Saying ‘People Experiencing Homelessness’ Will Not Influence Change

More support is needed for educational campaigns

Photo of me homeless in Los Angeles almost 22 years ago. I was homeless. I didn’t just experience it!

Let’s talk about homeless people, a.k.a. “people experiencing homelessness”.

Does this messaging — “people experiencing homelessness” — resonate with people unfamiliar with the homeless sector?

The theory behind using the phrase “people experiencing homelessness” is that homelessness doesn’t define a person. But it does. I was a homeless person, and being homeless defined me as a survivor influencing who I am today.

And while the individuals behind the “people experiencing homelessness” movement mean well, the phrase doesn’t sound natural in conversation. My background is in marketing, so I agree that words matter. But for culture to adopt a phrase like “people experiencing homelessness”, it needs to be conversational.

In addition, many in the homeless services sector feel the phrase will de-stigmatize homelessness. But the general population doesn’t say “people experiencing cancer,” “people experiencing poverty” or “people experiencing a lack of education”. So the phrase “people experiencing homelessness” becomes jargon, and jargon does not communicate well.

I have met service providers who will only say “people experiencing homelessness” to the point of making conversations awkward. Even homeless people don’t use the phrase “people experiencing homelessness.”

Perspectives from Homeless People

The more I thought about my own homelessness and use of the phrase “people experiencing homelessness,” the more I found the phrase offensive. Using the word “experience” does not represent the pain I went through or the mountain I climbed to get out of it!

I facilitate an online support group for homeless and formerly homeless people. I asked folks what they thought of using the phrase “people experiencing homelessness.”

Mike who is homeless in New Jersey wrote this:

“When it comes to political correctness, I’m a bull in a china shop. Today’s knee-jerk liberal will often call me a bigot, a racist, and anti-semite, or homophobe all under the pretext that I’m a middle-class heterosexual white man. I’m black (not experiencing excessive melanin), I’m gay (not experiencing same sex attractions), I’m poor (not experiencing a lack of funds)….
“AND HELL YES I’M HOMELESS! But one thing I’m not is a glass jaw. Being all these things doesn’t define me. The totality of who and what I am could never be expressed on a spreadsheet. They are but components to my life. Seems to me more energy, time and effort are spent on sanitizing and making politically correct the very toxic issues that plague the homeless. But when do we actually get help? I don’t often quote the Bible but I’ll make an exception this time: “faith without works is dead.” And so are HOMELESS people without a living wage and home to call our own.”

This is what Rylan said on Facebook:

“I was homeless for three years recently and always referred to myself as such. While I see the point of changing some linguistic references in an attempt to de-stigmatize, in general, PC euphemisms are ridiculous and don’t help any cause to which they’re attached.”

It’s interesting how the views of people working in the homeless sector conflict with the views of homeless people.

Changing Public Opinion

There is a huge need to educate the general public on homelessness. I believe strongly that we will never end homelessness unless we have the public’s support. We need to change wrong impressions. Using the term “people experiencing homelessness” will not make this task easier.

The wrong beliefs people have about homelessness are deep-rooted and extremely hard to change. Inaccurate paradigms continue to be reinforced by pop culture, news media, and nonprofit fundraising materials.

The most popular YouTube videos on the topic of homelessness, viewed by hundreds of millions people, are mostly prank videos. Many of them are horrible, yet young adults get their first impressions of homeless people from them.

Research from a recent Washington Post article states: “the news media’s approach to reporting on homeless people can activate disgust, increasing public support for policies that make it difficult for the homeless to pull themselves out of poverty and get off the street.”

Nonprofit fundraising campaigns fill mailboxes and inboxes with needs-based images and stories. This gives the general public a false impression that homeless people are helpless and just need a meal.

No matter how well-intentioned, a phrase like “people experiencing homelessness” will not de-stigmatize homelessness. Sure, it may make the social services sector feel better. But it doesn’t encompass the varying factors that lead to homelessness. As Jessie sarcastically wrote on Facebook, “People experiencing chronic substance use and co-occurring mental health disorders and homelessness”. Her comment speaks volumes as to why “people experiencing homelessness” does not communicate well.

To change the wrong impressions people have of homelessness, we need more targeted education. Sadly, Invisible People is the only national-level, education-based campaign working to teach people about homelessness outside of the homeless sector. As a sector, we need to be conscious of how our words and actions influence outside views. We need more research and more funding to support educational campaigns. And we need to use messaging that resonates with the general public.