usually say “people who are unsheltered” or “people experiencing homelessness” when I describe people who don’t have permanent shelter. The words we use are important but not the most important part of the work we often do. That said, those phrases contain a few language tweaks to homelessness that I want to point out.
The first is the new emphasis on people. Using phrases like “the homeless” hides the humanity of the person. “People who” or “Person who” centers the person behind the term. There’s also nuance in a person who is “homeless” and someone who is without permanent shelter. A person might live in their car, a tent, or a similar situation. They may not have a house, but they have still created a home. The phrase “people living homeless” goes even further to highlight the active state. Their current existence is homeless, but they are still living. They are still alive and no less deserving of our empathy and support. “Living” also feels less technical and more accessible than the academic “experiencing.”
There’s rich meaning in the words that people use. We also have to be careful not to get lost in that meaning. I am a man whose ethnicity includes people of Latin America. I describe myself as part-Mexican, or more recently, Latinx or Latine. But someone else might call me Hispanic, or Latino, or Chicano, or (in former Mexico) Tejano. These words are interchangable to some people and an insult or inaccurate to others. But there are an endless supply of articles about the distinctions between them. Some people hate Latinx, while others use Hispanic, and still others are in camp Latino. Prior to “Latinx,” some people used “Latin@” as an inclusive way to cover two genders. But there are nonbinary or gender noncomforming people who have Latin American origins too. There’s nuance in all these phrases and in other parts of humankind as well. The LGBTQIA+ community. People with disabilities. The phrases that describe our groups can be as unique and individual as the number of people in that group.
Using an outdated phrase to describe a person or group is often harmless. People in that group rarely take meaning alone from the word that you use to describe them. But taken into account with a person’s actions or other statements, they can say a lot. The search for a “neutral” definition is another artifact of white dominant society. People who are not in the majority must often name their differences using labels that dominant culture gives them.
The scientific approach to naming is like feeling around in the dark while one’s eyes adjust. Precise names that come from the person or group doing the naming can help them get a little closer to who they are. But the people under the microscope of white-dominant scientific inquiry are still people. They themselves are also scientists, not passive objects available for study.
In the wrong context, using an outdated label can be a form of microaggression. They can make a person feel separate from a common or dominant culture. They can feel dehumanizing. An incorrect label can describe a person in a way that does not define them. They can describe an identity that a person doesn’t hold.
Discussions about the best label for a group can also be distracting. It’s not harmful to talk about the labels we use to describe people without permanent housing. It also doesn’t do much to change their situation. Zeroing in on the microaggressions in a person’s life pulls focus from the macroaggressions they also experience.
We are working to improve a person or group’s physical, mental, and material conditions. Policing the language that others use can detract from that work. This is especially true because language change is visible and easy to do. By contrast, solving the underlying conditions can take years of real social change. It’s great to update your own vocabulary, but it can’t be a performance that hides the failure of deeper progress.
rocks and sand
By all means: as you learn and grow, change how you talk about the terms and concepts you use. If someone else asks you about them, explain how you came to use what you use. Don’t be performative about it. What I would focus on less is organizing a movement away from those terms. I can think of one exception: if you are a member of the affected group and the outdated terms are causing harm. People within a group have always sought to understand themselves more clearly. For outsiders, accomplices, and allies, conserve your strength! We can take cues and try to understand their word choices, but we have to go deeper than that.
The story of the rocks and the sand feel appropriate to what I mean. This story is often used to teach an example of time management. Picture a table of rocks, pebbles, and sand. If you want to fit all these into a jar, you might want to start with the rocks. Once those are in, add the pebbles. Once the pebbles are in the jar, finish it with the sand.
What happens when you try to go in reverse order, by adding the sand first? The jar fills up with those little things, and there’s no room left for the larger stones. What happens when we focus first on macroaggressions? We make sure that our attention and focus centers the most important things that need to change.