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What's in a word?

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA -  This homeless veteran at Red Barn on Dec. 30 said he and his wife and dog are keeping warm by living out of their car for now. A conversation at the Red Barn, a day-shelter on Northeast Glisan Street, is nearly impossible to keep private.

People are eating hot meals, waiting in line for the shower, digging through boxes of donated goods. There’s also plenty of friendly chatter, jokes, and just talk.

In the sanctuary next door a man sat near the pulpit, worrying about his girlfriend’s health. When a reporter asked the man’s name, a boy interrupted “Don’t say it!”

“See, that’s what I mean,” said John Medford, who did not mind sharing his name. “When you’re homeless people automatically assume you are in trouble or are going to be in trouble.”

It’s a common assumption, according to nonprofit organizations serving the homeless, and a big hurdle to finding a solution. Nonprofits say one word encapsulates the struggle to humanize the homeless — “transient.”

It’s a word that homeless advocates say is a barrier to the complexities of homelessness. It is the preferred word in police reports and it reaches the mainstream through the media.

“The fact is that when you’re using a word like transient, it’s not even accurate,” said Steve Kimes, director of Anawim Christian Community, a church for the homeless, and the Red Barn day shelter. “Sixty five percent of all the (homeless) folks in east Multnomah County come from east Multnomah County. These are people who live in this area.”

It’s true for Medford, who was born and raised in Multnomah County.

Medford said the word “transient” makes it sound like he’s just in a temporary situation, between houses. That’s not the case because he doesn’t plan to move inside anytime soon.

Chris Plummer, another Multnomah County native at Red Barn last week, prefers the term “free liver.” Moments later he reconsiders. “How about ‘citizen’? That works well.”

Alison Dunfee, director of the Center for Family Success, a Portland nonprofit organization that works with children whose parents are in the criminal justice system, says she nudges police to phase out the word “transient” and replace with “experiencing homelessness.”

She’s often met with resistance.

“It’s really easy to dehumanize people with the language we use to talk about them,” Dunfee said. “So if you describe someone as a transient or the homeless ... it kind of takes away from the fact that these are people just like you and me. The only difference is that they are going through a difficult time where they don’t have a place to live.”

For Officer Ralph Godfrey of the Gresham Police Department, that point did not fall on deaf ears. He’s been with the department since 2004 and is a mentor to recruits. This is one of the issues he touches on with his trainees.

Godfrey said a friend who was “adamant about the idea of reducing stigma around homeless issues” changed his mind about using “transient” a few years ago.

“At first I doubted the value of such a minor sematic change, but my mom was a communications major ... and she was fond of saying, ‘Words have a precision’,” Godfrey said in an email. “When I thought about this combined with the relatively simple act of changing a few words, I figured there was no harm in making a small change.”

He doesn’t make his recruits write “experiencing homelessness” in their reports instead of “transient,” but he’s happy when they do.

“I discuss this with my recruits ... it’s an opportunity for them to at least think about the issue of stigma and our language,” Godfrey said.

It would be impossible to prove any direct correlation between a change in language and action, but Medford and Plummer say they’ve noticed an attitude shift by Gresham police during the past year.

Police used to enter homeless camps “with puffed-up chests” and “gang-buster mentality,” Plummer said, but seem to have recently adopted a different approach.

“Once they realized they don’t have to intimidate us, they could just talk to us, things got better,” said Medford. “We are still English speaking, normal human beings.”

Almost surprisingly, Medford likes that the police know his name. It’s a recognition of his humanity instead of being seen as a problem or burden.

“It sounds silly but words really do hold a lot of power,” said Charles Hodge, director of the family homeless shelter on East Burnside Street run by Human Solutions and Multnomah County. “When you use terms that may be overly broad and negative, it really does affect the way you perceive people.”

But changing words is not a cure-all, warns Justin Hufnagel, the communications co-manager with Sisters of the Road, a nonprofit organization in Portland’s Old Town. Police attitudes towards the homeless can be a problem, he said. Using more nuanced words can help.

“Part of that is really just breaking down that barrier of ‘us versus them’,” Hufnagel said, adding that the perception of a homeless person is someone whose “existence is criminalized.”

“What we’re really trying to get across is that anyone could end up in an unfortunate situation with one or two strokes of bad luck. We’re not different than someone experiencing homelessness.”

John Rasmussen, a spokesman for the Gresham Police Department, said officers do their best to treat all people as equals.

“It comes down to us wanting to engage people with compassion and dignity and honor their description of their living situation and accurately depict it,” Rasmussen said. “(The language you use) shows the reality of the situation they’re in and whether they need help or whether they are on a walkabout and want to be (on the street).”

If changing language is the spark, homeless advocates say, then taking about the word “transient” can become a discussion of humanity and worth.

“Getting past the stereotypes of the other and finding commonalities in human traits leads to people understanding instead of judging,” said Dina DiNucci, communications manager of Wallace Medical Concern, a nonprofit medical clinic for the homeless. “It leads to people caring once they understand, and it leads to people to want to make a difference. If we can encourage those who only judge from afar to get to know people as human beings personally, I believe things could be different. I believe caring about the plight and making it a priority to the majority to make change is one of the only ways it will change.”