If we ever want to remove the stigma surrounding homelessness, we have to broaden the public's perceptions by breaking down common misconceptions. As the media influences so many aspects of our day-to-day lives, it is therefore vital that they and anyone working alongside them, understand the role that they can play in helping us to do this.
So where do we start?
Focus on the person
We know that no two people experience homelessness in the same way, yet such a large proportion of the homelessness stories we see in the media are the usual stereotypes of middle aged white men who are experiencing street homelessness. Talking about individual experiences means we can start a discussion about the various challenges faced by different groups of people. For example, we know the experiences of women are very different to those of men. Individuals experiencing homelessness are not a homogeneous group and street homelessness is just the tip of the iceberg.
The statistics surrounding homelessness are important because they demonstrate the scale of the problem, and we know that simply telling individual stories reinforces the negative stereotypes. Individual stories are vitally important pieces of evidence, but only if we place them in context by explaining the root causes of the issue and use them to illustrate what the evidence shows. This allows us to humanise the issue which makes it more relatable. The public needs to be aware of the wide range and often complex reasons so many people end up experiencing homelessness.
For example, on TV adverts we see statistics on the number of people without a roof over their heads on any given night. Obviously that is a staggering figure, but because it's a number people can disconnect from it. If we explain the evidence behind the trends and what it means, and use stories to illustrate the human side of it whilst also explaining what can be done to solve the problem, it seems more real and for many people it might be closer to home meaning they can connect to it. Empathising with people can help us to absorb the accompanying numbers.
The individual experiencing homelessness is someone's child, someone's sister or brother, a human being with a story. They are an individual, so we shouldn’t be treating them as one group with a common problem.
Challenge the common misconceptions
Within the sector we know that street homelessness is only the tip of the iceberg, with thousands of people sofa surfing, staying in hostels and shelters, squats, cars, temporary and emergency accommodation every night. Many of these people who are experiencing homelessness or at risk of, remain hidden from the public's view and are often excluded from the media. If the media don’t make the public aware of the problem, how can we start to tackle it?
By broadening the public's definition of homelessness and describing different experiences that help people to identify with the issue, along with putting the stories in context, we can start to focus on the societal causes of homelessness and the systemic changes that are needed to end it.
You cannot judge the choice someone makes when you don’t know what options they had to choose from. More often than not homelessness comes from situations that are out of an individual's control. For example, the vast majority of the public are unaware that many women fleeing domestic abuse are not always entitled to help, because they ‘chose’ to leave a dangerous situation, and therefore accommodation which to the outside world might have looked safe.
A large number of people think homelessness is a conscious decision, much like choosing to go on holiday, which can be immensely damaging to anyone experiencing homelessness. A letter I received at the beginning of lockdown from a family member said, and I quote ‘We are very disappointed that you decided to go down the homeless route’ which shows how far removed some people are from the realities of the situation. Some individuals may experience homelessness due to losing accommodation and not having access to alternatives, but others may remain on the streets because any alternative could pose a greater risk than staying put.
No human being would choose to experience homelessness, unless it was safer than any of the alternatives. For example, we know young people who identify as LGBT are often forced to leave their family homes due to homophobia, transphobia or abuse from family members. If they stayed, it could be extremely dangerous for their mental health.
Negative stereotypes only marginalise people experiencing homelessness further. We know that homelessness, addiction and mental ill-health sometimes coexist meaning treatment will need to be reflective of the person's individual needs, but many people who experience homelessness do not experience mental health problems or problematic substance use.
We also know that mental illness and problematic substance use are just as often an effect of homelessness as a cause. The incredible stress that homelessness creates can no doubt lead to both and can then be reinforced in a vicious circle.
Change the narrative
We shouldn’t be talking about ‘helping the homeless’ but about tackling poverty and the different forms of social injustice which can both directly and indirectly lead to homelessness.
Misconceptions will never change unless there is a shift in how we talk about homelessness and people experiencing poverty. Everyone has something to offer and we should focus on that, rather than simply the fact that they are experiencing homelessness.
Positive evidence-informed narratives are important. You can experience homelessness and go on to achieve great things, which so many people don’t realise; it doesn’t have to be the end. There are ways out of it and many people who have experienced homelessness go on to be very successful.
We rarely see stories in the media of those escaping domestic abuse, young people, those leaving care or prison, LGBT and BAME individuals who are experiencing homelessness, who we know are more at risk. This also then reinforces the common stereotypes surrounding homelessness and makes the general public believe it isn’t a problem for these groups of people.
Making small changes to the language we use can also make a big difference to the public's understanding of many social issues including homelessness. For example many services use the term ‘complex needs’ when an individual struggles with homelessness alongside mental or physical illness and/or problematic substance use, offending behaviours or experiences of trauma. The term can cause negative preconceptions and by using alternatives we can avoid alienating groups of people.
Homelessness is an experience not an identity, so phrases such as ‘homeless person’ should be avoided as they give the audience the impression that the individual is nothing more than homeless. That person is currently having a tough time, but they shouldn’t be defined by that. By using ‘person experiencing homelessness’ we are also putting the person before the experience, because the person is the most important thing.
By making the audience understand that the issue is far closer to home than they might realise and also far more common, we can also start to open their eyes to the fact that homelessness is a problem that can be solved, permanently.
How can the sector play a part in changing the narrative?
Journalists often want to push positive stories, but many organisations within the sector have been actively reinforcing the stereotypes we are talking about. The reframing work done by Crisis makes a good start on this, but charities need help to access evidence and data, so they can make an impact using effective evidence-informed communications. Charities are a vital link between people experiencing homelessness and the media - and it’s important whilst offering case studies that a variety of people, with different experiences of homelessness are given the opportunity to tell their story on their own terms. Whilst charities have the best intentions in protecting individuals using their services, if journalists don’t have access to case studies that can show both the realities of a situation, and that things can get better then the media narrative will never change.
If charities are able to build positive relationships with journalists and certain media outlets then they would feel more confident about encouraging the people they work with to speak to the press, whilst also feeling reassured that they won't be exploited. Trust has to be a two way thing and once a journalist knows you personally, they are much more likely to contact you if they need a story.
So many people who have lived experience are willing to talk because they want to get their story out there. They know they’re not the only person in that position, and they have the power to change the narrative.
We need to be facilitating sensitive conversations without brushing over the realities that so many people are facing. The homelessness sector cannot end homelessness on its own, and the media has the power to positively impact millions of people every day.
Our future plans involve a comprehensive piece of work looking into the use of language within the sector and beyond. If you are interested in getting involved, please get in contact at firstname.lastname@example.org
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