Kalamazoo, MI- The Kalamazoo-based advocacy group, Semantics Matters, has recently taken on the "homeless" label. The group, which in 2005 challenged city officials about their use of the term "water" to describe the local supply of H20, is organizing to rename the homeless.
At a May 15th city commission meeting, spokesperson and lead organizer for Semantics Matters, Jean Betts, admonished the city commissioners for calling those in the area who lack housing "homeless." Betts stated during her four minutes of public air time, "Calling someone who doesn't have a home "homeless" is the same as calling someone who doesn't have money, "moneyless." In her speech, Betts cited the 1950's campaign to adjust the term used to describe the divorced. "At one point it was acceptable to call some "spouseless," but fortunately we as a society recognized how offensive this was and we changed. That's what we need to do today," stated Betts.
In an interview after the commission meeting, Betts reiterated her concern for those who are termed homeless while expressing disdain for activists concerned with other issues. "Some organizations in town are focusing on healthcare and human rights for the undwelled, but if we don't figure out a way to properly address those in the area without a place to live, none of it will matter. We as activists need to get out priorities straight. If we can‘t define someone properly, it is as though they don‘t exist."
Betts' organization is calling for a city-wide resolution to redefine the homeless. Some suggestions for name changes for the homeless have included the undwelled, unhomed, those who lack shelter, and the perpetually out-of-doors.
Reaction from the city commission was mixed. Commissioner Roy Walters, who supported the 2002 Semantics Matters campaign to begin calling city funds "legal tender" as opposed to money or monies, stated, "Semantics Matters has been consistent in their message of appropriate naming, and I feel we should look into this issue. Many people who lack a roof over their heads don't really deserve the title "homeless." Home can be a state of mind and who am I to say who is or isn't homed, mind-wise."
Defining, so to speak, the opposition to the term change, City Attorney Rick Jay brought up the leg, or lower-appendage, work that this would require. "To go through all the paperwork and change "homeless" to some other name would be a severe waste of legal tender." In response, Betts reminded Jay that unless advocacy groups like Semantics Matters stood up for proper names, he would today be called City Barrister Rick Jay. "Sounds like the guy who makes my latte," fumed Betts.