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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.

“Joel!”

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.

6 Comments

  1. Kathryn Baer
    Posted May 29, 2012 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    But not all homeless people in the U.S. are Americans–a term we conventionally reserve for citizens. I personally see no problem with the term I just used. "The homeless" is different because it names a group of human beings as if they were objects.

  2. Posted May 29, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    Yes. Just as we can talk about "people living in poverty" or "poor or low-income people," instead of "the poor" (as if they were some undifferentiated mass), so too can we avoid some objectification and use language to better name the problem: thus, "people without permanent homes," "people living on the street," "families living in homeless shelters," "homeless veterans with untreated mental illness," and so on. People lack housing for a range of reasons, and as Roberts observes, to refer to "the homeless" is as crude and distancing as it is inaccurate.

  3. Posted May 29, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    I prefer to emphasize an individual's or group's humanity as in "homeless people," "disabled people," "Mexican people," etc.

  4. Posted May 30, 2012 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    I always am pleased by your articles Joel, because you always try to open peoples Eyes to ways of Changing attitudes that dehumanize us thank you .

  5. Jim
    Posted May 30, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Let me push a bit and say no to Homeless American or a "Homeless Child, parent, veteran." Rather let's say a person who is homeless.Let me push a bit and say no to Homeless American or a "Homeless Child, parent, veteran." Rather let's say a person who is homeless.

  6. Jan
    Posted May 30, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    I do appreciate this blog and so much of what is written, including the parts here about the power of a name and the dehumanizing effect of a label. But I would like to add another layer if I may.

    The term "Homeless Americans" still has the same effect as "the homeless" because it implies a permanency. I am Caucasian, that won't change. To be described as a "Homeless American" makes it sound like a permanent characteristic. I have struggled for the best way to describe clients that my agency serves and the one we think is least dehumanizing is "people experiencing homelessness."

    It doesn't roll off the tongue and it takes up a lot of characters on twitter, but it does put the person first, and it emphasizes the point that homelessness is a temporary state of being rather than a permanent physical characteristic or class to which you belong. It is something happening to them, rather than what they are. Sometimes I further make my point with audiences by using "people currently experiencing homelessness" because the population of humans experiencing homelessness changes every minute.

    Thank you for continuing to post excellent commentary.