Homelessness 101: Person-Centered Language – What is it?

Sep 17, 2018  |  at 1:23 pm  |  by awright

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Imagine you are driving down the street and you happen to see someone standing on the corner, they may appear to be homeless. What is the first thought in your head? How would you describe them in that exact moment? In most cases, someone would say that is a ‘homeless person.’ Instead of creating the automatic bridge between you and that individual, there is a better way to use person-centered language instead.

What is person-centered language? Person-centered language seeks to focus on the person first, and the disability they may experiencing last. That situation or disability does not define who they are. The way we speak or write about someone greatly influences the images and attitudes we form about them, leaving behind a positive or negative impression for others (Blaska, 1990). So instead of saying a homeless person, you would say that is a person or individual who is experiencing homelessness.

“Our society, in general, likes to put people in boxes because that’s how our brain filters it,” said James Gonzalez, Project Manager at the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston. “And when that happens, you lose sight of who that person really is because you are trying to figure out what category they belong in, instead of understanding who they are.”

A lot of the time, someone may think, “This could never be me, I would never end up in this situation,” and because of this mentality, a barrier is created between you and the person on the street corner. But the reality is homelessness could happen to anyone. Sometimes one paycheck can be the deciding factor in whether there is a roof over your head, or not. The more someone is able to distance themselves from the situation, the less likely they will feel like it could actually be them one day. And the more the situation is avoided, the further away we get from changing anything.

Too frequently, we also get lazy. Sometimes person-centered language cause make sentences longer, more time-consuming to create, and harder to articulate. The easy way out is to use shorthand, or slang. We live in a world where technology has taught us to communicate in the shortest, most simple way possible. But what is adding a few more words to address someone who is experiencing homelessness correctly? These individuals are your fellow Houstonians, they’re your neighbors.

Person-centered language doesn’t just apply to someone experiencing homelessness either. It can apply to someone with a disability too. Instead of saying that is a disabled person, you could instead say that is a person who has a disability. The same applies to someone with obesity. That is not an obese person, it is a person who is affected by obesity. If we allow these characteristics to define an individual, all we are doing is dehumanizing them and further adding to the stigma. And although each of these people may be experiencing something completely different, they all have one thing in common: their disability or current situation does not define who they are.

So the next time you come across someone who may appear different than you, who may be struggling with something you don’t necessarily understand, remind yourself that their current situation is not the entirety of who they are. Take one second to remind yourself that at the end of the day, we are all human beings, and there is more to them than what meets the eye.