Words carry meaning and importance, which is why the words we choose to describe people with diverse experiences make a difference. 

Person-First Language

Person-first language puts the emphasis on the person rather than on their situation, which can be temporary. 

“Any person is more important than the words that describe him or her. So, for us working in the housing field, we make an effort to say ‘people experiencing homelessness’ rather than ‘the homeless’ or ‘homeless people.’” Humility of Mary Shelter

Why is this Language Important?

Yes, it can add extra words to use first-person language. But it also adds respect. 

“Person-first language isn’t great from a writer and editor’s point of view. It uses more words to say something we could say in just two words. But, for us, that negative is worth the positive we gain. For us, using person-first language is actually another way we can help defeat homelessness.” Humility of Mary Shelter

Person-first language helps us:

  • Show respect for the individual 
  • Understand that homelessness can be temporary 
  • Indicate that experiencing homelessness does not define who a person is (Would you say “the cancer people”?) 
  • Counter stereotypes. “The homeless” objectifies people as others who are quite different from ourselves. 

And, after all, we’re all people, not so different at that.
Humility of Mary Shelter

The Right to Self-Definition

Sometimes, people with lived experience will choose to use non person-first language to describe themselves. 

Perspectives from people experiencing homelessness:

“Using the word ‘experience’ does not represent the pain I went through or the mountain I climbed to get out of it!” 

“I’m black (not experiencing excessive melanin), I’m gay (not experiencing same sex attractions), I’m poor (not experiencing a lack of funds)….”

(Source: Mark Horvath)

This choice belongs to each individual. Everyone has the right to use whatever language they want to describe their own personal experiences. However, as people who don’t have these lived experiences, it is important for us to use person-first language. 

What You Can Do

When talking about people with diverse experiences, take a pause and be mindful of using person-first language to describe them. No one is perfect and sometimes you will slip up, but the important thing is that you keep trying.


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