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How Our Narratives About Ending Homelessness Are Backfiring

Simply rehashing the problem does more harm than good. Instead, state and local leaders must help citizens see how solutions to homelessness benefit all of us.

A homeless person being vaccinated.
A homeless person receives a COVID-19 vaccine from a nurse at a vaccination clinic set up in the parking lot of the L.A. Mission in Los Angeles on Feb. 24, 2021. (Shutterstock)
State and local officials across the country continue to grapple with how to solve homelessness and deal with highly visible issues like public encampments in a humane way. But their efforts to make the case for ending homelessness are backfiring.

The heated debates that have followed Jordan Neely’s death in a New York City subway car at the hands of another passenger, while bystanders watched, underscore the point. Negative narratives about the people who, like Neely, experience homelessness too often broad-brush them as irresponsible, violent, deranged and unstable, rather than what they are: people in desperate situations who urgently need our help. Even those appalled by the way Neely died remain at the sidelines, unsure how we could possibly change things.

This is the moment to rally them.

To do that, our leaders will have to change how they make the case for ending homelessness. We’ve watched federal, state and local leaders from Washington, D.C., to California struggle to show progress on ending homelessness and justify their decisions to the public. In other cases, smart policies have been reversed under public pressure while questionable policies that will surely exacerbate the problem have moved forward.

Because many people don’t see their personal stake in ending homelessness or what their role could be, ordinances that might make it easier to build new affordable housing get derailed. Much-needed funding for homelessness services and other necessary supports don’t get approved. Meanwhile, even with effective homelessness service systems in place in many parts of the country, new people fall into homelessness every day.

Social science tells us what works to get people to lean forward — and what doesn’t. Rehashing the problem and painting a dire picture tends to do more harm than good. Faced with terrible statistics, people come to believe what they’re seeing is a crisis too big to solve rather than a systemic problem for which there are solutions. And they believe government is incapable of fixing it. Even when they’re told we’re making progress, many people throw up their hands, discount good work already happening and turn away instead of supporting solutions that work.

Instead, people need to hear stories that make us hungry to solve homelessness because we recognize that doing so is connected to a better future for everyone, whether they have experienced homelessness or not. That’s why public officials should turn to the social science behind how to effectively frame messages and tell stories to engage the public.

First, listen to and understand the aspirations of the people who need to be part of the solution: those who know what it’s like to be homeless because they’ve lived through it; the neighbors who live in communities affected by homelessness; businesses, health-care providers and schools; faith communities, fellow public officials and local nonprofits. People are more likely to join an effort when they see how it matters to them.

Next, envision a future that ties into people’s aspirations for their community and builds optimism rather than defeatism. People need to feel their efforts are likely to be effective. They need to be able to imagine a future with stronger, thriving communities, which includes an end to homelessness. When we share a big-picture, positive vision and show how far we’ve come, it’s harder for naysayers to fill the void with doom that keeps people from acting.

Finally, tell a story of “us.” Ending homelessness will benefit everyone: the people sleeping on the street or in shelters; the workers, retirees and families who will no longer need to fear losing their homes; the children who will be able to go to school every day and learn because they have a secure place to sleep. In other words, all of us.

Using these steps, we can shift the narrative to one that conveys that everyone wants a home and that we’ve got all the tools and amazing people we need to solve this problem.

None of this means we think the road ahead is going to be easy. Ending homelessness is one of the biggest challenges of our time. It’s going to take more years of hard work; federal, state and local commitments to new housing construction and assistance; deeply expanded physical, behavioral, mental health and other social services; and equitable economic policy. We all need to buy in.

Tiffany Manuel is president and CEO of TheCaseMade, a not-for-profit that helps leaders build the public will necessary to tackle tough issues. She is a nationally known public speaker and the author of Case Made!: 10 Powerful Leadership Principles That Win Hearts, Change Minds, and Grow Impact. Ann Oliva is CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the nation’s leading organization dedicated to ending homelessness, and a former federal officer at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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