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Just words?
July 18, 2013

Just read a Salon.com post about how we refer to immigrants without official approval to live, study or work in the United States. You know, what we used to call “illegal aliens.”

That term has fallen from favor in many circles, and even its more politically correct substitute, “undocumented workers,” is now thought to paint this group of immigrants as job competitors with those born in this country. Ascending terms include “aspiring citizens” and “new immigrants,” considered to be less fraught, more inclusive.

It’s a good article but immigration politics isn't my point here, but it illustrates one of my favorite topics--the power of word choice.

What comes to mind when you hear the word “homeless”?

Sometimes the word is used an adjective: “That homeless guy on the corner with the sign.”

Sometimes it’s a collective noun: “Why are there so many homeless around here?”

Yet people are not characteristically homeless in the same way they might characteristically have blue eyes, stand 6 feet tall or hail from Minnetonka. And they’re certainly not interchangeable parts of a whole – as if one person experiencing homelessness is the same as another.

Even organizations that serve people experiencing homelessness are often called homeless agencies or homeless providers, writes Joel John Roberts, CEO of PATH, in a recent Huffington Post piece. He proposes the term “home center” because his organization spends more time on moving people OUT of homelessness and towards home.

Big problem, big solution

Roberts admits home center sounds kinda big box-y. But hey, homelessness is a big problem, and it takes all the tools on the shelves to create the big-picture way to end homelessness. It sure took many years and a lot of poor public policy and funding decisions to grow homelessness to its current level, he notes.

That big-picture solution is to marshal resources to move people experiencing homelessness into homes, and to provide whatever support they need to stay there and thrive. This is called the “Housing First” approach and that’s our philosophy at Beacon. Supportive housing allows individuals and families with persistent barriers to stability find, and keep, homes where they’ll thrive, return after work, be safe, enjoy family and friends. You know, just live.