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.