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Why Experts Are Changing How They Talk About Homelessness

What’s wrong with the old ways of discussing “the homeless?”

A man folds up his tent in San Lorenzo Park as a work crew picks up trash at the benchlands behind the Santa Cruz County Building. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

Alicia Kuhl lives in her RV with her three kids and her partner. She says it bothers her when people tell her she should skip town, “move away some place cheaper” or “just leave.” 

The longtime Santa Cruz activist says those who challenge her to get out simply don’t understand the position she’s in. Although she sometimes criticizes the city she calls home, Kuhl says she can’t think of anyplace else she’d rather live.

“You lose more than people think. You would be uprooting your entire life and everything that you’re used to,” Kuhl says. “And sometimes it’s not about saving a little bit of money. It’s about more than that. We need to have places where people can afford in the town where they live, where they’re working, where they’re serving their community—until they can afford a place to live there.”

That’s why—although Kuhl knows she’s part of the homeless population—she feels the reality behind her status is more complicated. She does have a home, she says. Her home is Santa Cruz.

It is for all these reasons that Kuhl prefers to think of herself—and those like her, who don’t have a permanent place to stay—as “houseless,” or “unhoused,” as opposed to simply “homeless.” Kuhl and many experts on homelessness say that, when community members are careful to use more humanizing language, it can lead to better discussions around the crisis

In addition to “houseless” and “unhoused,” there’s another emerging way to talk about those who don’t have houses that’s picking up momentum. And it’s one that Kuhl has also come to embrace.

“People experiencing homelessness” is a term—embraced by the nonprofit world and local governments—meant to put more focus on the individual and take the stigma out of the crisis that they’re in. Over the past few years, the phrase has become part of the vocabulary of Santa Cruz County and Santa Cruz city officials and at organizations across the region. 

Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers says she started using the term “people experiencing homelessness” in 2018 after hearing it on the campaign trail. She tells GT that she appreciates the phrase, because she knows people can start experiencing homelessness for a variety of different reasons.

Former Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane, currently vice president of the Housing Matters board of directors, says he first heard the term several years ago. He remembers it immediately resonating with him as a way to chip away at the vague label known as “the homeless,” a catch-all that he feels is too vague to be helpful. 

“As soon as you are homeless, you get that label. It’s like your whole place in the world and your relationship to everyone else changes,” he says.

Lane says the term “person experiencing homelessness” communicates that homelessness includes a multitude of individual stories and a range of experiences.

“For some people, it’s a very quick but horrible experience. And for others, it’s a very deep trauma that lasts years. You can pretty much count on someone who’s been homeless for 20 years having a deep well of trauma in their life,” he says.

Lane says he has found that, generally speaking, people use language that reflects their values—for better and for worse. For instance, if someone believes that those who sleep outside are fully to blame for their own plight, they will choose stigmatizing language that justifies their own worldview, he says.

Lane can also appreciate the intention behind the term “houseless.” His only reservation about that particular alternative is that, if “houseless” becomes the widely adopted option, it could one day just become the new label, eventually even developing the same blame-oriented stigma that he believes “homeless” connotes. In the meantime, however, Lane likes how the mere act of someone choosing a different word like “houseless” can force someone to stop and think about the root of the problem, and about how to solve it. In order to help someone exit homelessness, you have to help them find housing and give them the support they may need to stay in that housing, he says.

At the moment, Santa Cruz is in the middle of several pivot points on homelessness. The River Street Shelter is closing permanently, and the city is working on a new ordinance specifying when and where people may sleep outside. The City Council is scheduled to have its third vote on that matter Tuesday, April 13.

There are also less contentious and more positive developments happening around homelessness. Construction on a seven-unit housing project across the street from Housing Matters has broken ground. Additionally, Housing Matters and Envision Housing are finalizing plans for a new city-approved 121-unit permanent supportive housing complex on the Housing Matters campus. Most of the complex’s residents will have Housing Choice Vouchers, issued by the Housing Authority of Santa Cruz County, to help them cover the rent.

This type of voucher may sound unfamiliar. That’s because many have historically known these Housing Choice Vouchers by another name—Section 8.

Even that phrase has problems, says Phil Kramer, executive director for Housing Matters. Kramer says he favors the term “Housing Choice Voucher.” He says he’s stopped using that term “Section 8” altogether, citing a long history of classist, anti-Section 8 policies designed to keep low-income renters and people of color out of affluent communities. What’s more, “Section 8” became a not-so-thinly-veiled slur over time, according to reporting by the Washington Post and research from institutions like the University of the District of Columbia

Local Housing Authority Executive Director Jenny Panetta says she fully understands that people would prefer “Housing Choice Voucher” over “Section 8.” 

“Words have power!” she tells GT via email. 

Panetta adds that one reason she prefers the term “Housing Choice Voucher” is that it better reflects the program’s purpose and philosophy. The program’s federal rental subsidies let renters search for housing of their choice on the private market, instead of limiting them to public housing, which the federal government has built very little of since the 1970s.

All these shifts in how experts talk about housing and homelessness have happened in parallel with discussions about the language around other topics, public health included. 

In recent years, local groups like the Harm Reduction Coalition and SafeRx have pushed for vocabulary that takes the stigma out of drug dependency. They’ve advocated for language highlighting the fact that addiction is a medical condition. These changes include using the term “people who use drugs” instead of “drug addicts” and “substance use disorder” in place of “drug abuse.” 

Kristen O’Connor, a nurse and treatment specialist at Santa Cruz Community Health Centers, says that, although words like “addiction” and “drug abuse” are common in everyday conversation, such language can stigmatize those seeking treatment and put up barriers to recovery. 

When it comes to homelessness, news organizations like Associated Press have also taken steps to be more careful in their syntax. Last year’s edition of the AP Stylebook even featured a blurb on homelessness. It states that the word “homeless” is still “generally acceptable as an adjective to describe people without a fixed residence.”

But the guide also cautions against using the word to describe a group of people in a way that would imply that they’re some kind of a singular monolith.“Avoid the dehumanizing collective noun the homeless,” the Stylebook states, “instead using constructions like homeless people, people without housing or people without homes.”

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Anna Vaage

    April 21, 2021 at 6:47 pm

    “Unhoused” is apropos. The passive form points to the collective than individuals. The market rate for a studio apartment in Santa Cruz County is now a whopping $1,750. A person has to make $35/hr or $72,800/yr to afford a single room. So tent cities it is.

  2. Don Honda

    April 16, 2021 at 3:29 pm

    It’s interesting that Alicia Kuhl is against the word “homeless.” Her FB page is entitled “Santa Cruz County ‘Homeless’ (Yes, it says Homeless) Advocates/ Santa Cruz County Homeless Union.”

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