Reshaping public perceptions of homelessness in Scotland – new guidance to help tell a new story

Catherine Ashford, Strategic Communications Project Manager

Think about the last time you read or heard something about a topic that’s not close to you. How did you respond?

When we hear and see new information about topics we don’t have expertise in or direct experience of, we often rely on the deeply held ideas and cultural beliefs we’ve built up over long periods of time to help us make sense of it. If the new information chimes with the stories in our heads, we are likely to accept it. If it doesn’t, we might just brush it off, or we might start picking at its validity and actively reject it.

Framing is all about the choices we make when presenting information – it’s about what we choose to emphasise, how we explain things, and what we chose to leave unsaid. Framing research helps us to understand deeply held ideas around a topic or issue. And it helps us to test ways of communicating about an issue to surface and reinforce helpful thinking around it; to shift public thinking in productive ways; and to avoid reinforcing ideas and beliefs that don’t serve our cause.

At the start of the pandemic, radical action by government and homelessness services in Scotland brought people off the streets and into safe, self-contained accommodation. It showed that with the right political will, we can make huge progress in a matter of weeks.

A new story 

We can end homelessness. As a vital part of achieving this, we need a powerful new story about it to take hold in people’s minds. We need to replace old ideas of inevitability and poor choices with understanding of structural causes and the belief that we can end homelessness with the right action and change. We need to help people understand what homelessness is, and why it happens in ways they can understand and relate to. And we need to be acutely aware that the words and images we use to depict homelessness have a profound impact on people experiencing it. 

Recent coverage of the Prevention Review Group report, with recommendations on how acting earlier can stop people losing their home in the first place, shows how effective the Scottish media can be in communicating complex ideas. How homelessness is portrayed has the power to challenge and dislodge the stigma and exclusion experienced everyday by people without a home.

We need this new story to be communicated in as many different places, and in as many creative and compelling ways, as possible. Because quite simply, the more we see and hear messages that connect with us, the more likely they are to become part of our personal story about homelessness.    

Communicating about homelessness

With this in mind, the sector has come together to publish a short guide on communicating about homelessness – Responsibly Communicating Homelessness: a guide to reshaping the public perception of homelessness in Scotland. This short guide draws on the expertise of organisations in the homelessness sector in Scotland and their work with people with direct experience of homelessness. It also draws on strategies for framing homelessness tested in original research from the FrameWorks Institute, commissioned by Crisis – which included research in Scotland.

The guide talks about how:

  • We can challenge stigma by avoiding labels like ‘the homeless’ and ‘rough sleepers’ and instead use ‘people experiencing’ or ‘facing homelessness’. And by checking that the imagery we use doesn’t reinforce harmful stereotypes.
  • We can explain how homelessness happens – showing the structural forces that exert unbearable pressure on people – like lack of housing people can afford, insecure work, and insufficient welfare support.
  • We can show how homelessness can be prevented and ended for good by showing how structural solutions work to relieve these pressures.

Putting it into practice

And to help connect these new ideas to deeply held beliefs that will motivate collective action, we can emphasise our common humanity and that we all need safe, secure homes to thrive in society and make it stronger.

Through our Framing Homelessness Project, Crisis is working to support its staff and the wider homelessness sector in Scotland to look at the evidence base for reframing homelessness and put its recommendations into practice. As part of this work, later this year, we’ll be reaching out to colleagues in the media across the UK to start sharing these insights and ideas for talking powerfully about homelessness to build support for action and change.

If you’d like to know more about our work to reframe homelessness, please contact me at catherine.ashford@crisis.org.uk

For media enquiries:

E: media@crisis.org.uk
T: 020 7426 3880

For general enquiries:

E: enquiries@crisis.org.uk
T: 0300 636 1967