The Role of Language in Homelessness: A Design Response

Post 8 by Alice Stollery

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The misuse of language is a significant barrier in tackling homelessness. Insensitive, and politically incorrect terms such as hobo, tramp and bum, and the casual misuse of the term homeless to describe ones appearance, have seeped into the common vernacular. Dehumanising those affected by homelessness through this passive misuse of language takes away from the real issue, meaning wider perceptions of homelessness are less empathetic and communities have become detached from sufferers. A design response that tackles this wider problem of perception and language will create influence rather than direct action. This will be an attempt to create empathy, engagement and as a result generate positive outcomes, enabling more people to engage with the issue rather than offering an immediate solution.

In recent weeks, through research into homelessness in the mainstream media, journal articles, social media platforms, image libraries and brainstorming sessions, this misuse of language has emerged as a negative actor that is creating a barrier between those in need and those with the power to help. We talk about homelessness in reference to appearance, rather than experience. In short, we no longer seem to be talking about the actual issue.

With this in mind, I recently took part in a group brainstorming session to generate possibilities for a design response for this problem of language and its misuse. The process created a good basis of ideas for further individual development and enable me to articulate both my problem statement as well as how I want my design response to make my audience feel. I would like to generate feelings of compassion, empathy, and respect towards the homeless, so my audience can realise, reflect and become purposeful. Below, I have listed 5 design responses that came out of this session..

Five point summary of possible design responses
  1. Intervention: To intervene when the misuse of the term homeless or its derogatory counterparts, hobo, tramp or bum are used online. This would be in the form of a twitter bot that responds to such tweets, highlighting the misuse by either providing a link to information on the issue, providing personal stories of those affected or by simply pointing out their lack of empathy. However, this type of response would not have the desired affect on the target audience and I do not think it would generate a sense of empathy towards sufferers. I do not want to create a design response that is self-righteous and that could be seen as shaming a person’s lack of empathy towards the issue.
  1. A Dictionary of Homelessness: A dictionary of alternate meanings that fade in and out. This would be based on the various meanings that homelessness takes in everyday language such as a lack of money, poor appearance etc. It is an interesting concept I would like to look into, as it is still quite vague at this stage. Another possibility could be to juxtapose the misuse of language with images or information on the real issue. For example, I may take a tweet that states “OMG I look so homeless today” with an image of a homeless person and their story. This juxtaposition of alternate meanings would make those misusing this language feel uncomfortable with their flippant or casual use of these terms without directly pointing the finger at individuals.
  1. Mapping the relationship between language and sufferers: This would aim to visualise the relationship between our misuse of language and the number of suffers in a particular area. I would map the use of terms such as hobo, bum and tramp by geographical location while also mapping the numbers of homeless people in those areas to see if there is any correlation between language and homelessness numbers. For example the term hobo may be used more so in Sydney than Melbourne and it would be interesting to see if homelessness numbers were higher in Sydney due to this casual lack of empathy and resulting desensitisation.
  1. My name is..: this response would be a data visualisation or geo visualisation of those suffering from homelessness categorised by first name. It is a known fact that we all like to hear our own name and this could be a way to overcome this desensitisation and stigma and to create familiarity. This response would aim to create connections between sufferers and non sufferers, highlighting things they may have in common. It would attempt to change the way we talk about people experiencing homelessness. As the misuse of the word homeless has diluted its meaning and emotional impact, calling homeless people by name would change our perspective of them, make them more relatable and hopefully generate more empathy towards them. This map would aim to humanise them through the use of their first name. For example, the map may depict that there are 100 Simone’s in the 18-24 year old age bracket that are currently suffering from homelessness. This creates a personal connection and enables people to think about the issue from a more empathetic angle. Suddenly they are able to see that those suffering from homelessness are just like them.
  1. I saw a homeless man today and felt…: This response would take the form of a data visualisation. I would survey a number of people to ascertain their feelings when they see a homeless person. I would then organise this information to communicate relationships and to ascertain how the youth of today feel towards homelessness. This could be conducted in the pedestrian tunnel at Central Station, as there are a number of homeless people in this area and a high volume of foot traffic in the 18 to 24 year old age bracket. Once students have walked past a homeless person, I could ask them how they felt when they saw the homeless person. This could generate interesting results however I am not sure how it would tackle the wider issue of perception beyond simply highlighting the presence of stigma.

What are we talking about?!
Draft Proposal, Visualisation

Twitter is a social platform that allows dissemination of random thoughts, ignorance and public opinion. With 313 million active global users recording and sharing their thoughts, feelings and experiences, twitter is a real-time source of information and a perfect tool for researching public opinion and scraping the platform for data.

It was through this scraping of data that I first became aware of the magnitude of the misuse of language around homelessness. During my previous web scraping blog post, I found over 10,000 posts that contained the word hobo alone.

Through this design response I aim to create a play on words, juxtaposing the different meanings of language used around this issue. This idea is based on point two above, The Dictionary of Homelessness. The design response will highlight the alternative meanings of the word ‘homeless’ through the juxtaposition of the ways in which they are used. For example.. stories of the homeless and their daily struggle may be juxtaposed with tweets stating that a celebrity looks like a hobo. This type of response would be like the urban dictionary vs the oxford dictionary, highlighting how the word homeless has evolved overtime, changing the meaning and resulting in desensitisation.


Mullet Initiative. 2016, ‘The last time I tried to cut my hair resulted in me looking homeless”, Twitter post, 11 September, viewed 19 September 2016,<>.

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