Communicating Effectively About Ending Homelessness

April 3, 2017

Imagine you are sitting down to write an op-ed for your local newspaper about your work. You kick around two different ideas of ways to begin. Either:

“Together, we are working better and smarter to end homelessness in America.”

Or, “We are struggling to deal with the homelessness crisis in America.”

Which one would you choose?

How we talk about ending homelessness in our communities matters. But while we have been developing significant evidence around what works programmatically and systemically, we still have much to learn about the most effective ways to talk about the importance of our work—and to get individuals and communities behind that effort.

That’s why I was delighted to come across a new research report from Enterprise Community Partners: “You Don’t Have to Live Here”: Why Housing Messages are Backfiring and 10 Things We Can Do About It . To discuss the report, and how its conclusions can help us all communicate more effectively about ending homelessness in this country, we invited Tiffany Manuel, vice president of Knowledge, Impact, and Strategy at Enterprise, to join us at USICH recently.

I wanted to share with you the top five tips I took away from our fascinating discussion with Dr. Manuel, to help you think about the effectiveness of your own communication, while we continue to think about ours:

  • Start with ‘why.’ When we talk about our work, we have a tendency to jump right in to an explanation of what services we offer or how we help people find permanent housing. But marketing experts tell us that people get behind ideas or causes because they connect with them emotionally. That means we need all our communication to clearly broadcast why we do what we do—to talk openly about the vision and values behind our efforts. For example, we do this work because we believe that ending homelessness is possible. And beyond that, we believe that this work is a model for solving other complex social challenges that keep too many Americans from achieving their goals.

  • Tell stories about what ending homelessness means from a variety of different perspectives. We all like to share compelling stories about people exiting homelessness and how their lives were changed. But the people we are trying to engage in this work need to see themselves in our stories, too, in order for them to understand and connect with their own roles. We need to be telling stories about what ending homelessness has meant to our landlords, small business owners, and police officers, along with the many other champions and potential champions in our communities. For example, Dr. Manuel highlighted the different perspectives that sociologist Matthew Desmond wrote about in his book, Evicted , as a compelling way of engaging readers who are coming to the issue from different viewpoints.

  • Talk about the struggles of your neighbors specifically. It’s no surprise that people care the most about the lives of the folks closest to them. And we all want our communities to be places where our friends and neighbors have an opportunity to prosper. To make the case for housing affordability, we need to ground our conversation in local stories: our elderly next-door neighbor who can no longer afford to live in the home where she raised her children. Or the children in our local elementary school—in our own kids’ classes—who we know are going to struggle a lot more in life because of the trauma of being without a home.

  • Fill in all the pieces of the plot. Most people don’t understand how a variety of federal, state, and local policies affect housing stability and homelessness. As a result, we may have a tendency to believe that people or families become homeless because of their own choices or that there is nothing public agencies can do to prevent and end homelessness. To build momentum for change, we need to connect all the dots of how our policy decisions affect individuals in ways that might push them into homelessness or make it difficult for them to exit homelessness. And we need to describe what would happen if those policy decisions changed. For example, when growing communities create new jobs, but housing development fails to keep up with the demand, lower-wage workers and retirees get priced out of the market, often with no place to go. For our neighborhoods to be vibrant, prosperous places where all people can thrive, we must make sure that local land use policies allow the supply of housing to keep up with demand.

  • Describe homelessness as the solvable problem that it is. Americans, in particular, believe that the power of our ingenuity and “can do” spirit will solve any problem. We want to throw our efforts behind real solutions. Using alarming words like “crisis” to describe homelessness and “scarcity” to describe available housing resources actually backfires—they make the problem seem insurmountable and people less inclined to help. Going back to the examples I gave at the top, I would have used—and often do use—the first choice. We do know the best way to end homelessness in America, and we are making steady progress toward that goal. We need to share the message far and wide that we are ending homelessness, together.

If you have thoughts or research about how to best communicate about homelessness, I would love to hear from you .

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