Backsliding Support and Backfiring Messaging: The Homelessness Conversation Needs a Reframe

Research shows that common messages supporting permanent solutions to homelessness are not working. But there are other ways to frame the discussion.

Illustrating solutions to homelessness: Against a plain off-white background, a composite image of a woman's head and shoulders with aerial view of a city visible within the silhouette. She is looking to the left, and the city view shows a highway and crowded neighborhoods.
Photo by Metamorworks via iStock

Thanks to a perfect storm of a constricting housing market, supportive services that have withered during the pandemic, widespread job losses over the last two years, and challenging local housing policy responses, unsheltered homelessness is on the rise in communities across the country. And if you live in a West Coast city or another high-cost market such as Boston, Washington, D.C., or New York City, you know that it’s also front and center in our public discourse.

The way that supporters of long-term solutions frame this pressing social issue may be the difference between whether the public and policymakers support short-term, punitive responses to homelessness or long-term, evidence-based solutions that get to the root causes.

Framing refers to the choices that we make when we communicate—the values we use, the metaphors we evoke, the solutions we advance—and the way those choices affect what people think, feel, and do. Framing has been a key part of gains made on other social issues—from anti-smoking to marriage equality. In these cases, careful framing helped advocates shift public thinking and unlock change. Through research-based framing strategies, advocates can build support for solutions to homelessness that work.

Public Opinion and Policy Approaches are Moving Away From Evidence-based Solutions

Over the past decade, through hard work and messaging discipline, advocates have been successful in increasing compassion toward people experiencing homelessness and pointing toward evidence-based policies and programs, like Housing First and supportive housing, which led to bipartisan support among policymakers for permanent housing solutions. In 2016, researchers found that public support for restrictions on sleeping and camping in public places had dropped significantly since 1995.

But the current rise in visibility of unsheltered homelessness is erasing these gains. With each new poll, it’s increasingly clear that advocates for long-term solutions are losing public support and falling behind in the competition for public opinion. Five years ago, more than two-thirds of Los Angeles voters approved measures dedicating $5 billion over 10 years to permanent housing and services. Today, a majority of LA residents express frustration about the slow pace of change and have switched their priorities to support short-term fixes such as emergency shelters.

[RELATED ARTICLE: How Do We Change the Narrative Around Housing?]

Driven by this shift in public opinion, policymakers are succumbing to public pressure and pushing harsher approaches toward unsheltered homelessness. Decision-makers across the country are implementing policies that restrict where people may sit, lie, and sleep and that clear away encampments. Cities such as Los Angeles, Austin, and Portland have restricted camping, and the new mayor of New York City has proposed banning unhoused people from sleeping on subway trains. This is all despite evidence that such measures do nothing to address the underlying causes of homelessness and might actually make things worse by creating additional trauma, deepening challenges for those living without housing, and reinforcing racial disparities.

Why Current Messaging Around Solutions to Homelessness Isn’t Working

Not only are long-term solution advocates failing to resonate, but many of their messages are backfiring—pushing people even further toward short-term and punitive responses to homelessness. The sector regularly shares evidence of progress in housing placement and stability, and advocates highlight stories of people who have moved from living outside to thriving in permanent housing. But these communications strategies seem at odds with reality and just aren’t connecting with what people see in their communities.

When messages are out of whack with people’s experiences, they can backfire. Instead of moving people back to seeing the importance of long-term housing solutions, these messages further entrench people’s beliefs in the need for encampment sweeps and short-term responses.

[RELATED ARTICLE: How Do We Change the Narrative Around Housing?]

As we’ve seen in the recent debate over Critical Race Theory, it’s easy to give in to the urge to argue and push back on incorrect understandings by repeating them and showing people how wrong they are; an example is the misperception that everyone living without housing is violent or suffering from addiction and mental health issues. And it’s easier still for those who work on an issue like homelessness to get stuck in the weeds of complex housing and social service systems and development models. But these approaches alienate potential supporters.

Research shows that arguing against misperceptions by repeating mistaken understandings can paradoxically strengthen people’s belief in the false position. The more times people hear things, the more they believe them to be true. And getting stuck in the weeds can make people feel that you’re out of touch with their concerns and don’t really understand what’s happening on the ground.

Even with these backfires and setbacks, there are opportunities for advocates to use the prominence of this issue in the public discourse to rekindle and strengthen demand for long-term solutions. A recent national poll shows that while people are increasingly frustrated about the lack of progress in addressing homelessness, they recognize that encampment sweeps do little other than move people experiencing homelessness around. And even with loud voices proclaiming that homelessness is a mental health and addiction issue, polls indicate that the majority of Americans understand that structural issues such as the lack of affordable housing and high cost of living are powerful drivers of homelessness.

Three Strategies to Reframe the Issue of Homelessness and Build Support for Long-term Solutions

  1. Appeal to shared values. When it comes to getting people on board with long-term solutions to homelessness, rather than simply highlighting how bad the “crisis” is, we need to think hard about the shared values that we advance as explanations for why addressing this issue is so important. Research from the Frameworks Institute on reframing social issues generally and specifically on communicating about homelessness in the UK, suggests that starting with moral values of human dignity (e.g., “As a country, we believe that everyone should be treated with dignity”) and interdependence (e.g., “Making sure that everyone has safe, stable housing benefits us all by creating a stronger society”) are promising ways of engaging people and restoking support for measures that move us toward long-term solutions. Research for the Housing Narrative Lab finds that focusing on the “shared desire for everyone to get and keep a roof over their heads” is effective with people across the political spectrum.
  2. Connect solutions to people’s realities. Those advocating for long-term solutions don’t need to avoid or downplay the very real concerns that people in communities have about the increases in homelessness they see around them. Instead, advocates should connect with these concerns and show how long-term solutions are actually the way to address them. Persuasive communications need to connect with people’s sense of urgency, but also advance and explain concrete and feasible solutions. In a 2020 report on “What America Believes about Homelessness,” Invisible People identifies four audience segments and how to target messages for each: for those least likely to support long-term solutions, they find that messages that address concerns with realistic solutions, not “sympathetic handouts,” are most likely to resonate. Similarly, the Housing Narrative Lab finds that emphasizing how housing solutions will help connect people to jobs and mental and behavioral health services is more likely to get buy-in from people who blame homelessness on personal challenges.
  3. Explain the root causes of the issue. Research shows that when messages explain causes, rather than just describing problems and advocating solutions, they can build engagement and help people see the potential and power of solutions. Advocates for long-term housing solutions need to show, not tell. This means taking on the root causes of homelessness—including the affordable housing shortage and racial injustice—but also laying out how solutions address the problem, rather than just describing them as necessary and important. Public education and organizing efforts around homelessness, such as the Everyone In campaign in Los Angeles and the We Are In campaign in King County, Washington, provide clear, engaging tools and events to inform people of the causes of homelessness and what they can do about them.

The movement to end homelessness is experiencing major setbacks as calls to clear encampments and punish people who are unhoused continue to gain momentum. But advocates for permanent, evidence-based, and compassionate solutions don’t have to sit back and do nothing—they can change their framing strategy to make a clear and powerful case that now is the right time to solve the root causes of our country’s homelessness challenges.


Bill Pitkin is a senior policy fellow in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center and the Research to Action Lab at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization that provides data and evidence to help advance upward mobility and equity. He is also a fellow at the FrameWorks Institute.
Nat Kendall-Taylor is CEO of the FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit think tank that works to shape the public discourse about social and scientific issues.

1 COMMENT

  1. These are very thoughtful higher level dictates having to do with messaging to regain public/political support. What can you offer to deal with the arguments/point of view that you allude to related to the slowness (and high cost) associated with producing housing/support services? Land is land. Governments own some. They have underutilized land, sometimes hemmed in by local pols and their constituents but always-also turf battles. Let’s plan for a big build at a lower cost per unit/with a subsidized land cost and lower construction costs – limiting consultant fees. Maybe use land trusts to gain investment capital that could earn a return for contributing equity or whatever needs to get done so the ineffable economic advantages/society advantages can be touted together with a cost effective strategy that will speak to the voters.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.