At the Melville Charitable Trust, we’re really pleased that philanthropy is becoming increasingly aware of the role that narrative plays in public understanding and policymaking, in part thanks to some learning sessions and resources hosted by Funders Together to End Homelessness. We know that the narratives we see and hear shape how we perceive the world and that making lasting policy change requires us to change how people think about an issue, whether it’s who deserves the right to marry, or why people live on the streets.
The Harmful Dominant Narrative
Those of us working to end homelessness know that the dominant narrative, which has developed over decades, is about personal failure – placing blame on people rather than failing systems, harmful policies and inequitable funding decisions that have made housing unaffordable and prevented people from accessing adequate help when needed. By centering individual fault, homelessness is viewed as an unsolvable problem because it requires people who are struggling the most to pull themselves out of their situation.
This narrative forms the foundation of vitriolic videos that are widely shared, increased criminalization of camping and sleeping in public spaces, and violence aimed at people who are struggling to survive each day. This ‘personal failure’ narrative also keeps leaders focused on short-term approaches like communal shelters instead of lasting solutions like permanent supportive housing, rapid rehousing, and direct cash transfers. What’s more, it completely ignores the reality of structural racism as a root cause, resulting in disproportionate numbers of Black, Indigenous, and Latino/a/x people experiencing homelessness.
The alarming surge in harmful messages coupled with rapid increases in unsheltered homeless populations, especially in the west, pushed the Melville Trust to think more strategically about how philanthropy can and should engage in narrative change work.
From Strategic Exploration to Research to Practice
Several things emerged from the Trust’s strategic explorations. First, we recognized that philanthropy has a significant role to play in countering harmful narratives and creating a new story that can seed public and political support for proven solutions. Second, we knew we needed to understand more about what people think now, to understand how we can better connect with their values and communicate in ways that begin to shift their thinking. We added to a sizable body of research (check out research from Housing Justice Narrative Initiative, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Invisible People and more) and learned that most people believe housing is a private responsibility and that people experience homelessness because of lack of personal discipline. We also learned that efficacy and cynicism are big barriers to narrative change – with large percentages of people agreeing that no matter what is done there will always be people who experience homelessness.
Finally, we recognized a need to implement the research and work toward reframing narratives around homelessness and housing instability. As Bill Pitkin and Nat Kendall-Taylor wrote in a recent Shelterforce opinion, “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.”
To implement what we learned and help begin reframing the narrative, we supported the launch of the Housing Narrative Lab. The Lab is a pro-bono communications and research hub that aims to build the public and political will for lasting policy change by prioritizing and elevating the voices of people most impacted and connecting homelessness with inequitable and racist housing, legal, and healthcare systems that cause people to lose their homes.
The Lab does this by working with three groups well positioned to advance a new narrative around homelessness: Journalists, grassroots organizers, and national advocacy organizations. We believe this approach will increase the reach and repetition of a new narrative and, along with other efforts, begin to build the public will to demand policy change that is rooted in housing justice.
Most recently, the Lab launched a six-month fellowship specifically for grassroots communicators - or those tasked with external communications for an organization or campaign - to help support and strengthen the foundation, skills, and confidence to advance narrative change through their strategic communication work. Each organization receives a $25,000 stipend to put the training into practice in their communications.
This complements the communications backbone support provided by the Lab for grassroots organizations and networks, which includes professionally created, message-tested video ads, talking points, op-ed examples and digital tool kits. The goal is to create content that supports our allies in disseminating messages that resonate with their target audiences.
It is also conducting a learning series for journalists who cover housing, which includes sessions on how to be anti-racist in their coverage, systemic causes of homelessness, interviewing people experiencing homelessness so they are not retraumatized or treated transactionally and a deep dive into narrative research.
Transforming the Narrative Around Who Experiences Homelessness and Why
As the Lab’s Director, Marisol Bello, explains in a recent blog post, we have to connect homelessness and unstable housing to failed systems in order to shift public understanding:
“We have to disrupt the dominant and false narratives about people experiencing homelessness that are based on personal failing; narratives that render people invisible and strip them of their dignity. And we have to advance a transformative narrative that shows the public who actually experiences homelessness and why. A narrative that shows the reality of skyrocketing rents, jobs that don’t pay enough to secure – and keep – a safe place to live and housing policies that routinely exclude people based on race, gender and income. A narrative that recognizes the failed systems that led us here, and the disproportionate impact they have on Black, Latine, Indigenous and immigrant members of our communities.”
We know that narrative change work takes time and commitment – it is not a single communications campaign. It requires repetition, scale, and diverse messengers. Fortunately, the homelessness and housing narrative landscape is entering a more robust stage, with multiple efforts launching or expanding.
The Lab is one of several projects the Melville Trust is supporting to shift public and political will, and we are eager to connect with other funders working in this space as we believe the key to any narrative effort is alignment with others in the field.
If you’d like to talk about how you are engaging with narrative work, explore questions, or make connections, please be in touch.
Sarah Armour-Jones is the Director of Communications and Media Strategy for the Melville Charitable Trust. Sarah joined the Melville Trust in spring 2020. She helps elevate the work of the Trust and its grantees; shift national and state-based narratives around homelessness and affordable housing; and develop and implement strategic communications that support the Trust’s mission of ending homelessness.