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Challenging negative representations of homelessness

Greg Hurst

The word ‘homelessness’ invariably conjures up a defining image in the minds of millions of people. By reflex, their mental picture is of an older white man sleeping on cardboard in a doorway. Details may vary but the prototype image does not. People hear the word ‘homelessness’. They think only of rough sleeping.

The data tells a different story. The annual street count estimated that 2,440 people were sleeping out in England on a single night in autumn 2021. Around the same time 96,020 families and other households were staying in temporary accommodation in England, including 121,680 children under 16. Thousands more single people live in homeless hostels, in single rooms with a bathroom along a corridor. We have no reliable data on how many other people are sleeping in squats, on sofas at relatives’ or friends’ houses, in vehicles or in unsuitable or unsafe housing.

We know the street count has limitations and misses some of the people sleeping out. But the scale and scope of homelessness goes far beyond that of rough sleeping. And yet, it is rough sleeping that continues to define what millions of people think of as homelessness. This in turn shapes how politicians and decision-makers respond to public opinion to act on homelessness.

This was explored in experimental surveys with more than 10,000 people by the non-profit think tank the FrameWorks Institute, commissioned by the homelessness charity Crisis, which found the most dominant ‘prototype’ of homelessness in people’s minds was of a middle-aged man aged between 40 and 60 who has been sleeping rough for a long time and is assumed to have serious mental health and addiction problems.

The researchers noted: “Across all of the social issues on which FrameWorks has conducted research, we have not identified prototypes that so powerfully shape subsequent thinking about that issue as we have during the course of our research on homelessness.”

So the actual experiences of the vast majority of people affected by homelessness are effectively invisible in the public mind. This creates a great obstacle to efforts to prevent and ultimately end homelessness.

How might we change this? Well, we at the Centre for Homelessness Impact have collated a set of evidence-based images that chronicle what homelessness actually looks like. We commissioned photographs of people experiencing different types of homelessness across the United Kingdom in order to show the reality of what homelessness looks like: people living in hostels and bed and breakfast hotels, families raising children in temporary accommodation, single people who’ve spent years sleeping on friends’ sofas.

It took us to Merthyr Tydfil in the valleys of South Wales, to the market town of Malton in North Yorkshire, to the seaside in Brighton, to the outskirts of West and North Belfast, to the city centres of Leicester and London. With their consent, we photographed people of a variety of ages, from their early 20s to 60, men, women, children, and a baby, and of different ethnicities. Several have mental illnesses. One uses a mobility scooter. Their stories were all different. Their images are all different.

The photographer who captured most of the images, Jeff Hubbard, has personal experience of homelessness, having spent almost a year sleeping rough before he learned his trade of photography in classes run by Crisis. This was an important element in addressing the power dynamic that can be a play in the relationship between a photographer and a subject who is experiencing adversity.

We have used these photographs to create the United Kingdom’s first free image library of homelessness. Any and all of the pictures are available to download to media organisations, publishers, public bodies, charities, bloggers. By doing so, we will try to change the way homelessness is portrayed through images and create a more evidence-led understanding of the nature of this most urgent and most misunderstood of social issues.

We will commission and add more photographs to this pioneering image bank, learning and adapting from our experience and feedback from users as we do so. We will also remove photographs from individuals after a period of time, or if they ask us to do so: homelessness should be a temporary experience and not should not define the life people go on to lead. For this reason we will ask individuals or organisations who download our images to leave a contact email address so we can get in touch with them if the person or people featured in those images subsequently changes their mind.

This was one of the insights we took and acted upon from our consultations early on in the development of this project when we convened an advisory group of experts with past experience of homelessness. Another of their insights was to encourage us to keep in touch with the participants once the photo shoots had taken place, give them updates about how it was progressing and invite them to remain involved.

Access our image library to browse, download, and use a range of images of people experiencing homelessness in your work and to help challenge the negative perceptions of homelessness.

If you're interested in joining us on our mission to end homelessness through evidence-led change, then sign our pledge to End It With Evidence.

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