Homeless Vocabulary

Homelessness has it’s own set of words and phrases, particular to the homeless industry.

All words have a dictionary definition, and a common use definition. In the next few posts I will focus on the words and phrases used in the homeless industry, give them good definitions, and then discuss some of their misuses.   And I guess we can begin with the word, “homeless“.

I think George Carlin said it best, “‘Home’ is an abstract concept.  What these people are is ‘houseless’.”

    “Home is where the heart is”
    “Home is where you hang your hat”

Neither of these cliches indicate “a stable living abode”, which is important, given that the basic definition of “homeless” is “being without a stable living abode.”

You will find varying definitions of the term “homeless”, created by agencies within the homeless industry. Sometimes these definitions contradict each other.  But mostly, the definitions of “homeless” are designed to support an agency’s particular agenda concerning homelessness.

It should be said that an abode need not necessarily be a house, it could also be an apartment, a hut, a teepee, a cave, etc.  The crucial point is not the style of the structure but that the person in it has the free or legal right to remain there and do as he sees fit within its confines.  If a person has no such place, no access to such a place, then he is ” homeless.”

We should not confuse “street people” with “homeless” people.  They are not necessarily the same.  There are many people who live on the streets who do have a home, but they choose to not live there.  They are not homeless.  For some, the amenities afforded the homeless are actually better than what they receive at home.   That’s not to say that things are good for the homeless, but actually that conditions at home are that bad.

Things certainly do get messy, though, when people go about trying to define for others what is a proper and legal “abode”.    A man buys a piece of property, he gathers up scrap wood, he builds himself a shack on the property he owns.  Then government officials tell him that he cannot live in the shack he built.   That is because the government has set standards on what constitutes legal housing, and  how such a home must be built.   Several times recently, a person who owns a large tract of land has given homeless people permission to camp on their tract, only to have their neighbors complain and the local government stops them from letting homeless people camp on his own property.

Through out history there have been homeless people, but in the context of what we call and define homelessness today, it mostly came about by way of “Urban Renewal“.   Prior to urban renewal, people were living wherever they could arrange a place, and everyone was fine with that.  For the poor, urban areas usually offered housing they could afford and employment too.  For the poor, employment and housing often came together.   If a person was hired to work in a stable, there was usually a room attached to the stable that he could live in.   As cities grew outward, and the people with money moved farther and farther away from the city, the urban property they owned began to fall into disrepair.

In the United States, local governments, under the guise of Urban Renewal, began taking over private property for city projects, or forcing property owners to drastically rebuild. This had the result of displacing many people who lived in urban areas.  Another of the effects of urban renewal was that the cost of urban property skyrocketed, (look up “gentrification”) making it nearly impossible for poor people to continue living in urban areas.   Many of the poor moved on to other places, often to the country where housing was cheaper.   BUT many of the poor were too poor to move and they became the first of our modern day homeless.

 In response to this newly created homeless population, cities began creating low rent, government subsidized, housing units within urban areas for the poor.  But these “projects” were usually poorly managed and maintained and so they became places of centralized poverty and crime.   Yet, not everyone could get into the projects, and they too became homeless.  As the projects fell into disrepair and became infested with crime, some people chose to live homeless instead, because it was safer.

Urban renewal has been in practice in the industrialized nations since the 1800s, but it hit its peak in the 1940s and 1950s.   The first rescue missions emerged around 1900 in the larger cities, but by the 50’s even mid-sized cities had rescue missions. I was during this period that christian religious organizations took a keen interest in the plight of the homeles.   This involvement in homelessness by Christian groups changed the dialog concerning homelessness from that of poverty and illness to one of sin and religious conversion.  Sadly, over the past 60 years, the christian influence on the homeless industry has not resulted in any direct improvements in the lives of the homeless.  Homelessness has only grown worse since church organizations have claimed social responsibility for the homeless.  Thankfully, now the Federal government and HUD is redirecting the conversation about homelessness back to more practical cures.

in recent years other factors have played a part in the homeless population growth – other than urban renewal.  Economic disparity is half of the problem, but the proliferation of drugs and the addictions that follow, and the lack of care for the mentally ill is responsible for the other half.


About Kevin Barbieux

I have been diagnosed as being chronically homeless. I write about my experiences and opinions of being homeless
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