The ‘label’ of homelessness

The human impact of the ‘homeless’ label, and how we might begin to reduce stigma.

In exploring the ‘label’ of homelessness through reading and study circle discussion, I’ve been reminded of Joe, a 30 year old who I supported for 3 years starting when he was 16.  Joe has faced homelessness most of his adult life, having lived in over 300 emergency and temporary accommodations. I’ve considered how being labelled ‘homeless’ may impact Joe’s wellbeing, and how organisations might help through influencing the discourses of homelessness.

A memory that remains as vivid as the day I first saw it is of Joe, aged 16 on the Royal Mile close to his then home which looked out onto Holyrood Palace and the Scottish Parliament.  I saw the inequality in the contrast between Joe’s world which included poverty, neglect, adversity and isolation, and the consumer capitalism of the city around him.

Visual discourses of homelessness tend to portray people who experience it as needy, or people who have been rescued and now live a ‘normal’ life (Hodgetts et al., 2005 & 2006).  Such discourses do little to focus minds on people’s strengths and skills, or to inspire hope (Nunn, 2004; Radley et al., 2005); furthermore this discourse perpetuates society’s understanding of people experiencing homelessness as a group of ‘others’ (Gerrard and Farrugia, 2015; Rosati, 2012).

That sense of separation is felt by Joe who, in line with research (Parsell, 2010; Weiner et al., 1988), has spoken of feeling judged and unwelcome; he ‘others’ people he sees as living ‘normal’ lives (Seidman, 2013).  As a person whose understandings and aspirations are shaped by the visual discourses of consumer capitalism (Gerrard and Farrugia, 2015), Joe is reminded of things he does not have daily.  In contrast to the individualist views which underpin broader societal reasoning (O’Neil et al., 2017), Joe feels he has been let down by ‘the system’, feeding hopelessness for the future;  Joe accepts homelessness as part of life and does not expect improvement.

It can be argued that discourses of homelessness discourage Joe from feeling motivation and hope; and promote stereotypical understandings (McCarthy, 2013), doing nothing to address stigma – an issue cited as significant by people with lived experience (GHN, 2018).

While being labelled ‘homeless’ has detrimental consequences, there may also be benefits.  The label has been used successfully to generate political, research and practice interest, and in Scotland we are seeing the consequential development of frontline services; the beginnings of system change to a rapid rehousing model (Housing and Social Justice Directorate, 2018); and a growing evidence base.

Organisations can influence understandings of homelessness through the images and messages they communicate, and have the opportunity to begin to shift understandings, reducing stigma (Devereux, 2015).  This thinking validates the Housing and Social Justice Directorate’s current action for a public awareness campaign to tackle negative attitudes and stigma about homelessness.

In summary, it is generally unhelpful to people to be labelled ‘homeless’, particularly given current social understandings of the issue and the stigma this creates.  People should not be defined by their housing status/problem, but should be seen (and see themselves) as equally valid members of society who are individuals with strengths, skills and potential.  A concerted effort by organisations to change the discourses of homelessness as part of a broader campaign should be a positive step towards changing attitudes and reducing stigma.

Written by:

Jan Williamson – Streetwork Assistant Director of Services