Instead of “homeless”

10 Dec

Last week, I was listening to “Why Some Homeless Choose The Streets Over Shelters” on NPR’s Talk of the Nation (, and I learned a useful new expression: people experiencing homelessness.

I can hear the eye-rolling even as I type this.

Sigh. Fine, Ms Political Correctness, should we now say that you are experiencing Asianness and experiencing womanness, rather than “being” either?

Well, first of all, I’d advise dropping the “should.” There is no rule of naming that is always correct and will thus protect you from ever using language that someone else may object to. Forget the political correctness scapegoat. You just gotta ask, learn, try to say what you have to say, and share the potential impact you may have. (The key there: shared responsibility.)

So what’s the difference between experiencing homelessness and being Asian? I’d say: innateness. Whereas homelessness and Asianness are both social identities (constructed as ways of recognizing groups of people), homelessness is a matter of external circumstance, whereas Asianness is a matter of the body I was born into that won’t change without access to expensive, extensive and rare medical services. And while the body (and mind) I’m born into inevitably impacts my circumstances and vice versa, I think it’s worth considering the distinction between calling someone homeless–as if to say that not having a home (in the conventional sense) is who they are–and acknowledging that she is a person experiencing homelessness right now, and maybe for a long time. Granted, becoming someone who experienced homelessness and is now “with home” can be a daunting and maybe insurmountable challenge, so this is not to suggest that experiencing homelessness is like experiencing college or experiencing fishing.

Again, there’s no perfect language. There is, however, always the opportunity to consider how we say what we’re saying, and what we end up believing through the words we use to name the world around us.

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