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October 18, 2023

Orwell Prize: Championing accurate reporting on homelessness

By Greg Hurst and Alice Adonis

Many false narratives are associated with homelessness, which reinforce stereotyping and create a stigma that is profoundly damaging to individuals and act as a barrier to solutions to prevent and relieve homelessness. Too often, for instance, causes of homelessness are presented as arising from flaws or bad choices by individuals rather than a failure of support services or our welfare system. Solutions to homelessness can similarly be presented in a glib or over-simplified manner without supporting evidence or even in defiance of available evidence.

This is why we created the Orwell Prize for Reporting Homelessness: to encourage and celebrate accurate and impactful reporting and story-telling of experiences of homelessness and what works to prevent it, and thereby contribute to re-setting the narrative around homelessness.

While entries were open to established journalists, authors, artists, film-makers and others, we were clear that they should also be encouraged from people with direct experience of homelessness and that the prize be a means of celebrating talent among people who have faced adversity.

We took this point seriously from the outset. In its inaugural year, two of the prize’s four judges had personal experience of homelessness: Lord John Bird, the founder of the Big Issue magazine, and Leanna Fairfax, a PhD researcher in women’s homelessness at Sheffield Hallam University. And, particularly because the Prize was new, we made extensive efforts to raise its profile among diverse audiences and to encourage entries from people with personal experience of homelessness.

We reached out to publications and organisations working with people experiencing homelessness in all its forms. We were particularly keen to reach people who challenge stereotypes of what it means to experience homelessness, and shared our Prize entry resources with women’s shelters, libraries, museums, arts organisations, and prison education departments in addition to organisations supporting people sleeping rough.

We were pleased with the response. A total of 73 eligible entries were received by the closing date. Of these 30 entries (41%) were by an entrant or team with at least one member with lived experience of homelessness and 29% included at least one piece of new work that had not previously been published. Written journalism was the most common form of entry, comprising 51% of submitted entries. Essays and other non-fiction writing formed 16%. Other categories included television journalism, radio journalism, photojournalism, film and poetry.

Making the Prize as accessible as possible was our priority from the outset. This not only meant allowing entries in the most diverse range of media of any Orwell Prize - we encouraged people to enter via post as well. We received eight entries from people in prison; most of these were handwritten, deeply personal accounts of the entrants’ lives, detailing the long-term connections between socioeconomic deprivation, crime, and homelessness and the threat of homelessness upon release from prison. 

Some of our entrants wrote about homelessness from a place of retrospection; others with an urgency and immediacy reflecting their present circumstances. For some, poetry and creative writing best captured the depth of their feelings on the issue; for others, a factual reporting style was most effective. Although artistic forms and personal experiences were diverse, two strong themes shone through: that homelessness is a systemic issue, and that stories from lived experience have a crucial role to play in challenging harmful attitudes and shaping initiatives to relieve homelessness.

The judges chose a short-list of nine, of whom a similar proportion - 44% - had personal experience of homelessness and 22% of short-listed entries included at least one piece of previously unpublished work. Of the shortlisted entries, 57% were written journalism, followed by 14% TV journalism, 14% radio, 10% non-fiction/essay, and 5% film. From these, the judges chose two joint winners: Freya Marshall Payne and Daniel Lavelle, both of whom wrote about their own experiences of homelessness.

The standard and quality of entries, however, meant that the judges had to leave out from the short-list many thoughtful, well written and insightful pieces of original work. We have therefore decided to publish a selection of entries by people with personal experience of homelessness or about personal stories of homelessness. 

We have chosen eight of these. We selected them because they are original pieces of writing, previously unpublished, and we think they deserve a wider audience. They were also chosen because they reflect the diverse experiences of homelessness and capture the diversity of artistic styles of the entries.

These entries will be published twice a week for the next 5 weeks.

Greg Hurst is Head of Communications and Public Affairs at the Centre for Homelessness Impact and Alice Adonis is Office Administrator at The Orwell Foundation

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