How should charities portray homeless men and women?

I know I frustrate some of my colleagues who are involved in fundraising and publicity.  I really don’t like BHT ever using pictures of homeless people begging, bedded down, or looking dishevelled.  “Give me happy, smiley faces” isn’t what I always ask for, although I often do!

There is a stereotypical view of homeless people, usually middle-aged to older men, unshaven and in tatty clothes.  More likely than not, this image has him sitting alone on a park bench with a bottle of cider.

The reality is that homeless people are all different.  Most go to amazing lengths to maintain their dignity and self-worth, in spite of the odds against them.  At First Base Day Centre we see, on a daily basis, the determination of homeless men and women to be clean and tidy, and we provide shower facilities, toiletries, and clean and dry clothes.

Jon Dean is a lecturer in politics and sociology at Sheffield Hallam University.  He has said in a report published in Sociological Research Online that homelessness charities might not be as successful as they might be if they move too far away from this stereotypical image.

It is the responsibility of charities to maximise income and then use it to improve the circumstances of their beneficiaries.  Some might argue that we would be remiss if our personal sensitivities interfered with this obligation.  Others (myself included) think that charities have a duty to challenge stereotypes of people who are homeless.

When I meet someone for the first time, amongst the first bits of information we share are our names and what we do.  It helps to identify ourselves and establish our status.  “I’m Andy and I work for BHT”.  I might get some strange looks if I the first thing I shared about myself included a health problem: “I’m Andy and I am diabetic”.

Yet many charities do just that with their clients.  “This is Mary, she is an addict”, or “This is John, he has a mental health problem”.  Why do they do it?  Possibly they do it to emphasise their mission, possibly to assist their fundraising.  But I don’t like it.

I believe that change is possible, that we shouldn’t limit the pace and change that is possible.  By portraying homeless people in a stereotypical way, and by labelling them, we create yet a further barrier which they will need to overcome.  If it costs us a bob or two, so what.  I am sure that there are more people out there who will support our work because we are committed to change.

(You could help First Base to help homeless men and women by making a donation through our Amazon Wish List, or alternatively by making a regular cash donation.  Thank you).

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6 thoughts on “How should charities portray homeless men and women?

  1. They do it because there needs to be a reason why they are homeless sadly as most people need to hear that.

    I’m one of the hidden homeless and was told a few weeks ago by a local charity that I didn’t look homeless, two sides of the same coin, however the assumption did make me angry because it’s was like my needs weren’t as important as those who are street homeless.

    • Your point is well made. Homelessness is complex and multi-faceted. It is impossible to make a single representation of 100 people, each an individual, their own challenges, and with their own hopes and aspirations.

  2. Ironically, this post gives the impression all homeless people have a mental health and/or substance abuse problem contributing to homelessness but hey, you believe in the possibility they can change.

    The honeless problem is a lot deeper than that. Try doing a poster of a homeless mother and kids, a homeless pensioner with no street savvy or knowledge of how to ‘work the system’, someone whose job and home disappeared in a bewildering puff of smoke, the proud homeless living in airports pretending to be passengers or living in cars….

    The cruelty is deepening and being housed is fast becoming a privilege and not just the norm.

    • Your point is well made. Be assured, thiughh, I was not trying to portray all homeless people as having an addiction or mental health problem. I was trying to illustrate a point about how some charities identify people by a label.

  3. This is partly why I don’t give to charities whose ads feature the ‘starving African’ trope, especially those with children looking starvingly into the camera while drinking contaminated water. Where are these kids’ parents? Why are they almost always featured on their own? Why, when the ad says ‘children all over the world are starving/ill/dying, they only show the black ones? I don’t like the ‘Downtrodden But Inspirational’ ‘pity porn’ that uses homeless people, Africans and the like. I don’t wish to know what other issues homeless people have; it’s enough that they’re homeless, no embellishments are needed to get me to donate, as I’d probably donate anyway. Ad campaigns like these remove agency, privacy and dignity from the person. What happens when a homeless person featured in a charity ad turns their life around? What happens if they get recognised, and their co-morbidities have been splashed all over the ad? They get stigmatised for those co-morbidities. How then are they supposed to move on and thrive? Homeless campaigns also ignore/erase the numbers of homeless BME people. Not once have I ever seen a black or Asian person in a campaign, even though they obviously exist. I think many charities really need to present campaigns with a fresh eye. Let’s face it, most compassionate people don’t need their emotions manipulated in order to give money; they’d do it anyway. The ‘tragic tots/starving Africans/helpless homeless’ paradigm is OLD and stopped getting my vote years ago. And yes, if the charity loses a bit of cash in the short term, so what? It’s not like they’ll fold, not the big ones anyway. There needs to be an injection of new thinking to blast these harmful stereotypes where they belong– in the past.

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