Love Chapel


Homeless? Houseless? Unhoused? What’s the Right Word?

In our work at Brighter Days temporary housing, we are often asked about the appropriate way to talk about housing issues. Rather than just offering a blanket answer, we thought we would take this opportunity to explain why it’s tricky.

You’re probably most familiar with the word “homeless,” but this term has fallen out of favor in recent years, and for good reason. Why? It’s considered “essentializing” language, or to put it another way, it takes just one part of a person’s complex life and makes it their defining characteristic. Instead of celebrating that someone is a mother or a friend or creative or thoughtful, it defines them by a limitation.

Additionally, when you hear the term “homeless,” there’s a subtle implication that it’s something permanent. Your mind likely jumps to certain images or reasons that someone is “homeless,” which is a problem because there’s no single scenario that causes someone to need housing. Like life, it’s complicated—someone may have lost their house in a fire, left an abusive relationship, or missed a rental payment due to an unexpected medical expense.

Answering the Question

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “so, what’s the right term?”

This is where it gets a little more complicated because there’s not a single answer.

One common alternative, however, is to replace “home” with “house.” For example, we might talk about “houselessness” or being “unhoused.” Some people go so far as to say that it’s best to describe someone as “experiencing houselessness,” so that it is clearly framed as an event happening to a person rather than a truth about them. It might be a little clumsier, but using terminology like this ensures that someone is being very intentional and thoughtful in how they describe a person’s needs.

The distinction between “home” and “house” may seem like a small difference, but it shifts our focus in a meaningful way. First, “home” conveys a sense of relationship that shouldn’t necessarily be connected to a building. If you think of home, you likely think of friends and family spending time together. Conversely, “house” is far more pragmatic about the situation—right now, a person doesn’t have a roof over their head. They still have friends, family, and the warmth of relationship, but they have a very practical, very immediate need, and that is what we want to focus on—alleviating the stress of not having shelter. Everybody who visits Brighter Days housing is a whole person, and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with them because they need a place to stay for a while.

In fact, one of the best things we can do for visitors to the shelter is remind them of their dignity and the truth that their situation is temporary. Regardless of the circumstances that led to their need, it is possible to move beyond them toward a sustainable living situation. Our goal is to help give them circumstances that are stable enough for them to get back on their feet.

If this whole post has you second-guessing yourself, or if feels like a matter of semantics, don’t worry. You’ll likely hear Love Chapel staff and volunteers use a variety of different terms. The important thing is to honor everyone who walks through our doors, and we can do that by being thoughtful instead of flippant in our communication. Regardless of which term resonates most with you, we encourage you to reflect on how our words shape our interactions with our neighbors, and we invite you to serve them with compassion.
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Columbus, IN 47201

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