How can we talk about homelessness in a way that deepens public understanding and builds demand for the problem to be solved?
How can we better influence the media to report homelessness as a result of policy choices not life choices?
How can we avoid reinforcing negative stereotypes about homeless people and a sense that homelessness is too hard to solve?
These important questions must be addressed if the long-term solutions to homelessness set out in this plan are to be understood and backed by the public. While it may be possible to achieve political changes without public support, it is harder to do so, and less likely those policies will survive in the long term. It is easier for politicians to make the policy and spending decisions needed to end homelessness if they see public demand for them. To answer these questions, and provide robust evidence for effectively communicating homelessness, we commissioned a two-year study from the renowned FrameWorks Institute.1 Unless otherwise stated, all evidence in this chapter is from ‘Finding a better frame’, the FrameWorks Institute study, conducted across the UK during 2017 and 2018.
This chapter details the main themes in public understanding of homelessness. It highlights how these differ from the messages and understanding that those involved in tackling the issue are trying to communicate. The analysis shows why there is a disconnect between the intended messages and how they are received by the public. It then provides evidence of how homelessness must be reframed to redress the problem.
To understand any gap between the public view of homelessness and the messages that experts on the issue are trying to communicate, FrameWorks first established an ‘expert story’. This involved a set of in-depth interviews with leading figures working in homelessness.
The combined and agreed content from these interviews form the ‘target’ messages that ending homelessness advocates are either directly intending to communicate to the public, or hope are communicated. A summary of the results is set out in the box opposite.
Those at highest risk of homelessness are:
The causes of homelessness are:
The solutions to homelessness are:
The expert view from within the homelessness sector is of a multi-faceted and complex issue. Homelessness presents itself in a range of ways, has a complicated range of causal factors, and requires a comprehensive reform agenda for solving it. With this in mind it is easy to see why communicating the issue effectively is problematic.
It is fair to say that no single homelessness organisation or advocate has the ability to control public discourse on the issue. It is also regrettable that to date, the homelessness sector has not coordinated its communication efforts; we have been more likely to compete for media coverage or fundraising attention.
All of these factors affect the messages received by the public.
By comparing the expert view of homelessness with that of the general public, FrameWorks identified three major challenges for those seeking to communicate effectively about the issue.
Challenge #1 – A narrow definition of what homelessness is, and who is affected
Through a series of in-depth and also shorter on-the-street interviews, FrameWorks gathered evidence of the patterns of reasoning, assumptions, and understanding of homelessness among the public. Two clear patterns, or cultural models were identified.
The ‘homelessness = rough sleeping’ model
The public equates homelessness with people living on the streets. It is the absence of having a roof over your head. This is problematic not only because it misrepresents the full range of homelessness, but also because it blocks understanding of other forms. When participants in the study were introduced to other types of homelessness they challenged whether these were ‘real’ in the same way.
The ‘home as a refuge from a dangerous world’ model
According to this model, home is a place of loving relationships, comfort and protection – as opposed to the outside world, which is cold and dangerous. In this model, the home is an essential part of human life needed for our physical and mental health. It is a space that makes ordinary human life possible.
When the combination of the ‘homelessness = rough sleeping’ model and the ‘home as refuge’ is active, people express very deep and powerfully negative emotions about homelessness. Homelessness is understood as a state completely outside of, and alien to, normal human existence.
In many ways this is a positive model for those advocating solutions to homelessness, not least because homelessness is so strongly opposed. We also don’t have to spend time convincing people that homelessness is a bad thing. However, when combined with the homelessness = rough sleeping model, members of the public associate the powerful negative emotions about homelessness with homeless people themselves. They see them as exclusively rough sleepers. This in turn can lead to stigmatisation and the idea that homeless people are ‘other people’.
In addition to the two dominant cultural models, a clear picture emerged of which type of person the public regards as being homeless. FrameWorks researchers emphasised the strength of these findings.
“Across all of the social issues on which FrameWorks has conducted research, we have not identified prototypes that so powerfully shape subsequent thinking about that issue as we have during the course of our research on homelessness.”
Prototype 1: The middle-aged man
By far the most dominant prototype, the middle-aged man is between the ages of 40 and 60 and has been sleeping rough for an extended period of time. He is assumed to have serious mental health and addiction problems. As one research participant put it:
“Some people might have mental health problems and never be able to have what is normal to society. They will always be at the fringe or they are at the fringe and nobody is looking out for them and then they end up homeless.”
The middle-aged man is cognitively linked with the models that blame homeless people for their situation, and with fatalism about the possibility of ending homelessness for individuals or society.
Prototype 2: Young and homeless
This is a young person who has been kicked out by their family and is living on the streets. The person could be male or female and is assumed to be living on the streets because of some dysfunction in the family home.
This activates individualistic thinking about families and makes it difficult to see any structural reasons why young people might be homeless. As one participant put it:
“I think about the children who get sexually abused and run away. You know? Maybe from a stepfather, or mum’s boyfriend, or whoever. And they run away. And then they’ve nowhere to go and end up just living on the streets.”
Prototype 3: Abused women
Similar to the young and homeless idea, this is about women who have left a domestic setting with no other choice than to sleep rough.
“Say you come from a family and you decided to leave that relationship because it’s so septic, but you go to a woman’s refuge. It’s a home for now, but it’s not a home, just somewhere safe.”
These dominant prototypes raise a number of problems for the homelessness sector. First, while they include some elements of truth, they also exclude wider understanding of other homeless people, of different forms of homelessness. Also, with these mental images it is hard to see it as a widespread social issue.
With such strong images of who homeless people are, it is very difficult for the public to understand or empathise with those affected unless they themselves have experienced something similar. Furthermore, such a narrow view of homelessness associated with personal choices can lead to feelings of antipathy or blame being directed at homeless people.
Challenge #2 – People see homelessness through the lens of individualism
As we saw above, experts working in homelessness view the problem as fundamentally caused by structural policy choices. These include housing and welfare policies, and the way in which public services prevent or respond to homelessness when it occurs. Even where personal factors can lead to a risk of homelessness, advocates, including ourselves, strongly believe that with the right public policy responses it is not inevitable. Indeed, many of those risk factors are themselves a result of policy failings. FrameWorks has demonstrated that public opinion on these issues diverges sharply from that of the homelessness sector. Homelessness is understood by the public to be a private issue affecting individuals and their families.
There are a number of cultural models identified by the research that explain this divergence.
The ‘individualism’ model
Individualism is an overarching cultural model which powerfully affects public thinking. It shapes how people perceive the causes and consequences of homelessness, and a range of other social problems. In this model, people see the causes of large-scale social problems such as poverty, crime and homelessness through a lens that looks at individual characters and situations. However, the broader social context is hidden from view.
Consequently, people blame problems on ‘bad’ people who make poor choices, or dysfunctional families with deficient values. Individualism obscures systemic and structural factors that cause or contribute to social problems. These can include a lack of access to affordable housing, quality education, or other resources, and national policies affecting employment. Homelessness, through this logic, is a personal affliction rather than a social problem.
This is supported by other studies of public opinion. For example, recent Ipsos Mori public polling for The Salvation Army found that people view the main reasons for homelessness as individual choices and circumstances. Reasons given included addiction to drugs and alcohol, or personal debt.
The strength of the individualism model is directly tied to people’s prototypes of homelessness. Because prototypical images of individuals structure thinking about homelessness, thinking about the issue begins – and often stops – at the individual level. Individualism blinds people to the reality of what causes homelessness, and limits public understanding and involvement with the issue. This can diminish its importance and therefore any chance that people will support strategies for tackling the problem.
The ‘self-makingness’ model
The self-makingness cultural model is the widely shared and frequently applied belief that individuals make their own fates and determine their own destinies. According to this model, everyone has the opportunity to achieve success; people who experience homelessness or other hardships have simply failed to work hard and seize those opportunities. When thinking in this way, people attribute success or failure to whether a person has tried hard enough or not. People are homeless because they ‘choose’ behaviours that lead to the loss of housing. Members of the public, for example, often list addiction as a factor that can lead to homelessness, especially when thinking about the middle-aged man prototype. But they understand addiction as a choice. People choose to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, take drugs or gamble despite the risks inherent in these activities. In this way, addiction is a series of bad personal choices that lead to homelessness. As with individualism, this model restricts the public’s understanding and appetite for wider solutions to homelessness.
The ‘rational actor’ model
People think about homelessness through another specific model of behaviour, also rooted in the individualism model. According to this model, many homeless people have made a deliberate decision that being homeless is better than conforming to the norms, responsibilities and expectations of society. So homelessness is a decision made by an individual to avoid the costs of family life, participation in the job market or social responsibilities. Homelessness is a conscious and affirmative choice to live without shelter. As one research participant put it:
“It can be a choice. People can decide to make themselves homeless and to seek a more free approach to life.”
If homelessness can be viewed as a lifestyle choice in this way, it can lead to the view that people must be dissuaded from their decision to live on the streets, and even criminalised for doing so. This is a pernicious cultural model that takes public opinion very far from the intention of many homelessness sector advocates when communicating their issue.
The already available model
The public also assumes that the services necessary to support those who are homeless are readily available and easily accessible. The problem, people reason, is not that services don’t exist, but that homeless people are either unaware of or unwilling to use them.
“Say for example, if it’s a condition of the hostel that you don’t take drugs on the premises and you don’t come into it intoxicated, there are people that will fulfil those rules and there are people that won’t have the mental strength to fulfil those roles. In each case, they would just be wandering around on the streets, probably get arrested every now and again.”
The charity model
This model is also part of the individualism model. When applying it, the public assumes that individual acts of kindness and charity towards people in crisis are effective and sufficient in addressing homelessness. The obvious drawback is that if one-off charitable acts are seen as sufficient, then people’s appetite for tackling structural causes, or advocating prevention measures, are seriously inhibited. Each of these individualistic cultural models is problematic when they evoke public responses to homelessness. They make it less likely that people will recognise or consider systemic causes or solutions to the problem
Challenge #3 – Prevention is poorly understood by the public
Experts in the homelessness sector agree that steps can be taken to prevent homelessness, and call for bold action in this area. In our political work, the sector regularly calls for preventative policies, including:
This focus on prevention is a critical disjuncture between the sector and public understandings of homelessness. The public lacks a robust understanding of the concept of prevention, and the subject is largely absent from public discussion. So it is not surprising that people do not see prevention as a viable social policy.
The dominant cultural models and prototypes of homeless people prevent people from thinking about prevention of homelessness in systemic terms. Working within the individualism models above, people can think about how individual actions can prevent homelessness – making better choices, for example. But they do not see how politicians can make better policies to increase access to stable, affordable housing.
When people think of ways of preventing homelessness they do not think of broader economic policies or solutions, such as ensuring a strong benefits system or stable jobs with good wages. Recent FrameWorks research on poverty in the UK found that the public does think of such measures as solutions to poverty 6, but sadly not in relation to homelessness. This is because the public sees homelessness and poverty as distinct issues.
The ‘crisis intervention’ model
The public’s difficulty in thinking about prevention is reinforced by this dominant model of solutions. Research participants equated addressing homelessness with intervening to help people in moments of crisis, such as when women who have been abused find themselves on the streets. This typically involves finding people shelter. Because homelessness becomes visible when people are on the streets, the public only thinks of short-term crisis solutions to homelessness.
This model impedes thinking about systemic steps to prevent homelessness. Considering prevention is difficult. This is because people lack a way of thinking about homelessness that includes any parts of the spectrum other than rough sleeping. They see interventions and solutions in remedial terms.
FrameWorks is clear that considerable work is needed to explain the causes of homelessness ‘such that people can see the potential power of intervening early or pre-emptively, and imagine ways of doing so, to avoid problems and create better outcomes.’
Challenge #4 – Fatalism about homelessness limits support for solutions
The final challenge identified by FrameWorks is the issue of fatalism, or the idea that the public see homelessness as inevitable and unsolvable. They identified a set of inter-relating cultural models relating to fatalism..
The ‘bad break’ model
This is the idea that homelessness via bad luck can strike at any time, and it is unpredictable. Quite apart from having any link to social structures or predictable impact of policies, homelessness is simply what happens when people experience something like sudden job loss. As one research participant explained when asked what causes homelessness:
"Some guy’s unlucky and his wife kicked him out. Freezes all the accounts, blah, blah, blah.”
This model leads the public to assume that some degree of homelessness is inevitable – bad breaks are bound to happen – and to doubt that policies or programmes can do anything to prevent it. This poses a challenge to the sector in communicating homelessness: to demonstrate how and when it can be predicted, and to identify consistent causal links. Without this, when the ‘bad break’ model is evoked, it is unlikely the public will engage in solutions.
The ‘modern life is hard’ model
This is a cultural model that leads people to conclude that modern life sets people up for financial struggle and instability. This assumes that modern life has seen a breakdown of traditional community relationships and social support, while also putting pressure on people to achieve a certain lifestyle.
Homelessness occurs when people who are unable or unwilling to achieve this lifestyle ‘fall through the cracks’ of society, because they have no family or community to depend on during hard times. Importantly, the public thinks of this dissolution of support mechanisms as permanent and irreversible.
While this model allows people to view homelessness within a frame of causal links, it is again a fatalistic approach. The model is closely tied to a malaise about modernity and the loss of a more caring and socially responsible time. Because of this, FrameWorks recommends that ‘communicators must be careful about employing nostalgic language, as this is likely to trigger the model and lead people to yearn for a past that they perceive to be irretrievable.’
The ‘vicious cycle’ model
This is the idea that people who experience homelessness are trapped in a downward spiral from which they are unlikely to recover, and is especially active when thinking about the prototype of the rough sleeping middle-aged man.
The vicious cycle model assumes that problems like addiction and mental illness are exacerbated by living on the streets and make it difficult for middle-aged men to escape homelessness. Like experts, members of the public recognise that the causes and effects of homelessness, such as addiction, are intertwined and reinforce each other. However, among the public this leads to a strong sense of fatalism about addressing homelessness. Members of the public assume people are permanently damaged by their experiences of homelessness. They assume that ‘damage done is damage done’, and that anyone who experiences homelessness for a significant time will be unable to reintegrate into mainstream society. As one research participant put it:
“I know somebody who is a chronic alcoholic and he really wants to get off the street and wants to go to a clinic. He can’t go to one because he is not without drink for long enough that they will pay for him to go. But he also knows he’s going to die.”
If this model is active in the public understanding of homelessness, then the idea of solutions to homelessness is pointless. The cycle is unbreakable, so why try?
The ‘game is rigged’ model
The final fatalistic model identified by FrameWorks is about the idea that there will always be homelessness because elites at the top of society will never see solving it as within their interests. Furthermore, when this model is active in public thinking, people believe that these elites actively manipulate the economy and government to get what they want.
FrameWorks has found that this model is deeply embedded across a range of issues in the UK, and that it consistently leads to fatalism about solving problems. This is even when people can identify possible solutions.
The model undermines the role of public policy and of campaigning, as people are cynical about what will ever be achieved against the will of powerful elites. This means that finding ways to ‘tune out’ this model are vital. Instead we must find evidence-based ways to communicate the value and potential of collective action and positive political choices.
There are a set of fundamental differences between the expert view of homelessness and their intentions in communicating the issue, and the ways the public understands and processes their thoughts on it.
To understand why these differences occur, FrameWorks studied a sample of 333 charity and media materials about homelessness that appeared between October 2014 and October 2016.7 The results demonstrate why the cultural models and prototypes are activated in people’s minds. Evidence of the way in which media and homelessness sector communications have influenced public understanding is presented below, using the four challenges explored above.