By Jordyn Roark, BSW candidate, University of North Carolina at Pembroke
Let’s begin our discussion of person-first language with an example.
You walk into an office and are asked for your name and address. You reply that you don’t have an address. The secretary looks confused and says, “You must have an address. Where do you sleep?”
You cringe and restate that you do not have an address. The secretary fumbles through some papers, lets out a strained breath, and finally looks up to state: “We need an address in order to move forward.”
You say you’re sorry, but you don’t have anywhere that you live right now, you kind of just “bounce around.”
The secretary stares for a second and then with a voice that is just a little too loud, asks, “Oh, are you homeless?”
The others in the office try to stare at their phones and magazines as you swallow and with all that you have in you, reply, “yes.”
The secretary walks to an office within earshot and says, “Excuse me, we have a homeless person here and I need to know how to handle the address requirement.” You look at the floor, embarrassed.
In just two words, the secretary defined you. Your very existence was defined by the temporary situation you are experiencing. You feel uncomfortable and anxious. You feel as if all eyes in the room are on you. You nervously say that you have to leave to go handle something, but that you will come back.
You never do.
Defining individuals by their homelessness creates a separation between dominant society and those individuals experiencing homelessness. It omits any identification of an individual’s strengths or experiences. It further marginalizes people who are experiencing homelessness, and allows biases and stereotypes to flourish. When we use language that puts the condition before the person, we are defining students by a (hopefully) temporary situation. We may unwittingly be perpetuating societal stereotypes and shame, which can create reluctance among those needing services.
In an effort to stop this marginalization, person-first language began to be utilized on homelessness, and has since created a more inclusive environment. Person-first language does what it says; it puts the person first. It is based on the idea that sentence restructuring can bring dignity to those being discussed. Person-first language is not being used nearly enough regarding homelessness. It’s time for a shift: a movement to put the individual first, and the experience of homelessness second.
“Homeless child” becomes “a child experiencing homelessness.”
“She is homeless” becomes “She is experiencing homelessness.”
“Those with lived experience” describes individuals who have experienced homelessness.
It doesn’t necessarily matter how you make this shift or the particular language that you or your agency chooses, as long as you are putting the individual first and the experience second. This shift is vital. We respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It’s time that we reflect that through our language.
As a person who has first-hand experience both as a client of programs for youth experiencing homelessness, and as a provider of services, I ask readers to make a pledge to give those we serve the dignity they deserve and put them first!