OPINION: Rough sleeper or sleeping rough – does terminology really matter?

PUBLISHED: 14:27 14 October 2020 | UPDATED: 14:27 14 October 2020

We shouldn't label the homeless as 'rough sleepers' says Dr Jan Sheldon. Picture: Getty Images

We shouldn't label the homeless as 'rough sleepers' says Dr Jan Sheldon. Picture: Getty Images

Srdjan Randjelovic

Dr Jan Sheldon, chief executive of St Martins Housing Trust, says we shouldn’t define any person by where they sleep

Like the majority of people reading this article every night I go to bed. I lay down, snuggle into my nice warm duvet and drift off to sleep. This is an action that so many of us take for granted. I know where I’m going to sleep and that I’ll be safe in my bed. This isn’t the case for everyone. Some of the people we support at St Martins have lost everything. They don’t know where they will sleep from one night to the next and they also know they may not be safe. Research tells us that someone sleeping rough is17 times more likely to be the victim of crime or abuse.

Often people sleeping rough are referred to as ‘rough sleepers’. To me this feels wrong – I’m not defined by where I sleep; why should anyone be referred to in this way? I agree the term ‘rough sleeper’ rolls off the tongue so much more easily than ‘people who sleep rough’ or ‘people rough sleeping’ but that doesn’t make it an acceptable term.

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I asked a few of my colleagues where the term rough sleeper came from, there were a few blank faces and no real answers. My quest continued; I made contact with the National Museum of Homelessness who very kindly spoke to one of their advisors professor Nicholas Crowson, a historical expert on homelessness.

Professor Crawson has carried out a lot of research into the history of vagrancy at the turn of the 20th century and the earliest use of the term ‘rough sleeper’ he’s seen was from January 1888 in a local newspaper reporting on the burning of a hay rick near Abingdon and noting that these provided excellent shelter for “rough sleepers” and other dangerous classes who either wilfully or through careless smoking often do serious damage in this way.

The National Museum of Homelessness advises that The Oxford English Dictionary attributes Disraeli’s Vivian Grey (1826) with using the term rough sleeping, but for the idea of sleeping without shelter (so in the rough) rather than as a slang term for the street homeless community.

It seems that the term ‘rough sleeper’ emerged in the 19th century and is used continuously thereafter (though much less frequently than vagrant, vagabond or tramp), and from the 1960s it becomes more common. By the 1970s, the efforts of campaigners saw homelessness redefined to a large extent and we see a steady growth in new terms for homelessness as the term vagrant (and other pejorative terms) fall out of usage. However, it’s important to recognise that not everyone who is homeless sleeps rough; many sofa surf or stay with friends and family. My journey of discovery about terminology has been an interesting one but not one which should distract from the issue of how we refer to people sleeping out on the streets. What should always be remembered is that people sleeping rough are all individuals with their own challenges, hopes and aspirations. They have, often through no fault of their own, landed with a heavy bump at the bottom of the helter skelter of life. At St Martins we work alongside people to support them back onto their feet, provide any assistance we can to get them living independently and to help them to regain some of the dignity they lost when they landed on the streets.

All we ask of everyone else is to remember they are someone’s father, mother, nephew, sister or friend, treat them with kindness and compassion and not label or define them by where they 

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