Changing Hearts and Minds: How to Talk About Homelessness

Western University
April 10, 2018

In this bi-weekly blog series, I explore recent research on homelessness, and what it means for the provision of services to prevent or end homelessness. Read the first blog here.


It has been stated that “political will follows public will.” And those who work in fundraising will tell you that a hopeful story generates more funds than a story of distress. Within these two issues lie a challenge for us in solving homelessness: if the general public feels that homelessness is a hopeless situation, there will be limited will to do anything about it. And if the public sees no benefit in taking action on homelessness, then there is less motivation for governments to act. 

Ligia Teixeira tackles this dilemma by exploring public opinions on homelessness, and how those within the sector communicate about the issue.

“We asked ourselves – how might we talk about homelessness in a way that deepens public understanding and builds demand for change?” she asks.

To do this analysis, they conducted 15 interviews with topic experts, 50 interviews with the general public using different methods to glean understanding, and analysis of 333 materials about homelessness put out by the media or homeless-serving organizations.

A number of key points came from this study are:

  • Raising awareness alone is not enough to create change, and can actually have unintended negative impacts (such as enhancing hopelessness)
  • The public is too much locked into a single understanding of homelessness as the “middle-aged, chronically homeless man”
  • We need to push the discussion away from individual causes of homelessness to societal causes
  • We need to be explicit on what homelessness prevention means, what it looks like, and how it works
  • We need to speak of homelessness as a solvable problem

Dr. Teixeira, consistent with the message within her research of focusing on hopefulness, is hopeful when looking at how we communicate about homelessness in order to win the hearts and minds of the general public and policy-makers.

She points out that these recommendations for improving communication are relatively straightforward and easy to adopt, and that many organizations and individuals in the sector are already communicating in this way (see, for example, the Urban Institute in the U.S.). As she concludes, communicating more effectively won’t solve homelessness by itself; but neither can we, if communities and governments do not believe in the cause.

 

Dr. Abe Oudshoorn is an Assistant Professor in the Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing at Western University.  Having worked as a nurse with people experiencing homelessness, Abe’s research focuses on health, homelessness prevention, mental health, and poverty.  Outside of the University, Abe is on the Steering Committee of the London Homeless Coalition and is a board member with the United Way of London & Middlesex.

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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.