Many of us use the term ‘people with lived experience of homelessness’ instead of referring to people as ‘the homeless’. I think the rationale for this is good. It does not make sense to define the identity of another human based on their housing status. I do not define or label my so-called ‘housed friends’ by the fact that they can afford rent or pay mortgages. The state of ‘houselessness’ is a chapter in a person’s history of accommodations — like my own current address — and not a definition of their individuality or identity.
The intent for referring to ‘persons who are experiencing homelessness’ is to separate the individuals from the conditions. There has been an analogous movement in medicine for a long time: it is arguably more appropriate to say a person ‘has diabetes’ than to say a person ‘is a diabetic’: in the first case diabetes is a circumstance, in the second case it might be construed for an identity.
I was in a meeting a few weeks ago and someone said that the proposal on the table would have an adverse effect on ‘people with lived experience of homelessness’. Another person grimaced and recoiled before going on to spew forth a litany of generalizations about these ‘people with lived experience’, in much the same way one might foolishly make universal assumptions about all people who have diabetes. I was taken aback: it was strange to hear someone use terminology originally intended to reduce stigma as a vehicle for stigma.
Then it struck me, the term ‘people with lived experience’ only changes semantics, not attitudes and assumptions. Whether you say people experience homelessness or are homeless, the fundamental question is what you presume and presuppose about the concept of homelessness itself. Psychologically speaking, the influence of our syntax is quite limited here: rejigging the subject and predicate of a sentence does not somehow automatically override the feelings and beliefs we have internalized about the nature of homelessness. Even though the new term grammatically reframes homelessness as a condition instead of an identity, it nonetheless continues to carry the assumptions, biases, and stigmas of its speakers and hearers.
Consider the implications here: the phrase ‘people with lived experience’ can easily be used as a cognitive-linguistic short-cut for an extremely complex set of circumstances. It can be as presumptive as the terminology it was created to replace; it can be as equally typecasting and prejudicial as referring to people as ‘the homeless’, ‘those people’. Given time, a phrase originally intended to reduce generalizations and identity-imputing stereotypes can itself become a plug-and-play term for conventionalizing and pigeonholing. Language is impossible to nail down: any description can become a label, and any label can become a self-fulfilling inference. What these labels mean in society, hearts, and minds is more than the sum of their syntax.
We swim in an ocean of these labels. Terms like ‘vulnerable populations’, ‘high-risk groups’, and ‘low income bracket’ begin as attempts to differentiate people’s circumstances from their personal characters, but they can just as easily grow into new labels for the same old biases. Automaticity sneaks up on us. What do we unconsciously assume about other human beings when we call them ‘vulnerable’? Will the people of the future consider our use of the term ‘high-risk’ to be pejorative?
The point is simply that any word (or sequence of words) can become stigma. No terminology is future-proof. No matter how well-intentioned, sensitive, or ‘politically correct’ it might be, no phrase is guaranteed to remain benign forever. We never permanently solve or reframe social inequities or injustices by simply changing our language: we only adapt our words as best as we can in the climate of interpretations and preconceptions we find ourselves. And our language, being human language, will inevitably be readapted again later.
So let us use words carefully — especially our carefully crafted, institutionally approved terminologies and definitions. These deserve the utmost caution. The more easily a phrase slides from our lips into the ears of others, the more we collectively, en masse, presume to know. May we occasionally dare to forego the temptation to bracket ‘certain demographics’ so that we might, instead, tell longer, more complex stories… stories that even our most grammatically sensitive terminologies leave unmentioned.
Even more important than our words is the manner in which they are interpreted.
We should pay as much attention to what people hear as we do to what we say.