Many responses to homelessness focus on physical and tangible things: the need for more affordable homes and better financial assistance, and support services.
Of course, these are fundamental parts of the answer. But for me, something intangible is also very important: the way most people think about homelessness.
Public opinion matters because it both reflects and shapes the media narrative around homelessness. This in turn influences the political climate and the way governments and legislators respond to homelessness and the priority they give to it.
And public perceptions of homelessness on key points are often not aligned with the best evidence available. This is how negative stereotypes are perpetuated and the stigma associated with homelessness is reinforced.
Our polling with Ipsos shows that, when asked to estimate the proportion of people experiencing homelessness who have a drink or drugs problem, the average answer is that most people think about half (49%). But data collected by local authorities from people assessed as homeless shows just 4% have an alcohol dependency and 6% are dependent on drugs.
It is true that the proportion among people sleeping on the streets is significantly higher. But this is entangled with another common misconception. The British people massively over-estimate the scale of street homelessness and, hardly surprisingly, under-estimate other forms of ‘hidden’ homelessness such as sofa surfing: our poll asked whether it is true or false that there are more adults sleeping on the streets than other forms of hidden homelessness. Half (50%) agreed and only 21% said, correctly, that this is false.
Time and again we see homelessness discussed or presented in a way, often unconsciously, that promotes false narratives and harmful stereotypes.
This is why I so welcome the programme launched by Prince William to end homelessness for good. The leadership he can offer, and his ability to convene well known public figures to support his initiative, has the potential to change the national conversation around homelessness to one that is evidence-led and focuses on the real lived experiences of people affected by homelessness, in all their complexity, individuality and humanity.
Prince William has been clear that his programme, Homewards, will seek consciously to challenge preconceived ideas around homelessness, address the stigma that so many people impacted by homelessness feel attached to their experience, and to improve public understanding of some fundamental facts about homelessness.
I also applaud the ambition to seek to end homelessness for good, not to ‘manage’ it, and to do so by shifting attention towards work to prevent homelessness from occurring rather than intervening once people are on the brink of homelessness, with all the trauma that brings.
To end homelessness requires us to define clearly what we mean, and so I am pleased that his Homewards programme has as its vision that homelessness should be ‘rare, brief and unrepeated’, drawing on the definition we developed at the Centre for Homelessness Impact.
There is another dimension to Homewards that I’m also pleased to see. Ultimately, it’s not the homelessness system that gets people out of homelessness: individuals do this themselves, drawing on support from communities around them. These relationships are key. An effective safety net ensures that when people fall on hard times their journey through the system is as seamless and enabling as possible, and does no harm.
I’ve long been interested in how we can do more to supplement the work that local authorities, homelessness charities and commissioned service providers do by mobilising extra capacity from outside the homelessness system: from communities, from civic society, from faith groups, from businesses.
So it’s exciting that the Homewards programme will be prioritising this, and be based in six communities in different parts of the United Kingdom, seeking to build even stronger local coalitions that can work together with a shared goal of ending homelessness in their communities as well as learn from one another across the UK . I hope that in these areas we will see new and experimental models of cross-sector partnership working to prevent and respond to homelessness that can be replicated and scaled in other communities.
For all these reasons I am pleased that the Centre for Homelessness Impact will be a partner to Homewards, supporting the work to change the national conversation about homelessness and working with people in the six communities where we can help.
Prince William has declared that he wants ending homelessness to be his life’s work. He has also been bold in saying it can be done, or in his words the challenge is ‘not insurmountable’.
I share his optimism. Our Ipsos poll showed that 45% of people are pessimists, thinking homelessness is inevitable (down from 47% a year earlier). But 82% believe homelessness is a serious problem for the UK, and 74% say more should be done to address homelessness.
I believe that if all parts of society join this mission, public opinion will shift and the proportion of people who think homelessness will always happen will fall further as we show that it can – and must – be done. Everyone has a role to play in ending homelessness – by supporting this initiative and the types of policies that help address the root causes of homelessness, we will create a better society for all.
Find out more about the Centre for Homelessness Impact