Preferred Language Guide
Person First

This document will serve as the preferred language guide for Unity Shelter as we engage in our work with people experiencing homelessness. We will use language recommendations noted here in our communications, in our speaking engagements, and in our work with and alongside people experiencing homelessness and when engaging with our housed neighbors and the community at large. 

We will use person-first language which identifies a person first and their experience second. Examples include: 

  • folks experiencing homelessness (or) houselessness
  • people/persons experiencing homelessness (or) houselessness
  • A person who has mental health challenges
  • A person who has addictions or behavioral challenges

We will utilize language that references camping and living outside as ‘sanctioned’ or ‘unsanctioned’ camping rather than using language that references legal or illegal. Using language that references legal or illegal can quickly turn to the existence of human beings as legal or illegal and we believe that no human being is illegal. 

We will never use the following when referring to people or their experience: the mentally ill, addicts, or illegal campers.


People experiencing homelessness are individuals first with unique personalities, strengths and challenges. No one wants to be lumped into a stereotypical group as though a generality can adequately or accurately describe one's individuality. For this reason, Unity Shelter will use "person first language" when discussing the topic. Unity Shelter invites you to also use person centric language when describing individuals experiencing homelessness whether communicating verbally or in writing. This approach will help us all recognize all people as individuals first and will show all people respect.

People first means that we describe or mention the person first...then use a descriptor.

This is a good policy when talking about people experiencing any challenge (health challenges, developmental disabilities, financial difficulties, etc.). It is unfathomable to refer to someone first by what is challenging them ~ as a "cancer", a "Downs" or a "poverty". Ideally, one would begin with a name. For example, "This is Mike, my friend who doesn't have a home right now."

Lisa Hawish has prepared the following language guide to outline Unity Shelter's formal policy on the topic. This language guide will be updated from time to time. Click here to download a PDF copy.

Person First Language