“For a short time I was a homeless person. I emphasise the word “person” for in many people’s eyes that is what you cease to be, even to some of those who should know better (the ones who daily attend seminars and meetings, discuss case histories etc). They speak only of the homeless. The homeless what? Cat, dog, mouse! Jesus will you look at me I am a person.”
Paddy Gallagher who worked in Trust for twelve years
Stigma is one of the greatest problems facing people who are homeless. Because of it, people may feel afraid to talk to someone who they think is homeless or on the street, they may not want to shake hands or swap information about themselves, or they worry if a person who appears to be homeless talks to them.
When people are afraid of any group, they often employ a set of language to define them. Pejorative words like “wino” and “dosser” are sometimes used to describe people who are homeless in an effort to isolate them and to remove the need to confront the problem of homelessness. They infer that the homeless person is an alcoholic or too lazy to work. These words attempt to sum up a person in one word and ignore the complexities of the human being and the human spirit.
Soft words like “client” or “customer” can distance us from people needing help. They also lull us into a false sense of security that people who are homeless are being cared for to the best of society’s ability.
These words also give the impression that the person who is homeless has the same rights as a consumer. This is not the case. They infer that someone who is homeless has the same power as a customer or a client has of, say, a bank or a department store.
If they were genuinely treated as “client” or “customer” they would have a say in the level of service they receive. Yet the person who is homeless, who pays for a hostel bed or avails of a service, has little or no say in how they are treated, or what type of facilities they receive.
The use of nice acceptable language can be even more distancing than the simple meaningful words we have come to consider old-fashioned.
In short, someone who is homeless has little or no power and that is exactly what a “client” or “customer” has. For people who operate in the mainstream, it is possible to exercise the power of choice, to take your money elsewhere or to voice a complaint which will have an effect.
Many people who are homeless are already disempowered because of the problems they have which made them homeless in the first place. In many cases, they maybe reticent where authority is concerned and fearful that they may not get a bed in a hostel if they are seen to complain.
The language of consumerism used in assessing funding (like “performance indicators”) pressurises services to work only with people likely to be successful – further alienating the homeless person most in need and service providers can be equally lulled into a sense of achievement.
As a society, we need to be more aware of how we use language, to understand its power and to take into account its effect on people who are vulnerable.