For some time now, we have been aware of homelessness in our midst. In the 50’s, we called people without homes, “hobos.” The hobos were generally men who we believed chose the free and easy lifestyle of riding railroad cars and doing odd jobs for housed country folk in exchange for sandwiches.
In fact, the lives of hobos were romanticized through movies, including “Emperor of the North,” staring Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine.
Today, the fastest growing segment of the homeless population is families, including single mothers with their children. I don’t know anyone who believes that families choose a homeless lifestyle. There is nothing free and easy about their homelessness. And there are no romantic movies being made about their plight.
However, we housed people now often refer to homeless people by the adjective, “homeless” as if by losing their homes, people lose their humanity and become defined and classified by their economic status. We’ve all read, heard and maybe even said, “There’s a homeless.”
There’s a “homeless” what? A homeless dog? A homeless cat? A homeless person?
I believe that this practice of referring to people merely by the use of the adjective, “homeless,” dehumanizes them. I recommend that we put a noun after the adjective, “homeless,” such as, “homeless man,” “homeless woman,” “homeless youth,” “homeless child.”
Our choice of language is important for ourselves and for the people about whom we are speaking because it reminds us that we have a shared humanity and that realization can awaken our compassion.
We don’t refer to housed people by their economic status. For example, have your ever heard or said, “Oh, there’s a housed.”
But, we do say, “Oh, there’s a homeless.”
My question is: Why does it matter to us whether people have a home or don’t when we’re talking about them?
Recently, a security guard friend of mine showed up with a bandage around the fingers of his right hand.
“What happened?” I inquired.
“When I was standing outside the store I patrol, I told a ‘homeless’ that he had to move along. When I grabbed his shirt, he grabbed my thumb and it got bent backward.”
I wished my friend well and I’ve being thinking about our conversation ever since.
Aside from the fact that perhaps my friend should not have grabbed the person’s shirt, I wondered about his use of language.
Why did it matter that the person he was trying to move along was homeless? Why couldn’t he have just described the person as a man?
Upon reflection, I believe that my friend’s language is common usage today. Watch for it and see if you agree. In even the most casual of conversations, some of us say something like, “A homeless’ did this,” “’A homeless’ did that,” or “There’s a ‘homeless’.”
I believe that there are a number of reasons for our choice of language. At some psychological level, perhaps, we may be angry with homeless people whom we believe have failed to live up to what society requires of them to be housed.
We may also resent that homeless people are living off the benefits of society that we housed people have supplied.
And, perhaps the most prevalent reason for our choice of language is that we may be afraid that, pretty much like feelings of old about cancer, if we speak about homelessness we might “catch it” and become homeless ourselves.
Of course, homelessness is not catching, but in this economic climate many of us, dare I say, most of us are one paycheck away from becoming homeless ourselves. Economic instability creates a great deal of fear in us.
I’m no psychologist, but it seems to me that we are unconsciously transferring our fear of homelessness from ourselves to the visual presentation of our fear, homeless people.
What do you think?
I look forward to your comments.
Thank you, Christine
I couldn’t agree with you more Christine. No one gives a second thought that, that “homeless” person could be them, or someone in their family one day. People don’t realize that a lot of these “homeless” men and woman once held a very well paying job. The economy isn’t any fault of theirs. They didn’t choose to fall on hard times. It is those who look down upon those less fortunate that if it were ever to happen to them one day they would be the first to bite back at someone for referring to them as just a “homeless” man or woman. I am in the process of organizing a not for profit organization to help less fortunate families with children so they can make a fresh start. Hopefully I can get the funding I need. At a time when poverty and government dependence are soaring to unprecedented levels, is it really a bad idea to help those that are hurting so they can achieve financial stability and stop the poverty/government dependency cycle? I believe in one good hand turns another, and those people who are helped are more likely to extend their good fortune to someone less fortunate, helping to end the cycle. Rather than those who turn their heads to the situation.
Christine Schanes says
Thanks for your comment.
I appreciate your insights. And I know from experience that what you write about is true. I particularly liked your thought, “those people who are helped are more likely to extend their good fortune to someone less fortunate, helping to end the cycle.” This is very true.
Please tell us more about your not for profit organization.
“I don’t know anyone who believes that families choose a homeless lifestyle. There is nothing free and easy about their homelessness. And there are no romantic movies being made about their plight.”
I certainly don’t think anyone believes anyone CHOOSES to be homeless, at least no one I know. I do think however that a lot of people still believe that the majority of homeless are that way because of bad decision on their part, as wrong as that is. The unfortunate and sad result of that is that too many people don’t care and the majority of those in need will not get help.
Christine Schanes says
Thanks for your continuing comments.
Do you really think that no one believes that anyone chooses to be homeless? Maybe you’re right. Maybe the people I hear say that some people choose to be homeless, don’t really believe what they are saying. I sure hear lots of people say this.
But maybe, hopefully, your right, that people don’t really believe what they are saying.
Please stay in touch.
The organization is Angels in Disguise. (AID) AID is a not for profit in progress. We are hopeful that we can raise the funds needed to get it off the ground. At AID, we want to give those less fortunate a boost to help them start their life over again. We fully understand that people fall on hard times. That it’s not by choice that they have lost their jobs, have had to take a much lower paying job, lost their house, their savings and everything they own. For that family to be able to save enough to start over again with initial rent, necessary furnishings, etc., statistically will never happen because they are making just enough to pay for a motel room and general necessities that the whole family has to share, or worse, living out of their car because there are no available motel rooms or room at a local shelter. They could be out of that motel room, car or shelter if they had that extra help.
What we will offer is to help them secure safe and affordable housing based on their income. We would help by paying their first month’s rent and security deposit and help them with necessary furnishings and things that their children need for school from a warm bed to school supplies. Showing them how to live within their means will be part of it by offering a mandatory financial class hosted and paid for by AID. Everyone sees the adults out on the streets but what they don’t realize is that a lot of them have children who live on the streets with them. No one wants to separate their family even in hard times like that. Most won’t even give up their dogs and they will feed them before they feed themselves. We need to help these families achieve stability so they feel better about themselves and the children can feel confident in school. It’s all about helping them get a fresh start and boosting self-esteem for the entire family. Right now, we are in the start-up stage. We will have a campaign on a crowdfunding site called Indiegogo very soon. We can use all the sharing of the campaign once it’s posted to be able to reach our goal. Every story starts somewhere and every story should have a happy ending. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to tell you about our organization. It is very much appreciated.
Christine Schanes says
Thank you so much for sharing about Angels In Disguise (AID). Great idea, greatly needed.
Please stay in touch. I would definitely like to share more information about your group and your wonderful efforts as things unfold for you all.
Anytime you have something to say, please say it in response to any/all of my articles because I care about what you’re doing.
I absolutely will and thank you so much again!!