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August 13, 2019

James Cartwright

Impact Forums 2019: Shifting The Narrative

The third strategy in our Share Framework is to make ending homelessness a shared priority among all members of society. Until we do, evidence suggests that our progress will be slow. To create more public support for the policies and actions required to end homelessness for good we must communicate more effectively and improve the general public’s understanding that homelessness is not inevitable.

A key challenge for the Centre and the movement for evidence-led practice in homelessness is to explain the diversity of what homelessness is, aside from rough sleeping, and of the range of people it affects. Currently, the public almost exclusively equates homelessness with living on the street, and they have a narrow mental image of who is homeless – namely older men with substance addictions. 

This focus of attention on rough sleeping is of the sector’s own making. We communicate about homelessness all the time, attempting to explain its structural causes in housing, welfare and social services policy. Most of the time we are failing to do this effectively and the public don’t understand our message. Instead they see homelessness as a problem that is individually driven by poor choices, behaviour or simple bad luck.

Over decades, these cultural norms have been built up and sustained by the very people and organisations seeking to challenge them. We tend to focus on stories of rough sleeping when we talk about homelessness and neglect to tell those that support the links between individual homelessness and its structural causes.

This is a tradition that has been fuelled by funding imperatives. Emergency and crisis narratives that focus on the most extreme cases of homelessness are the most successful in persuading the public to make charitable donations. Perversely, they also reinforce unhelpful stereotypes and erode the common empathy between the wider population and people experiencing homelessness.

As a result we are stuck in a cycle of behaviours and activities that fail to address the real root causes of homelessness. Worse, we place blame exclusively on people who experience homelessness and imply that it is the individual who should change, not the systems failing to help them. 

This allows society to ‘other’ those people who experience homelessness. But as Ryan McCuaig of Who Cares? Scotland said at our Edinburgh Impact Forum, “You can’t just write people off as ‘hard to reach’, or as having ‘complex needs’. We must listen to all voices of lived experience.”

In order to break this harmful cycle, we need to reframe how we talk about homelessness and shift the narrative from one of individual ‘bad behaviour’ or ‘bad luck’ to one of systemic effectiveness. The challenge for the sector is to give people the tools to start telling different stories.

“I’ve had to fight hard against a narrative imposed on me all my life,” said playwright Fionulla Kennedy at our Belfast Impact Forum. “We can all experience these narratives – we need to check them and call them out.”

The stories we tell and language we use to talk about homelessness can not only offend and hurt people with lived experience but can also limit how we collectively think about the issue and reinforce old ways of doing things.


New words and phrases can inspire new attitudes, new ideas and signal a shift in how we choose to approach an issue like homelessness. They can encourage us to reflect and reassess how we have been unconsciously and routinely behaving and thinking.  

This is an idea that has already been explored in depth through the collaborative work of Crisis and the FrameWorks Institute, whose 2018 report, Reframing Homelessness in the United Kingdom, acknowledges that “engrained cultural perspectives can act as obstacles to building public will for the large-scale solutions necessary to address homelessness effectively.”

To address this, it proposes a Common Experience meta-frame that includes three core ideas. 

1. People’s fundamental commonality. 

Homeless people are, like all of us, human beings and members of society. The right values, metaphor and stories can orient people to what we all share.

2. The lived experience of homelessness. 

Metaphor and stories about various types of housing insecurity, when told in the right ways, can help people understand what it feels like to be homeless.

3. The role of systems. 

The values, metaphor and solutions that help to make up the frame encourage systemic thinking about how homelessness happens and cultivate support for systems level policy change to bring about solutions.

It’s not enough for people working in homelessness to adopt these ideas. In order to encourage widespread change we need to enlist the help of the media too. All too often the national and international news is complicit in the victimisation and re-traumatisation of people with lived experience of homelessness and in reinforcing damaging stereotypes.

This is a challenge being addressed by Maeve McClenaghan at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, who spoke at all of our Impact Forums. Maeve acknowledges that our traditional media model favours bad news and shocking statistics to make its front pages more arresting. But these fail to create empathy among the public, and often make the challenge of ending homelessness seem insurmountable. She proposes an alternative that moves people to a place of empathy and understanding, “not by telling sob stories or pitting people against each other, but by revealing that we’re complex humans navigating complex systems.”

Drawing on the work of social neuroscientist Dr Lasana Harris, Maeve has been working on addressing the ‘bystander effect’ in her reporting on homelessness, marrying data-driven stories with personal narratives that encourage readers to relate to people experiencing homelessness and close the empathy gap between them and wider society.

“Lots of people want to tell their stories,” she says, “and if they do, they should be given the platform to do so. Bringing journalists into communities can really help open this dialogue.”

A simple strategy Maeve proposes to help tackle some of these issues is the creation of guidance on how to communicate about homelessness and the appropriate language to use. This is a tool that CHI will be looking to create in the coming months. If you’d like to help us, get in touch at hello@homelessnessimpact.org

Fundamental to this shift in how we talk about homelessness will be the monitoring of the impact and effectiveness of our communications. Only by using empirical evidence can we ensure that new modes of communication truly impact the public perception of homelessness and make its eradication a shared priority.

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