The Invention of Homelessness

As of late 2009, the English language contained 1 million words, and new words are being added every day. With such abundance in the language, we tend to forget how powerful words can be, and that the names we give to ideas can shape our world view.

Consider a word that we take for granted, but that has far-reaching implications. The word is “homelessness.”

A search of the New York Times historical database covering 1851 to 2005 reveals that it was used in 4,755 articles, but 4,148 of them (87 per cent) were published in the 20 years between 1985 and 2005. Before the 1980s, it is rare to find “homelessness” used to designate a social problem. What happened in that decade that made the difference?

In 1981, the United Nations announced that 1987 would be the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. The United Nations wanted to focus on the fact that so many people in less developed countries were unhoused. There was no mention of developed countries like Canada in that 1981 UN resolution.

Moreover, the 1981 UN General Assembly resolution did not use the word “homelessness” because the term as the name of a social problem was not in common use at the time. The 1981 UN resolution was intended to draw attention to the fact that many millions of households in developing countries had no housing. They were unhoused, homeless. They needed adequate housing.

But by 1987, the focus of the International Year had shifted to include homeless people in the developed nations of the world, including Canada. In that year, several academic and professional conferences focused on the growing number of unhoused people in Canada, not those in developing countries.

Before the 1980s, people in developed countries did not know what it was like to be unhoused. They had housing, even if that housing was in poor condition. Some transient single men in cities were referred to at times as “homeless.” But the term had a different meaning then.

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