A better way to talk about homelessness

Matt Downie MBE, Chief Executive

This year, homelessness has finally returned to the political agenda, and with 160,000 households still experiencing the most acute forms of homelessness across Scotland, England and Wales,[1] it’s not a moment too soon. Yet if we’re to tackle and end homelessness for good, we need the public’s belief and support that this can be achieved. Unfortunately, a new study for Crisis on people’s views about homelessness suggests that at the moment this isn’t the case and the public, in large part due to how we currently communicate about the issue, don’t see homelessness as a problem that can be solved.

After 50 years of campaigning, services, and research, we know that as important as it is to end homelessness one person or family at a time, unless we address the wider causes - such as a lack of affordable homes, welfare reforms, low wages and irregular work, and an inadequate safety net for people in poverty - new homelessness will continue to happen.

Yet a first-of-its-kind study, conducted for Crisis by the FrameWorks Institute, suggests we need to do more to convince people of these causes and the collective solutions needed to address them.

The study tells us that rather than linking homelessness to poverty, the public see it as stemming from individual factors such as poor character, personal choices or bad luck. This suggests that as a sector we’re missing vital opportunities for taking our work to the next level.

Crucially, the study shows how the public hold certain ‘typical’ images of homeless people as victims or outsiders who are seen as standing part from or distinct within society – the middle-aged male rough sleeper with poor mental health, the young person kicked out of the family home or the woman fleeing domestic violence. When asked about their future expectations, most people believe homelessness is an intractable issue and that their personal actions make little or no difference.

Especially surprising is that the research shows current communications practices by the third sector and the media are inadvertently reinforcing these views and the accompanying sense of fatalism about homelessness.

Why? In large part because we have a long tradition of using stories that emphasise the severity and individual impact of the problem but tend to leave out the systemic causes and solutions. By doing so we are allowing the public to fall back on the fatalistic view of homelessness that sees it as an inevitable part of modern society.

The good news is that individuals and organisations working to end homelessness have the power to change this by telling better stories. The research shows that people are able to think in other, more productive ways about homelessness, and suggests we can help them along the way by presenting a wider, more systemic view of homelessness in our communications.

As the study shows, currently only a third of the sector’s communications present this view, which means we’re missing valuable opportunities to explain consequences, solutions, and why society will benefit from collective action.

Now that homelessness is prominent on the political agenda, we need to make sure promises are carried through, and this should include better public engagement strategies to galvanise public support, and provide people with even more ways to get involved and to help.

The study suggests that we can improve how we communicate about homelessness by following these simple rules:  

  • Challenge the public’s image of a ‘typical’ homeless person;

  • Discuss the social and economic conditions that shape people’s experiences;

  • Talk about the societal impact of homelessness as well as the individual;

  • Encourage the belief that collective action can drive change;

  • Explain prevention and build a story that others outside of the sector can take up

Following these rules will help us to tell fuller stories that address the wider social causes of homelessness rather than unintentionally reinforcing certain attitudes and stereotypes. In this way, we’re more likely to build public support both for direct services and policy and social change.

This is a long term project, and the next stage, which is already underway, involves developing and testing communications tools to help redirect thinking, These are being co-created with other third sector organisations, and together we intend to start introducing these evidence-informed tools into our communications practices.

We still have a long way to go and the public’s energy and support will be vital. Reframing homelessness will take effort, attention, and practice, but will allow us to see the challenge ahead in a new light.

The report can be downloaded here.


[1] Glen Bramley (2017) Homelessness Projections: Core Homelessness in Great Britain. London: Crisis. https://www.crisis.org.uk/media/237582/crisis_homelessness_projections_2017.pdf

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