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The importance of framing: Are your messages about homelessness being heard?

18 August 2020

Have you ever thought about why we frame pictures? What we are doing when we choose a frame to display an image to the world?

There could be many different reasons behind our choices. The style or material of the frame could say something about what we value in life and the importance we place on the image; we could be protecting the image from harmful external forces like light or heat. Or we could be using the frame to draw attention to this particular image, to single it out from others in the room and increase its power and impact.

When we use framing in our communications, we can do all of these things for our messages. We can show why they are important; protect them; and give them power.

We can make deliberate language choices to emphasise how important something is and why. We can help protect our messages from misinterpretation, to protect those whose stories we are trying to tell from being misunderstood. We can focus attention and encourage our audience’s understanding and connection with our messages. And this is exactly what Crisis wanted to do when we started the process of rethinking how we frame homelessness.

So what’s the first step to framing homelessness?  

Before we can frame our messages about homelessness effectively, we have to understand what our audiences think and feel, and what might be driving their thinking. We have to know what we are up against and notice where there are open doors.

At Crisis, we commissioned The FrameWorks Institute to conduct in-depth research to understand attitudes towards homelessness in the UK. The research looked at the shared sector understanding of homelessness and its communications about it; at media coverage of homelessness; and took a deep look at public thinking, involving more than 10,000 members of the UK public.

What does the public think about homelessness?  

If we were to ask a member of the UK public to imagine someone who is homeless and think about why, something like this will probably come to mind:

They will see someone rough sleeping. That person will probably be a white, middle-aged man or a young person who has come off the rails. The reasons they are there will probably include drugs or alcohol, mental health problems, or poor management of money. They may even think that person has chosen to live this way. Even though people can appreciate that many face very difficult circumstances in their lives, there is still focus on individual situations, and likely to be blamed on individuals for making bad choices.  

And what’s missing from this mental image? A wider experience of homelessness, like sofa surfing, and temporary or unsafe accommodation. System or structure-level thinking about why this person doesn’t have a home – is there housing they can afford; is secure work available; can they access the welfare or healthcare support they need.  

And if we ask a member of the public to imagine how we can solve homelessness – they’ll probably draw a blank. They may feel that homelessness is out of control. Or if they can form an image, they are likely to imagine ‘emergency’ responses like hostel provision, drug and alcohol services. Prevention is missing.

When these strong mental shortcuts are active and frequently reinforced, even if unintentionally, it’s difficult for people to hear messages about systems causes, societal consequences, solutions, prevention, and ending homelessness for good.

So how can we help our messages be heard?  

The words and images we use matter – they hold the power and potential to change hearts and minds. By using tested frames, you can help shift public thinking towards the shared sector understanding of homelessness. Here’s how.

  1. By showing a wider experience of homelessness and making sure our stories feature the social, economic, and governmental systems and structures which limit people’s options and force them into homelessness, we can help dislodge the idea that homelessness happens because individuals make bad choices and that there are no effective solutions. Make systems and structures important actors in your stories and explain how solutions work.
  2. By framing our stories and statistics with tested values – with deeply held and commonly shared ideas about what is important in life – we can help position why ending homelessness is important. By framing with the idea of home as a moral human right, and our essential interdependence in society, we can dislodge the belief that homelessness only affects a small group of ‘other’ people and stress it matters to us all as humans, as members of society.  

    “Our society is stronger when everyone can afford a safe and stable home.”

  3. Framing with metaphors – painting vivid images to make the abstract concrete – helps people understand and empathise with why homelessness happens. We can use the image of constant pressure to bring in systems, dislodge blame, and encourage empathy for what it feels like to be forced from your home by pressures out of your control:

    “Poverty puts constant pressure on people and forces people already pushed to the brink into homelessness.”

    And by explaining what policy changes and government actions could relieve that pressure, we can bring solutions into the light and show how they work.

  4. By making small changes to the language we use, we can avoid ‘othering’ people facing homelessness. We can avoid fuelling the stigma people face every day for being without a home. We can replace ‘homeless people’ or ‘rough sleepers’ with ‘people facing homelessness’ or ‘experiencing rough sleeping.’ During coronavirus, instead of describing people as ‘vulnerable’, we can say they are ‘more exposed to..’ or at ‘greater risk’ of harm.    

Working together to reframe homelessness

At Crisis we’re integrating framing into our communications, campaigning, fundraising, and how we talk with members of the public. Across teams, we’re experimenting, practicing, and learning as we go. We’re also leading a project funded by Comic Relief to support the homelessness sector and beyond to look at the framing evidence and put it into practice.

The more that we can work together across the sector to tell a powerful new story about homelessness, the better our chance of building public support and political commitment for ending it for good. 

If you’d like to learn more about framing homelessness, think through and practice how it could work for your communications, come to the Crisis website for a free video training series from The FrameWorks Institute recorded during lockdown. You can also find our Framing Homelessness Toolkit, a short summary of the original research, Our Common Experience, and our Guide to Framing Homelessness During Coronavirus.  


Image: Pine Watt on Unsplash

Catherine Ashford

strategic communications project manager, Crisis

Catherine is strategic communications project manager for the Framing Homelessness Project at Crisis. She’s focusing on enabling and encouraging the homelessness sector and beyond to tell a new story about homelessness that builds public support and political commitment to ending it for good.