Everyday we find ourselves assigned to any number of different labels; ‘the middle class’, ‘the unemployed’, ‘the young’ or ‘the disabled’ but what are the consequences? What’s in a name? Years of experience researching the lives of homeless people, disabled people, and young people, amongst other so-called vulnerable groups, has led me to question the possible implications of assigning labels to groups of individuals. In particular, my experiences of working with young people would suggest it is quite possible that assigning labels such as ‘homeless’, ‘offender’, or ‘care leaver’ may well have serious impacts. My point is best illustrated through a brief illustration. Dan is a 17 year-old young man who is forced to leave the family home following a row with his mother. He spends a week sleeping on friends’ sofas but soon finds his way to the local council office to ask for help, there he is directed to homelessness services. Dan is then interviewed and at that point he is officially labelled as homeless. Assuming Dan is a priority for homelessness support (the complexities and deficiencies of the homeless system would require at least a separate blog) he will now enter the homeless system. As a homeless young person his housing needs will be prioritised, which might mean returning to the family home or he may find himself in some form of temporary housing. This is a very simplistic account of a small part of one young man’s story but it highlights a common pattern – being labelled as ‘homeless’ sets an individual on a pathway that focuses on housing needs. What happens if Dan enters the system in some other way?

Imagine that Dan was caught fighting in the street the night before the argument with his mother. In this instance he would probably have found himself at the door of the youth offending team. Here he is labelled a young offender and the focus of support will be on his behaviour, perhaps through some form of education programme. The system is again far more complex than I suggest here but the poignant fact is that the support given to the same individual would be quite different to the support that would have been provided just a day later. So, what’s in a name? The labels we allocate, often based on the point at which someone accesses a service, can have significant implications for the type of support they receive and yet they are the same individual with the same underlying needs. There seems to be a very clear need to weaken the boundaries between support services and to end the allocation of divisive labels in order to make sure that all the needs of individuals are addressed. Moreover, a label-free society would surely be an equal one.

Written by Dr Pete Mackie, WIHSC Associate