Tom Durkin: Why I hate ‘the homeless’ |

Tom Durkin: Why I hate ‘the homeless’

Actually, I don’t hate homeless people at all. Some of them are friends of mine, and many of them are no longer homeless. Hell, I’ve been homeless myself. Several times.

What I hate is the expression “the homeless.” The late, great U. Utah Phillips — folksinger, social activist and former homeless person — said it best: “They are not the other. They are us.”

We — homeless people — are not objects. Homeless defines our current condition in life, but it does not define who we are individually. We are people. Just like you. Don’t objectify us; don’t make us different from you.

After all, as another late, great folksinger, Phil Ochs, said, “There but for fortune go you or I.”


I have bipolar disorder. About every three to five years, I’ve crashed and burned. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to start my life over. In between cool jobs and home ownerships, I’ve found myself living in my various trucks and just barely getting by.

From about 2011 to 2014, I worked as a staff monitor for Hospitality House’s nomadic shelter before the transition to Utah’s Place. In 2015, I was looking at living in my car again. Although I had a Housing Choice “Section 8” voucher, I learned that landlords flat out won’t rent to you if you have a Section 8.

It has only been through the precious connections I’d made through Hospitality House and the community that I avoided subsisting in my vehicle again.

I cannot emphasize enough how critical friends and family are. Without them, I’d probably be dead. Once you become homeless, it’s almost impossible to get out by yourself. I did not pull myself up by my bootstraps. I had help every time.


Even though I was in charge at Hospitality House and had to exercise some tough love at times, I never thought of the guests as “them.” They were always my people, my tribe, and I was there to protect them, serve them and teach them, if I could, how to end their homelessness. I considered myself a role model. A flawed model, true, but a model nonetheless.

Call us homeless people, homeless individuals, homeless neighbors, homeless citizens or even homeless terms that can’t be printed in the newspaper. Just don’t call us “the homeless.” Don’t deny our humanity.

I’ve been fighting this seemingly hopeless semantic battle over “the homeless” for many years now with my colleagues, other social welfare agencies and pretty much anybody who would listen to me. Very few people get it, much less stop saying it.

People tell me it’s a distinction without a difference, and that I’m quibbling over a minor point in grammar. No. Language has nuance.

Consider this: If a woman sells herself for money, is she a prostitute, a sex worker or a victim of sex trafficking? How we describe her determines whether we perceive her as a petty criminal, an independent contractor, or a vulnerable victim.

Our “homeless citizens” unites us. “The homeless” divides us


As this column hits print, the Nevada County Board of Supervisors is holding workshops this week to determine this year’s priorities, including what to do about homelessness.

According to the published workshop documents, our homeless numbers are significantly down. That’s wonderful. Congratulations to all who have worked so hard to make this happen!

But there are still more people out there. As I’m sure will be reported, point-in-time counts don’t count everybody. Some people don’t want to be counted and others are too well-hidden.

As a homeless advocate, former staff member of Hospitality House and current member of the Continuum of Care Shelter Committee, I want to remind the people that while Housing First is a great policy, not everybody is housing ready.

Last winter, one of our nonprofits put 80 people in motel rooms. Forty of those people had to be kicked out for drugs, violence and/or property damage. Furthermore, we’ve heard from landlords who will no longer rent to homeless people because of these problems.

These housing-unready people loiter in our business districts negatively impacting the economy. They also have campfires in the wildland, presenting a clear and present danger to themselves as well as the entire community.

Both the River and Bennett fires last year were human-caused. Without proof, it would be grossly unfair to blame homeless people for those fires. Nevertheless, it would be irresponsible this year not to address the catastrophic potential of wildfire from a homeless camp.

Congratulations, again, for bringing our homeless numbers down so impressively. Just, please, don’t stop now.

Tom Durkin is a freelance writer, editor and photographer in Nevada County and a member of The Union Editorial Board. He may be contacted at

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