Homeless or Unhoused?

Every day OSL strives to be the advocates for those we serve and to represent them in a respectful, dignified, and caring manner. Although some of the individuals and families we serve have a roof over their head, many of our guests call the streets of Seattle home. The majority lack the resources and or ability to access food or nutritionally dense meals in conventional ways and so use our services to meet their nutritional needs.

There is an enormous difference between being called “homeless”, and living unhoused. If we lived unhoused in Seattle, we still have a home. It is Seattle. The term homeless implies that someone does not have a home and is somehow viewed as “less” than others.

We find this term to be denigrating and so we use the word “unhoused”. We are reminded every day that that those we serve, whether economically challenged guests, volunteers, or the greater community, are “us”, with different life circumstances; our friends, our families, our neighbors, our community members. Us.

OSL adopted the term “unhoused” many years ago, and has been instrumental in facilitating the change in language and perception.


The general understanding of the “homeless” by the greater public is often based upon legal definitions of homelessness, set down by specific governing bodies. The term “homeless” is not static. It was first recognized by the UN in the 1940s, as an effort to categorize peoples lacking regular living quarters.

The term “homeless” has come to encompass a broad range of people who fall within those parameters. Yet, “homeless” does not adequately define the experiences or outlook of those who fall within in these broad terms.

The social and personal implications are attached to the term “homeless” often inaccurately represent those who live “unhoused”. Often, our guests belong to a community. Sometimes that might be an encampment of the unhoused, such as Nicklesville. Other times, it is less formal, such as Seattle’s Outdoor Meal Site.

Social and Personal Impact

The label of “homeless” has unfortunate connotations. It implies that one is a failure, is “less than”, and it undermines self-esteem and progressive forward motion.

The use of the term unhoused, instead of “homeless”, has a profound personal impact upon those in insecure housing situations.

From Palo Alto, the story of Norm Carroll, a recent city council candidate, shows us how the power of terminology changed his outlook upon life. Carroll thought of himself as homeless, as a wanderer without a home until 1998, when a young stranger forever changed Carroll’s self identification of his situation and status. This young boy asked Carroll if he had a house. Not a home, but a house.

“That little boy didn’t think of me as someone to step over, ignore or push out of town….To him I was just somebody without a house. That’s when I realized I was unhoused, not homeless.”

Since that moment, Norm Carroll has secured affordable housing and employment, and in 2005, Carroll ran for Palo Alto City Council. Though Carroll was unsuccessful in his campaign for public office, his life and countless others were forever changed.

In the bigger picture, when society uses disparaging words such as homeless, we conjure up in our minds; people who may be derelict, unclean, addicts, alcoholics, criminals…All of these assumptions are false, misleading, and unjust. In today’s unstable economic climate, anyone can find themselves living without shelter. It is an epidemic that continues to run rampant. With an unlivable minimum wage and housing that is sky high; many find themselves “one paycheck” away from an unstable living condition.

Home is where the heart is; Seattle is Home

According to Dictionary.com, home is “the place or region where something is native or most common.”

For most of our guests, that “common place” is Seattle and the Puget Sound Region. The one night count conducted by Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH) and Operation Night Watch, with more than 900 volunteers, counted 2736 men, women, and children without shelter during the three hour street count.

According to SKCCH this number is an increase of 5% over those found without shelter last year and does not include all those who take great care not to be visible, as well as many people with children, living in cars, or couch surfing.

Organizations that work directly on the front line, including OSL, estimate that on any given night in Seattle, more than 12,000 individuals sleep without shelter or with temporary shelter. That equates to 13,140,000 meals that are needed each year to help those in Seattle that are challenged with hunger. In 2013 alone, OSL served 426,055 meals to 8791 unduplicated individuals.

Although there are many in our community who remain unhoused, they still call the greater Seattle area “home”.

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