The journalistic field is slowly reckoning with the power of word choice when it comes to reporting on people without permanent housing. Credit: Pete Rosos

Throughout my reporting for The Oaklandside on local housing and homelessness issues, readers and community members have raised an important question.

Why, and when, do we use the word “homeless”? Is there another term that’s more accurate, or thoughtful? How do people in these communities describe themselves, and want to be described by others?

It’s a question I think about a lot in this role. The language we use to refer to the more than 4,000 people in Oakland who don’t have a permanent, indoor place to sleep matters. For decades, journalists have contributed to the over-generalization of unhoused people, and stigmas against them, by using sweeping terms like “the homeless” that distill someone’s entire identity down to the fact that they don’t currently live in a house, or words like “transient” that carry negative connotations.

At The Oaklandside, we try to not make those decisions on our own, listening instead to community members about the language they feel reflects and represents them. Recently, I’ve been asking several of my sources on the homelessness beat—unhoused Oaklanders, people advocating for them, and people who belong to both groups—what they think about how they’re described in news reports. I’d like to share some of what I’ve heard, and how our newsroom is thinking about these issues.

“We do have a home—my tent is my home,” said Tiara D. Swearington, whom I met up with the other week at the Athol Plaza tennis courts, where she lives with her sister and about 10 others. “We’ve got a kitchen, we’ve got a bathroom,” she said, gesturing to the group’s charcoal grills and portable toilets. 

Swearington, who grew up housed in Berkeley, said that many people who use the word “homeless” are referring to much more than the fact that people like her sleep outdoors. “I’ve gotten people who say, ‘You don’t look homeless,’” she said. “Well, what does homeless look like? This is just my living situation, not my mental state.”

So, Swearington has come up with a new term: “urban camper.” (Make sure you emphasize the “urban” part, she told me, joking that wilderness threats of bears and avalanches require far less resourcefulness to defend against than much of what her community encounters in Oakland.)

Our general newsroom approach is to defer to how people we interview identify themselves, not only with housing status, but with other aspects of identity, like gender or disability. But it’s not always possible to ask—and that still leaves the issue of what wording to use when we’re covering how, for example, how a hotly contested new city encampment policy will affect the entire population of “homeless” or “unhoused” people. 

“This is just my living situation, not my mental state,” says Tiara D. Swearington, who identifies as an “urban camper.” Credit: Natalie Orenstein

There are also times when we prioritize accessibility and clarity. A few months ago, I reported on the settlement of a lawsuit directing the California Department of Transportation to reimburse homeless people whose belongings the agency unfairly took and destroyed during encampment sweeps. This was a “news you can use” story, helping unhoused people understand how to file a claim. In the online story, we used the word “unhoused” in the headline, but when we printed fliers with nuts-and-bolts information from the story to hang near encampments, we wrote, “Are you homeless in the East Bay? Caltrans might owe you money.” We wanted to use a word that was immediately recognizable, in case someone read the newer term “unhoused” and, not being familiar with it, assumed it didn’t apply to them. 

In fact, the majority of the people living on the streets who I know and have interviewed (both in this role and at my previous job at Berkeleyside) self-identify as “homeless.” For that reason, and for clarity’s sake, it’s a word I use often in my reporting. But it’s not appropriate in every case: for some, the term feels insensitive or simply inaccurate. 

At the West Oakland Wood Street encampment, Mavin Carter Griffin has coined another creative term: “curbside community,” emphasizing the people living in these camps, not the set of tents and structures there. While I couldn’t connect with Griffin for this piece, she has explained to other outlets that she wants to push back against the stigma of homelessness, using words that better reflects the communal reality of living in an encampment. “We’re very neighborly, we interact with people, we’re nobody’s problem,” she told CBS in December.

But sometimes these terms can take on an unwelcome new life of their own, warned Talya Husbands-Hankin of Love and Justice in the Streets, a group supporting unhoused communities in Oakland. 

“I personally have seen the city co-opting the language of advocates and unhoused people to create policies that criminalize folks,” Husbands-Hankin told me recently. The phrases can become euphemisms, sanitizing what’s at stake.

While homelessness is just one of the many intersecting issues we report on at The Oaklandside, there is a newspaper in the East Bay dedicated to the experiences and needs of houseless communities, often reported by homeless journalists and sold by unhoused vendors. 

“You won’t see the phrase ‘the homeless’ in Street Spirit,” said Alastair Boone, the editor-in-chief of the publication. “You won’t see anything about ‘vagrants’ or ‘transients.’ It’s easy to play into narratives that have been around forever, that homeless people are just lazy addicts who don’t want to work. One way to disturb that stereotype is to use language that makes you think about the person involved.” That’s all the more important when covering a rapidly growing homeless population, she said; you can’t accurately generalize about a group of people numbering in the thousands.

The broader journalistic field is slowly coming to a similar conclusion. This year, the Associated Press’s style guide—a bible for some reporters and editors that sets the terms for consistent writing on everything from when to abbreviate state names to how to describe protests—told publications to stop using the term “the homeless.” (The Oaklandside largely looks to the AP for guidance, but we sometimes come up with our own rules, especially on uniquely local or sensitive topics.)

Homeless is generally acceptable as an adjective to describe people without a fixed residence,” the 2020 AP guidelines say. “Avoid the dehumanizing collective noun the homeless, instead using constructions like homeless people, people without housing or people without homes.” According to the Columbia Journalism Review, this change is part of the AP’s overall shift to “person-first language,” emphasizing the person you’re describing instead of a singular aspect of their identity.

Another “person-first” alternative to the term “the homeless” sometimes comes up in conversations about homelessness: “people experiencing homelessness.” It’s not a phrase that Street Spirit uses to the exclusion of all others, noted Boone, and neither do we. While it speaks to the temporary aspect of houselessness, it’s certainly a mouthful, and therefore a choice some readers might find inaccessible in its own way. 

Another word I don’t use much? “Unsheltered.” That term is often used colloquially to refer to the entire homeless population, but in city- and county-speak, it refers only to a subset of that group: people who aren’t consistently sleeping in places like city-run homeless shelters. Because of the differing definitions, I tend to stay away from it.  

Clearly, no one approach resonates with everyone. Boone said that while many of Street Spirit’s vendors and writers reject the term “homeless,” others “identify with the word and kind of like the culture around homelessness” in Oakland and Berkeley. That’s why I look to my sources as a guide when writing about their diverse experiences and perspectives, asking directly, whenever I can, how they’d like to be identified.

To Boone, there is great potential in thoughtful language and writing about homelessness. One of her goals with Street Spirit is to “foster an empathetic relationship between homeless people and the general population,” as part of a solution to the crisis. “The quickest way to change political will is to change the will of the people,” she said. 

And, honestly, the best way to foster that kind of understanding is not always going to be through a housed reporter writing news stories read primarily by other housed people. That’s why, in addition to our daily reporting on these critical issues, we’re trying to feature more writing from community members who are directly impacted by the policies and experiences we cover. 

Check out our new Amplify Oakland project, and, if you’re unhoused or have another experience you’d like to share through this platform, send us a note. Either way, you can always reach me at natalie@oaklandside.org. I’d love to continue this conversation and continue learning from Oaklanders who understand what’s at stake.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie grew up in Berkeley and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.