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:
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?