Hobo? Homeless? Or Houseless?
By Andy Pope
I recently learned that the word “homeless” is no longer considered politically correct among many people currently working in related services. It has been replaced by “houseless” because the word “homeless” has developed “pejorative connotations.”
Arguably, the word “homeless” replaced the word “hobo” because the latter had developed pejorative connotations. Logically, it is only a matter of time before the word “houseless” develops pejorative connotations.
But I am not here to lambaste the concept of political correctness. Personally, I think P.C. is a great idea in theory, but in practice it burns more bridges than it builds.
If this offends my lefter-leaning friends, so be it. I find myself often wishing I could be seen as a person who cares about world peace and social justice without having to get crammed into the liberal “box” — and this is one reason why I am not comfortable identifying as a “liberal” — even though I am more than happy to identify as a “progressive.”
(Another reason is because the word “liberal” has connotations that may suggest a permissive lifestyle, which as a Christ follower is not my bag. “Progressive” works because I’d definitely like to see us build a better, more solid, less divided society.)
To the point, I am not about to change my language. For the past five years, I have been writing profusely and passionately about the homeless experience. My writings include a full-length musical about youth homelessness in urban America, as well as numerous blogs, essays, and published articles. The idea that I need to change my language is almost Orwellian. It is not as though I can pretend that we are suddenly at war with “Eurasia” and not “Europia.”
Also, in case it hasn’t been clear, my homeless rights advocacy is not the result of an unusual and unfounded compassion for those experiencing the homeless condition. I myself was homeless for years in the San Francisco Bay Area. I know whereof I speak from personal experience, and I network with others who have shared that experience. I have been trying to contact my friends from Berkeley, California who have also experienced homelessness, one of whom I have interviewed on this site. Though no one there has gotten back to me yet, I seriously doubt that this fix was effected by a homeless person, or by anyone who has ever experienced that condition.
I did learn in discussing the matter with the graveyard shift worker at the corner store that she had been homeless for several years as well. She told me she knows of no homeless or formerly homeless friend who would identify themselves as “houseless.” She also made the interesting analogy that, although she identifies as “queer,” people who do not share her orientation object to her identification. Of course, having been homeless herself, she knew as well as I do that one of the worst things about living outdoors is that people who lived indoors often told us how we were supposed to identify ourselves.
And yet, when we pleaded with them not to use words like “housed” and “shelter’ in reference to us when we were seeking residence — but to please say “found a place” or “place to live” instead – it fell on deaf ears. Why? Because we were not people. We were homeless people. A person can look can look for a place to live. A homeless person has to look for shelter.
Do you think for one moment than when I left 12 years of homeless and borderline-homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I finally moved to Moscow, Idaho in a successful search for dignified, indoor residence, I told the prospective landlord that I had been homeless? Or that I was looking for “shelter?” Of course not! Think about it! He’d have moved on to the next applicant.
In fact, when I later tried to help an elderly man experiencing homelessness get an apartment in that same complex, the landlord told me: “I’m sorry, Andy. If I let him in, I’ll have to let them all in.”
While the conversation with the woman in the store was somewhat comforting, it did little to assuage my concerns. In fact, I couldn’t sleep till 3 in the morning, and woke up at 5:30 feeling nauseous.
That nausea persists to this moment. But I do want to make a statement in closing. That statement is simply this:
The day when we learn that it is more important to listen to the words of people who have experienced something that we have not, and that it is more important to raise awareness of that condition, than it is to label it with words that we find less offensive or pejorative, that will truly be a very great day.
The problem with political correctness in this instance is that it bypasses the need to actually decriminalize and rehumanize the homeless individual, by choosing a different term that will be “less pejorative” rather than by dealing with the pejorative discriminations and prejudices themselves.
I’m in a lot of pain. What a sorrowful turn of events for Homeless Rights Activism.
Andy Pope is a freelance writer currently residing in Moscow, Idaho, where he is a member of Moscow First Presbyterian Church. His work on social justice has appeared in Classism Exposed in Boston, Berkeleyside in Berkeley, California, and also in the Bay Area newspaper Street Spirit, where his regular column, Homeless No More, encourages those making the transition from homelessness to housing. An accomplished pianist and lifelong musical theatre person, Andy is also the author of “Eden in Babylon,” a musical about youth homelessness in urban America.
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