Dismantling negative stereotypes surrounding homelessness by looking at the facts.
By Bea Swallow
Reading time: 5 minutes.
Myths and stereotypes surrounding homelessness are extremely common and increasingly problematic, providing the foundations for further stigmatisation of an already marginalised group. Misconceptions around homelessness are arguably born and bred in the media, with poignant narratives of people sleeping rough dispersed for digestible public consumption, meeting existing expectations of the ‘vulnerable’ to evoke sympathy or concern. Through tackling these stereotypes, it becomes possible to broaden public perception about the varying lived experiences of homelessness, as well as who might be affected and the root causes, helping to shift the blame off individuals and onto wider systemic factors. Below I have compiled examples of common myths alongside the realities faced by people at risk of homelessness.
Myth #1: Homelessness isn’t my problem.
Fact: Homelessness is an issue that affects us all. We have a responsibility as proud Bristolians to care for our city, including the people in it. If we want to thrive as a community we must consider the social impact of homelessness, as well as the long-term economic impact of a whole potential workforce population being deprived of safe housing, with its direct ties to education, health, and the economic prosperity of Bristol. Emergency shelters, NHS healthcare, and police and correctional facilities are among the tax-funded programs put in place to assist people experiencing chronic homelessness. However, by implementing more preventative measures, such as change to social policies and funding, or offering more permanent housing solutions, it could help to cut later costs by managing the root causes of homelessness, thereby freeing up resources to help people experiencing episodic homelessness. As a city we are stronger when all on our feet.
Myth #2: People experiencing homelessness made bad choices that led them there.
Fact: Often, people experiencing homelessness have fallen victim to wider structural factors, such as a lack of affordable housing, lack of support following institutionalisation or deployment, wage stagnation, discrimination, and cuts to social welfare programmes. Dominant discursive patterns in the media tend to depict tall tales of individuals whose personal decisions and lifestyle choices led them down a ‘dark path’, rarely taking the time to explain systemic causes or discuss the varying experiences of homelessness, e.g., sofa surfing or living in temporary accommodation. Such restrictive portrayals tend to feed public assumptions about who is homeless and why, limiting the incentive to help if it is believed homelessness is the warranted result of bad habits. To change public opinion, the narrative of the ‘drug addict on the street’ must be challenged in order to draw attention to wider social causes.
Myth #3: All people experiencing homelessness are addicts or alcoholics.
Fact: Just as with the general population, only a slight percentage of people experiencing homelessness deal with ongoing substance abuse issues. 2021 studies show that just 7% of households owed a homelessness duty in England require drug dependency support, with just 5% needing alcohol dependency support . Addiction can be both a cause and an effect of homelessness. In order to cope with highly stressful life events -such as family conflicts, the abrupt loss of employment or housing, abuse, trauma, health concerns, or disastrous financial loss- individuals may turn to alcohol or drugs in an effort to self-medicate. To further complicate matters, mental illness is often an underlying cause of addiction, therefore individuals experiencing prolonged substance abuse should be offered help and support, not be met with negative stereotypes and defined by their struggle with addiction.
Myth #4: People experiencing homelessness are lazy.
Fact: There are countless barriers that individuals facing homelessness must overcome on a daily basis, which most people couldn’t fathom facing in a lifetime. Sourcing food, warmth, a stable source of income, shelter, and a sense of security, are things which most people take for granted, never questioning where their next meal is coming from or where might be safe enough to sleep tonight. Waking up each day and battling for the basics isn’t ‘lazy’.
Myth #5: People experiencing homelessness are work adverse. They don’t want a job.
Fact: Many people become homeless because they lost a job, not because they avoid getting one. A study in 2019 found that 25% of households at risk of homelessness were in paid employment when applying for council support. Individuals are accused of being idle, choosing to live off government funding, or not wanting to contribute to society. The reality is, most job applications require a fixed home address and phone number, and employers can be sceptical about gaps in employment history, making it difficult to apply for certain positions. Lacking permanent access to washing and hygiene facilities means it can be difficult for people to stay healthy or make a good impression at interviews. Unfortunately, existing prejudices surrounding homelessness may also be a contributing factor, with negative stereotypes preventing employers from considering an application properly, based on assumptions around bad habits, lack of reliance, and severe mental health issues.
Myth #6: There are already enough preventative measures in place.
Fact: Many of the solutions and supportive measures for people experiencing homelessness have focused on crisis services, such as overnight shelters and food banks, but emergency support should not be the default response to homelessness nor justified as a long-term solution. For individuals trying to escape a cycle of poverty, these services alone are not enough.
Myth #7: If the solution is systemic, there is nothing I can do to help. This is bigger than me.
Fact: Offering short-term relief in the form of food or drink, a brief chat, or spare change could mean the world of difference, but connecting an individual with professional support might provide them with a long-term pathway out of homelessness. If you’re looking for more subtle ways to play your part, check out our blog: ‘5 Ways to Solve Homelessness as a Student’ for quick and easy ideas.
For further support or more ideas on helping to solve homelessness please contact a member of our team at email@example.com