How We Got to "Unhoused"
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I heard a random podcast host refer to “the unhoused” on a thoroughly apolitical podcast recently. It was another data point indicating that, as time has gone on, using “unhoused” as a euphemism for homelessness has reached exit velocity and may well become progressive writ soon. It sucks.
Why is unhoused bad? Because, one, we have a word that already conveys everything that we need to understand about the described condition, and two, because “unhoused”’s stated value is that it destigmatizes a condition that we should want to stigmatize. Everyone knows what homelessness is. We all understand the implications of the word. It conveys a whole world of social and cultural and economic information that we have spent a lifetime processing. And unlike a term like “redskin,” it contains no intentional offense; it’s used every day by people who intend no harm, indeed by many people who intend to end harm. Worse, “unhoused” makes the work of progressive politics harder, not easier. As in so many other evolutions in liberal mores, avoiding the word “homeless” is ostensibly a matter of avoiding stigma. But homelessness should be stigmatized. The homeless should not be made to feel attacked or insulted. But the social ramifications of homelessness should be understood in visceral and emotional terms; it’s the only way to generate a solution to the terrible and preventable problem of homelessness. If any particular homeless person were to express a preference not to be referred to by the term, sure, avoid it in that context - but how often are the people pushing “unhoused” in a position where their words could even be heard by the homeless in the first place?
There are few conditions that inspired reflexive revulsion the way that homelessness does. I have no doubt that, sometimes, this revulsion is for homeless people and not the conditions they are forced to live under, which is unfortunate. But one way or another, “homeless,” like “racist,” is a term that inspires deep emotion, a term that provokes. To give that emotional force away in order to satisfy the bizarre progressive addiction to softening terminology and avoiding anything that feels icky… it’s a terrible strategic mistake. And the conditions of homelessness, the problems with health and hygiene and appearance, will always attract stigma, no matter the term we use. Always. The solution is to end homelessness, not to avoid talking about it in stark terms. Certainly not to protect the delicate feelings of people who will always view homeless people at arm’s length, as a theoretical. Besides, there’s every chance that the stigma that is supposedly being avoided will eventually accrue to “unhoused” too, in which case we’re back on the euphemism treadmill - the term “retarded,” after all, was originally intended as a softer and more respectful alternative to terms like “moron” or “imbecile.” You see, some conditions in life are bad, and language can’t save us from them.
I once heard an activist refer to “people experiencing unhousedness.” No joke.
Few recent developments in American politics make me more depressed than the new conventional liberal wisdom that people with mental illness are all uwu smol bean harmless cute quirky free spirits, this version of “normalization” that insists that anyone who is abnormal must therefore not really have mental illness. It lies at the intersection of so many things I hate about contemporary liberalism. But at least there’s this: at least we understand that, for some people, mental illness is intrinsic. At least we know that, until there’s some major new breakthrough in medicine, some people are bound to be mentally ill. That some people just are schizophrenic and will go on being schizophrenic. There, at least, I can squint really hard and maybe make out why some people think it benefits the mentally ill to treat them as blameless fairies whose condition makes them cute and unthreatening. It’s a ruinous way to think, but I understand it. But homelessness, while terribly entrenched for some people, is not an intrinsic condition for anyone! It’s at least potentially an entirely transitory state. And so if you’re worried about the stigma (stigma! stigma! stigma!) of homelessness, your motivation should be to remove people from that state rather than playing pointless self-aggrandizing liberal language games. It’s all so senseless.
Here’s what I’m willing to guess. I’m willing to guess that very few people are actually invested in saying “unhoused” rather than “homeless.” I’m willing to guess that many or most progressive people would read the argument I’ve laid out here and find a lot to agree with. Sure, there are no doubt apparatchiks at nonprofits who have gotten themselves worked up about this issue and activists who are very animated about this topic. But they have to be a small minority. I’m sure most people would just as soon go on saying “homeless.” Because it’s a term that’s true. It’s a word that conveys the sordid depths of the human experience. Here’s the problem, though: once enough liberals start using a term, others will glom onto it, not out of a conviction that it’s more accurate or more humane but because they’re afraid to step out of line. They’re not actually weighing the pros and cons of changing their terminology as I’m doing here. They’re looking out at their progressive peers, noting that everybody seems to be using a new term, and fear the consequences of not doing so themselves.
There’s no liberal executive committee to which one can appeal. (If there was, they would have stopped taking my calls long ago.) There’s just this crowd of people who fall into line with whatever the trend is. And they do so not because they trust the crowd to be right, but because liberals have created such a sick rhetorical culture, such an ambient sense of danger, that they don’t dare seem out of step. They realized at some point that the internet gave them the power to socially destroy people who they perceive to be out of line, and it gave them the incentive of wanting to be the accuser rather than the accused. They built the vampire’s castle. That’s how you get “unhoused.”
Note how our society privileges the symbolic and the abstract over the concrete and material.
This is because it's a lot easier to set up diversity committees or think up new names that gloss over unpleasantness, than it is to address uncomfortable realities and attack entrenched interests.
There is currently a vogue among historians for saying "enslaved persons" rather than "slaves" for similar reasons. It takes a great leap of imagination to believe that someone who sees the word "slave" and somehow doesn't understand that slavery is a moral horror will nevertheless be enlightened by the term "enslaved person."