Homeless People?

What do the definitions we use everyday actually mean and do they accurately portray the truth of something or perpetuate false impressions that are detrimental to the people involved? Do some of these definitions actually lead to an ignorance of the real issues amongst the general public?

I’ve been slightly concerned for a while about the use of the term “homeless people” as for me it doesn’t accurately describe the situation. To begin a discussion on the matter on Twitter I put out this tweet:

There is no such thing as “#homeless people” people experience #homelessness at one time or another but they’re just everyday people. Agree?

Homelessness is not a permanent state as the term implies but rather a temporary one that involves all sorts of different life situations. When we hear the term “homeless people” what is the image immediately conjured up?  Is it loosely connected to the image of a man with a dog, a can of super strength beer or cider and a cap laid out on the floor in front of him, sitting outside a cashpoint somewhere? Is that a correct image? Does it matter?

I would suggest the answers are; no it’s not the correct image and yes it does matter. Why is it not the correct image? Well look at these statistics here from The Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

According to the statistics in 2010:

‘61,000 households (excluding the intentionally homeless) in England were officially recognised as newly homeless by their local authorities.’

‘Just over half of the households officially recognised as newly homeless do not contain dependent children.’ (In other words just less than half of 60,000 households do contain dependent children) – Maybe the immediate image conjured up by homelessness should be of a child? This would be a far more sympathetic image and may galvanise more people to seek to understand the reality of the situation and include themselves in seeking a solution.

Having lived through a period of homelessness myself I can attest to it being a terrible experience though I wouldn’t consider my own experience to have much in common with the stereotypical image.

Mostly, my concern about the term “homeless people” is for the people experiencing homelessness. The term probably signifies in the eyes of many a kind of inferior identity, which if accepted by people having the experience could be said to have the potential to compound the misery and make the journey of recovery so much harder. I have always seen my role within the homelessness sector as encouraging people to move on from homelessness. This is where my passion lies and hence why I write this. I’m not saying I’m right or that I have the answers, just that I get uncomfortable with the terms of reference!

Even within the homelessness sector we constantly struggle with what to call those using the services we provide. In 2000 when I started we generally used the term “client”, later on it became “service user”, probably the most commonly used term. Some now have graduated to the term “customer!” We always try to summarise, always wrestling with our collective conscience and trying make the experience fit nicely into a sentence, paragraph or story. Maybe we shouldn’t! Or if we do maybe the only really genuine term is ‘person’ or the collective, ‘people.’

I’ll end with a choice for anyone reading between two statements:

We’re just people after all

They’re just people after all

Take your pick!




Some of the people in the photo above were experiencing homelessness at the time. Can you spot them?

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About North London Life Coaching

I am a Personal Coach with a particular focus on helping those wishing to bring about positive social change through business. Working in the field of personal development for the last 10 years, I support individuals and organisations that want to make positive change. I have designed and implemented a number of personal development and motivational training programmes within the homelessness sector and between 2007 and 2010 was the Development Director for Network 2012 a social enterprise, business network with the aim of encouraging people who have experienced homelessness to start their own social enterprise or small business. I have a strong passion for social justice, social inclusion and social enterprise
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2 Responses to Homeless People?

  1. Hi Martin,

    First of all, I am going to put my hands up and confess that I am someone who uses the term ‘homeless people’ in reference to people who are currently not in independent, permanent accommodation. I use it because this is the term that is commonly used and understood – it helps me communicate ideas. It is a short term and it is simple and quick to use in speech and in text. I suppose you could argue it is linguistically convenient.

    However, I do accept your argument about how the term may conjure up stereotypical images of homelessness in the minds of others. These need to be challenged. But, I think we ought to consider the potential that a change in terminology may bring. As I’ve reflected on this conversation that was started yesterday on Twitter, I am now wondering if the real work needs to be done in educating and informing the public. After all, if we are saying that the term ‘homeless people’ conjures up inaccurate imagery perhaps it is not the words we need to change, but the meaning that those words have for people. This will happen when people are better informed of what homelessness is about.

    Just one more thought to leave you with from the research that we did: it was interesting to see how the people we interviewed rejected the identity of a ‘homeless person’. They seemed to have in their own minds a stereotypical image of a homeless person which does not fit the image they have of themselves. Perhaps there is more analysis to do on this but I did find it interesting to look at how they adopted and rejected certain terminology.

    Anyhow, those are my thoughts as of today! It would be good to get a few more comments on here to see what other people see as the way forward in this matter.


  2. Thanks for your comments Gareth. I agree wholeheartedly with the view that we need to educate and inform the public and it may even be futile to try to change the terminology. However that doesn’t take away from the fact that it does still need challenging. At times the term “homeless people” also suggests the idea of a “tribe” that is somehow separate from the rest of the community when in fact those in that position in life are very much a part of it. They’re our brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, uncles aunties etc. The other thing the term doesnt reflect is the fragile hold on stability that many people have, one pay check or a relationship break down from an experience of homelessness themselves. The people on the streets are the tip of the iceberg and the figures are difficult to come by but how many of us I wonder are vulnerable to an experience of homelessness, those notoriously difficult to number sofa surfers etc.

    I think the general public are very aware of homelessness, the thought of someone sleeping on the streets without a visible family support system or others to care for them touches a raw nerve for many of us and that is to the great credit of the British Public. Why then do I have this nagging feelng there’s something we’re not getting at here? We are told we live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world yet we struggle to house our population. We also know homelessness is not just about the lack of a roof over our heads. If society is about family whether the ‘modern’ or ‘traditional’ type, the breakdown in that society that leads to the levels of homelessness we live with could be said to be personal and not organisational or structural. May sound a bit dramatic but if we’re losing something here perhaps it’s our souls!

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