Always People First
Have you ever thought about how the words you use every day shape your perceptions and the perceptions of those around you? For example, think about the word "homeless." What comes to mind? Maybe someone under an overpass? Someone sleeping on a bench after an all night bender? Someone who is unemployed and unwilling to find a job?
You likely didn't think about a mom living out of a rental car going into Wal-Mart every morning to clean up in the bathroom, do her hair and makeup, and come back out ready for work.
You probably didn't think about the veteran who left to see his daughter graduate only to come home to find all his belongings missing and a notice that he had been suddenly evicted from the boarding house he was living in.
You may not have thought about the mother of six who lost her job after a stroke and had to live in one dirty motel room after another with all six children for several years.
All of these are real stories from the people we serve. Each of them now has a home and a success story to go with it. We recognize each of their individual stories because we know that they are people just like you and me.
This is why we don't refer to those we serve as "homeless people." Each of them is a person who has experienced homelessness. By making the distinction between "homeless" and "experiencing homelessness" we put the person first. Putting the person before the experience, condition or trait avoids marginalization and dehumanization. You are also avoiding the idea of permanency. When someone is "experiencing homelessness" they have the opportunity to overcome their situation to become someone who has "experienced homelessness." This phrasing as opposed to "homeless" is more hopeful towards positive outcomes and does not define someone as their current situation.
This exercise is called people-first language (PFL) and can be applied to many different situations. Below are just a few opportunities to practice using people-first language in your day to day life:
Instead of: homeless
Say: person experiencing homelessness
Instead of: The handicapped or disabled
Say: People with disabilities
Instead of: She's mentally ill.
Say: She is living with (diagnosis). Or, she has a mental health condition.
With April being Mental Health Awareness Month, now is the perfect time to begin using people-first language when describing people who are living with mental health conditions. While language may seem trivial on the surface, it has great implications on the subconscious and the people you are referring to. Remember that every person has a story to tell beyond their situation or diagnosis and by using people-first language you are giving them the opportunity to tell it!