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Why I Hate "the Homeless" | By Tom Durkin

Actually, I don’t hate homeless people at all. Some of them are friends of mine, and many of them are no longer homeless.


Hell, I’ve been homeless myself. Several times. (And no, I don’t want to talk about it.)


What I hate is the expression “the homeless.”


The late, great U. Utah Phillips – folksinger, social activist and former homeless person – said it best: "They are not the other. They are us."

We –homeless people – are not objects. Homeless defines our current condition in life, but it does not define who we are individually.


We are people. Just like you. Don't objectify us; don't make us different from you.


After all, as another late, great folksinger, Phil Ochs, said, "There but for fortune go you or I."


I never thought I’d be homeless – until the sudden day I was. (And I don’t want to talk about that either. Everyone has a different story on how we became homeless.)


Call us homeless people, homeless individuals, homeless neighbors or even homeless assholes, if you are so inclined. Just don't call us “the homeless.”

Don’t deny our humanity.


Homeless is an adjective, not a fucking noun.


After I got out of my last homeless episode, I volunteered to work at Hospitality House homeless shelter. I was quickly hired as a staff monitor, a job I held for about four years. I got to know the incredible diversity of homeless people.


Even though I was in charge and had to exercise some tough love at times, I never thought of the guests as “them.” They were always my people, and I was there to protect them, serve them and teach them how to end their homelessness. I considered myself a role model. A flawed model, true, but a model nonetheless.













None has answered me nor have they changed using that easy, demeaning cliché.


People tell me I’m obsessed with political correctness. They say it’s a distinction without a difference, and that I’m quibbling over a minor point in grammar.


I’m not obsessed with political correctness. I already said you could call us homeless assholes. What more do you want?


There is a distinction with a difference between an adjective and a noun. In “homeless people,” homeless is an adjective; it describes an unfortunate life circumstance. In “the homeless,” homeless is a noun; it makes the homeless “them,” “the other,” not “us.”


Language has nuance. And in this case, how we describe each other either divides us or unites us.


Why else are the media suddenly saying “sex trafficking” instead of “prostitution”? Because how we describe problem determines how we perceive it.


Our “homeless citizens” unites us. “The homeless” divides us.


I challenge writers and editors (and everybody else who really should have the compassion to know better) to consider the subliminal impact of their words. Are you going to continue to use your words to insidiously divide this community or subtly remind us that we’re all in this together?

Meanwhile, I’ve been fighting this seemingly hopeless semantic battle for many years now with my colleagues, other social welfare agencies and pretty much anybody who would listen to me. Very few people got it, much less stopped saying it.

I’ve privately written reporters and editors, asking them to stop using the term “the homeless.”

Photo: "On the Curb" © Tom Durkin
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