Language is important when we talk about homelessness

Although we’ve thankfully moved beyond using the words ‘hobo’ and ‘dero’, we’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to the language around homelessness.

The media has a significant influence on both the way that the public perceives homelessness, and people who are experiencing homelessness. 

In recent weeks there has been increasing coverage on ‘clean-up’ operations in Melbourne’s CBD which target homeless encampments, and the people living in them. Such activities seek to improve the safety and wellbeing of those people sleeping rough, as well as other members of the public. But the way we talk about such activities, and the people they target, is important. 

‘Clearing out homeless camps’ and ‘ridding the streets of the homeless’ are heavily loaded phrases. They bring to mind a vermin control operation. Reports focussing on the disposal of syringes also stereotype the homelessness.

Perpetuating stereotypes about the homeless as drug users, alcoholics, lazy, dirty and dangerous only further stigmatises an already disadvantaged and marginalised group of people. It separates them as somehow different from ‘us’ and suggests that they’ve chosen their lot in life, and don’t deserve our sympathy or help. 

Stereotypes and misreporting, create fear and mistrust of those who are experiencing homelessness.  More often than not, people experiencing homelessness are the victims rather than the perpetrators of violence. People sleeping rough are reporting increased incidents of abuse from the public.

We need to shift the conversation from ‘cleaning up the streets’, to  ‘housing the homeless’. These are people we are talking about, after all, not rubbish that can be swept under a rug. A narrative of ‘waging a war against homeless camps’ puts the homeless squarely in the enemy corner. Poverty and disadvantage are the real enemy.

we don't need to 'clean up the streets' we need to'house the homeless'language is imporant (1)

Blaming people for being poor takes attention away from the systemic issues, like the 33,000 people waiting for public housing, and the thousands of low-income earners being squeezed out of the rental market due to the housing crisis.

The bottom line is, there is a severe shortage of affordable, one-bedroom accommodation. Launch Housing and the State Government this week announced an innovative initiative, funded in part by philanthropists, to build 57 one-bedroom social housing properties on vacant land in Melbourne’s West. We need more of these kinds of solutions that focus on turning off the tap to homelessness by increasing the supply of affordable, permanent housing. In our State Budget submission we call for 10,000 new one-bedroom social housing properties to house the growing number of single people who need subsidised housing. The State Government has made some excellent inroads in the social housing space, including a $120 million social housing pipeline announced in September, but with 33,000 people waiting for public housing, this level of investment has to continue.

Tackling the homelessness crisis requires coordination at local, State and Commonwealth levels of government. It cannot be done without heavy lifting by the Federal Government, which has yet to outline a strategy to tackle Australia’s homelessness epidemic and the underlying housing affordability crisis. 

We can and should feel angry about homelessness and the systemic failure to address the causes, but we should respect and not hate, the homeless.