Language is important when we talk about homelessness

Language is important when we talk about #homelessness Click To Tweet

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


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 well-being 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 focusing 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.

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.  

The Facts about Begging

Earlier this year, Victoria’s own police chief claimed that people sleeping rough in Melbourne’s CBD were pretending to be homeless so they could “shake-down” tourists for money, Evidence does not support this claim. A study of people begging in Melbourne’s CBD, conducted by Justice Connect Homeless Law found that: 87% of people begging had a mental illness; 80% were experiencing long-term unemployment and 33% were victims of family violence.  

Making unsubstantiated claims about a person who is begging is misguided and, can encourage antipathy towards already very vulnerable people.  

Media Guidelines for Reporting on Homelessness

The following facts and guidelines aim to assist journalists reporting on homelessness. In a fast-moving media landscape, we hope that these guidelines will make it easier for journalists to deliver balanced, ethical and factual reporting. 


  • Refer to ‘people experiencing homelessness’ not ‘homeless people’
  • Take into account the broader social and economic causes of homelessness (see housing facts below)
  • Include the views of people with lived experience of homelessness and homelessness services
  • Include information about the systemic solutions to homelessness
  • Give a balanced view of the range of homelessness experiences, not just rough sleeping


  • Blame the individual for systemic failures like the absence of affordable housing
  • Use identifiable photographs of people in crisis without their consent (and consider their capacity to consent)
  • Use imagery that perpetuates stereotypes or reinforces inaccurate opinions of homelessness
  • Perpetuate fear of people who are experiencing homelessness (people experiencing homelessness are 13 times more likely to experience violence and 47 times more likely to be the victims of theft)

 Quick facts

How many people are homeless?

  • 105,000 Australians are homeless (ABS, 2011), including 7,000 people rough sleeping
  • Rough sleeping represents just 6% of all homelessness in Australia
  • 42 per cent of all those experiencing homelessness in Australia are under 25
  • 279,000 Australians sought help from homelessness services; 60% of them were women (AIHW, 2015-16)

Why do people become homeless (AIHW, 2015-6)? 

  • Housing: 45%
  • Family violence: 26%
  • Financial Issue: 12%
  • Other relationship issues: 8%
  • Physical, mental health & addiction: 3%
  • Other 6%

Housing affordability and homelessness

  • There are 195,000 households waiting for public and community housing in Australia
  • Newstart recipients receive $268/week + up to $66 Commonwealth Rent Assistance. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Melbourne is $290/week (DHHS, 2016). The median rent for a newly-let one-bedroom property in Sydney is $480/week (Housing NSW, 2016)
  • In Greater Sydney less than 1 per cent of private rentals were affordable for pensioners and those on other Centrelink benefits
  • 590,163 low-income households across Australia are living in rent stress, paying more than they can afford for housing

Working with ‘case studies’.

We understand that incorporating a personal story is often a necessary part of illustrating a theoretical concept.

Please consider whether the person you are interviewing has a good enough grasp of the media to give their informed consent to be interviewed. Also consider whether their current situation might be hampering their ability to give consent.

Don’t presume that they know the reach and potential audience of a newspaper or radio station or of an online article, or the impact publicity may have on their lives.