Homeless Americans: What’s in a Name?

By | May 29, 2012

Hello, my name is: HOMELESSI walked down a busy city street, shoulder-to-shoulder with masses of other people scurrying to punch a timecard or make it to a lunch reservation, when I heard my name shouted in the distance.


I stopped, right smack in the middle of the flow of bodies in the crosswalk, spinning a full circle in search of the distant voice with no success.

Why would I risk being hit by a passing car or shoved by a dozen frantic people bustling to their destinations?

Because I heard my name. Such a powerful word. Our names — Jacob, Olivia, Carlos, Joel — can stop us mid-stride, just to find the source of the sound.

Our names connect us to our identities. Some people are named after heroes or favorite family members. A grandmother, a President, a celebrity. The word gives a sense of dignity when it is signed.

Numerous times, however, I have been reminded that naming people “homeless” or “the homeless” is insensitive, almost name calling. I used to think this was just another overly-sensitive, politically correct response from activists who spend their days looking for reasons to complain.

But when I am on the streets talking to a person who is homeless I don’t start the conversation with, “Hey, you homeless person.”

I usually start with, “Hi, my name is Joel. What’s yours?” Because using a person’s name is the respectful thing to do.

How do we instill that sense of respect when we are describing a whole group of people who are homeless on the streets of America? Homeless people? The homeless? Those are the typical, ubiquitous terms.

But if we were describing another group of Americans, would we say the same? The Asians? The Mexicans? We might say, “The homeless need housing.” But would we say, “The Mexicans need housing?”

Usually the politically correct way of describing groups of people is Asian-American, Mexican-American, African-American. But when describing people who live on our streets, we name them by their state of helplessness: the homeless.

It just doesn’t feel right. Especially when we all know a name is a significant part of who we are. A name connects us to a tribe. Often, people who are homeless are also tribe-less, without much connection to family.

I am a Roberts. My name is not very “Asian,” but it is my identity whether I look it or not. My name marks my tribe and engulfs me in a sense of belonging. My tribe has Christian missionary roots in China. The Roberts tribe, with its own roots in Europe and America, wanted to change the world. They jumped on a ship and headed to Asia to preach a message of hope and change. In the process, they changed the life of an Asian boy — me! — by adopting him.

My name possesses deep meaning, strong roots, and is a powerful sign of hope. My name destined me to help tribe-less Americans.

In the process of helping people who are homeless, we must change the way we name them. How about Homeless Americans?

And we should remember the importance of knowing each Homeless American by their real name, whether it is Jacob, Olivia, Carlos… or Joel.