The Forum Network is a space for experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society— to discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields, and opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
Homelessness was one of the few good news stories of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom: governments in all our nations acted with unprecedented speed and imagination to protect people impacted by homelessness, with remarkable results. The number of people sleeping on the streets, in particular, fell dramatically, from 4,266 in 2019 to 2,440 in 2021 in England, and from 1,645 to 1,304 in Scotland.
But now another storm is upon us. Urgent action is needed to prevent a spike in homelessness amid a cost-of-living crisis, including types of homelessness that are typically hidden from public view.
When her mother kicked her out after finding out she was pregnant, Naomi slept on friends’ sofas during the early stages of her pregnancy. Following a long struggle to prove to her housing officer that she had nowhere to go, she was eventually put in temporary accommodation. After having to leave her accommodation due to mould and mice, she now lives in another temporary flat with her two-year-old. She’s worked in retail for several years as a sales assistant and shop supervisor, and loves long walks around her local area with her daughter. Ⓒ Centre for Homelessness Impact
For those working to end homelessness, the first instinct is often to make sure that as many people as possible are aware of the problem. Here, however, the evidence suggests that how the homelessness sector talks about the issue—and the types of images used in their communications—instead reinforce unhelpful assumptions and stereotypes.
Images used to depict homelessness influence how the issue is perceived, which in turn can affect how people who experience homelessness are treated.
Not only do campaigns fall short and waste resources when they focus solely on raising awareness, but they can actually end up doing more harm than good.
Images used to depict homelessness, in particular, influence how the issue is perceived, which in turn can affect how people who experience homelessness are treated.
Research shows that most of the images typically used to illustrate homelessness reinforce unhelpful stereotypes: in the United Kingdom, the dominant prototype used over and over again is a middle-aged white man who has been sleeping on the streets for a prolonged period, and has a serious mental illness and a drug or alcohol addiction.
Amez Al Hussein, Hyatt Allafi and sons Hussain (2) and Mohammed (6 months). Hyatt and her family are refugees from Syria, recently granted leave to remain. She studied in Greece and Turkey for almost eight years after fleeing war, and she is currently studying English with a hope to look for a good job to support her family in the future. Ⓒ Centre for Homelessness Impact
Further evidence tells us that a key barrier to governments taking prompt action is a lack of public support for the types of policies that can help prevent homelessness. We also know that if you want to get people or organisations to change their behaviour, you should make it easy, attractive and timely for them to do so.
So, we set out to offer friction-free alternatives to images of homelessness that reinforce stigma. We looked at the types of images that are most persuasive in eliciting non-stigmatising responses and reactions and we created a free bank of images—a collection of hundreds of photographs—for any organisation or individual to download and publish.
Diverse images of homelessness
These photographs show real people experiencing homelessness—of all types—across the United Kingdom. They are not “positive” images; there is nothing positive about homelessness. But they are dignified and respectful, and capture their subjects’ humanity. Most importantly, they reflect what the data and evidence tell us about the nature of homelessness in the United Kingdom.
Luke is a performer working in theatre, acting on stage in London. He experienced homelessness after living with a violent and abusive partner forced him to move into a hostel several years ago. He now lives in his own flat. Several years ago, he won a scholarship to university and was given his own flat, but found the experience horrible with homophobic neighbours who smashed his windows. Ⓒ Centre for Homelessness Impact
Yes, some of the participants are middle-aged men. But there are younger men, too, and some older. There are women of all ages, and families with children from a baby in arms and toddlers to school-age children and teenagers.
Yes, some of them are white, as the overwhelming number of people featured in images of homelessness in the United Kingdom are. But many are not, and the collection of images represents the ethnic diversity of homelessness.
Leonie is an up-and-coming performer with an interest in the creative arts. She has been living in a hostel for the past year, and has taken advantage of opportunities in music, painting, acting and cooking. Ⓒ Centre for Homelessness Impact.
Yes, some have slept on the streets. But others are staying in hostels, or in emergency housing or sleeping on friends’ sofas.
Yes, some of our photographs were taken in London and our big cities where the numbers of people experiencing homelessness are highest. But we also photographed people affected by homelessness in seaside resorts, provincial towns and small cities, former coal mining towns and rural communities because we know the profile of homelessness varies from place to place.
Grappling with mental health challenges, Martin has been in and out of temporary accommodation for several years, and has experienced street homelessness on and off. He’d like to start his own jet-washing business and help people who are in a similar situation by providing them with work. Ⓒ Centre for Homelessness Impact.
One part of a broader solution
It would of course be wrong to suggest that changing the type of images we use to portray homelessness is “the answer” to ending homelessness. Real lasting change won’t happen until the root causes of the issue are addressed, and better evidence and more robust science are used to improve people’s lives. The best services for people affected by homelessness do make a difference but their impact has not significantly improved in decades.
Like the OECD, we work to build better policies for better lives; to create programmes that foster prosperity, opportunity and well-being for all. And better images and strategic communications more broadly—when approached thoughtfully, informed by data and delivered with precision—are an important part of the solution.
This is one of the reasons why the Centre for Homelessness Impact was created: to bring new thinking and a culture of experimentation and rigorous evaluation to a sector where these have not been the norm. Like the OECD, we work to build better policies for better lives; to create programmes that foster prosperity, opportunity and well-being for all. And better images and strategic communications more broadly—when approached thoughtfully, informed by data and delivered with precision—are an important part of the solution.
River and her daughter lived alongside River’s grandmother until recently, but it was cramped and unsuitable for the three of them. She was recently diagnosed with fibromyalgia meaning she’s in constant pain, and is looking forward to moving into the house they have been offered. John works part time and is in the process of finishing school where he’s studying an HND in Games Development. He’s hoping for a job in Belfast’s booming IT sector. Ⓒ Centre for Homelessness Impact
Even though our focus was on the United Kingdom, we believe that the initiative will be relevant to organisations and individuals working hard to end homelessness in other countries across the globe.
The success of coming efforts will depend upon two factors. First, shifting perceptions of the impact that policy and practice have on homelessness levels. Second, the development of a coalition of influential organisations and individuals, which can provide the leadership we need to begin to frame the issue in a new way.
To learn more about what is driving homelessness and what can be done to reduce it, read also the policy brief Better data and policies to fight homelessness in the OECD