Reframing homelessness: the big idea that can help end homelessness

Francesca Albanese, Head of Research and Evaluation

There is broad consensus that homelessness remains a critical social problem. Yet depending on who you talk to there are very different views and understanding about why it happens, who is most likely to experience it and ultimately what can be done to solve or prevent homelessness happening in the first place.

Crisis, along with partners in the homelessness sector, has identified the critical role public attitudes have in building support and political commitment to action and change. For the past two years, we have been working with The FrameWorks Institute to understand what the public really thinks about homelessness, how it is portrayed by different communicators, campaigners and experts and how we can shift the conversation by talking about homelessness in a new way.

The research, published today, has concluded that public attitudes to homelessness can and must change. In order to achieve this, we must first understand what the public is thinking to change it. The first phase of the research published last year found that people make automatic assumptions and have set beliefs about homelessness. Many people think rough sleeping is the only form of homelessness and affects a specific type of person – a middle aged man with substance misuse issues, a young runaway or women fleeing domestic violence. Homelessness is also seen as a result of poor choices in life and people don’t think it can be prevented, for example, by targeting those people most at risk such as care leavers or tackling the structural causes of homelessness including lack of secure, affordable housing. Most importantly the public has a sense of fatalism about the issue - a strong belief that homelessness is inevitable and a social problem that cannot be solved.

We know this is simply not true but we often trigger these beliefs inadvertently through our own communications on the issue. This can be through the stereotypical images we use, talking about the choices people have made which have led to their homelessness and suggesting we are all a few pay cheques away from homelessness.

It doesn’t need to be this way. The two year project with The FrameWorks Institute has given us the tools we need to stop us from falling into the traps that reinforce these stereotypes in the way we frame and talk about homelessness. Based on, face to face testing, on the street interviews and a series experimental surveys with over 10,000 people across the UK, the research concludes that strategies exist to shift public thinking in new directions and can be achieved by telling a new story about homelessness and following these recommendations:

  • Use the value of Moral Human Rights to connect and drive policy support – saying clearly and powerfully that everyone has a right to dignity and respect and it is part of basic humanity increases people’s responsibility for addressing homelessness
  • Using the value of Interdependence to place the issue of homelessness in a social context - this helps to highlight what affects one of us affects all of us
  • Explains what causes homelessness using the ‘constant pressure’ metaphor – by giving people vivid and true-to-life way of explaining how homelessness happens by talking about issues such as the pressures of poverty and high housing costs
  • Tell a wider range of stories about the lived experience of homelessness – only talking about rough sleeping taps into people’s existing mental image of homelessness. Talking about other forms of homelessness including those in temporary accommodation or sofa surfing can be combined with the constant pressure metaphor to bring context to the story
  • Avoid othering language that creates a distance, evoking sadness and or pity for ‘them’
  • Direct people to concrete solutions such as social housebuilding or providing personalised support to get homeless people back into work – this can help people understand that homelessness is preventable and a solvable issue
  • Find different ways repeat the message across all communications including fundraising appeals – the research found that integrating new frames can shift attitudes without undermining donations
  • Avoids claims that we are all at risk of homelessness – it does nothing to shift attitudes or policy support because it conflicts with people lived experience and recognition that some people aren’t at risk of homelessness

We now have the evidence we need to act. Crucially this requires all of us to change the way we talk about homelessness to secure policy change and build a deeper understanding of how homelessness happens and how it can be ended.

Download The Reframing Homelessness report.

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