(March 19, 1999)

I cringe every time I hear news stories about “the homeless,” and not just because I wish I could wave the magic wand that would provide a warm and comfortable home for every person who wants one. No, what I’m talking about is the expression “the homeless.” Also “the poor” or “the needy.” In my mind I always complete these incomplete phrases with the word “people,” because it’s homeless people we’re talking about, not homeless dogs or rats or canaries. They are men, women and children. Families. They have faces and names, probably living relatives, most likely dreams and goals — even if it’s only for a warm bed and a good meal. “Homeless” or “poor” or “hungry” describes their situation in life, it’s not who they are.

I can’t help thinking that when we leave off the word “people” when referring to persons who don’t have a home, we are allowing ourselves to ignore — at least partially-the problems these people face every day, of finding shelter or food or help for their physical or mental well-being. Make them nameless and they won’t be as much of a burden. Maybe someone or something else — “the government,” “the church,” “the rich” — will help “the poor” until they don’t need any more help.

But of course that won’t happen. Each of us as individuals must do our part to help in whatever way we can and feel is appropriate, whether it be donating time, money, or “things” that are of more use to others than they are to us. As parents we need to teach our children not to ignore poverty, but to work to eliminate helplessness and despair.

Words are important — and powerful tools. Adding the word “people” when we talk about persons who are homeless or poor or hungry is a simple, subtle change to our way of speaking. Yet it also might lead to a more humane way of thinking about homelessness and poverty as we move into the twenty-first century.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.