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Essentials for Transformative Narratives: Emphasize Root Causes of Homelessness


Narrative plays an important role in building the public will to solve homelessness. Dominant narratives about people experiencing homelessness focus on individuals making bad personal decisions, which often lead to ineffective and dehumanizing “solutions” – like throwing out people’s tents, IDs, medications and what they need to survive. That’s why we’re working to build a transformative narrative that helps people understand that homelessness is caused by policy and budget choices, and that we can choose differently.

There are several essential elements for crafting messaging that help us build narrative power and increase public support for proven solutions. 

One of these is to emphasize root causes of homelessness.

By showing how systemic issues like the cost of housing and lack of tenant protections push people into homelessness or unsafe housing, we shift blame from individuals to policy and budget choices. When more people understand the root causes of homelessness, more people will support real policy solutions that can turn the tide on homelessness. In order to reshape public understanding, it’s vital to connect the dots between the causes and effects of housing insecurity. 

To push back against individual blame framing, we need to place individual stories within the broader framework of systemic change. For example, a story about a family being evicted needs to explain the larger issues – a landlord increasing rent by 30% or refusing to make essential repairs, lack of tenant protections in a city or state, and the impact of an eviction filing. This context exposes the flaws in the housing system and builds public support for policies that can keep people in their homes.

These stories also need to outline a vision for what we want – housing that is safe and accessible for everyone, regardless of their income, health or stage of life. Messaging and stories should help audiences view home as a basic human need that is essential to our well-being, stability and success. 

The connection between housing and well-being cannot be overstated. Illustrating the ways stable housing helps people stay healthy, keep a job or rebuild their lives connects housing to thriving. Communities and people need housing to thrive. 

Housing is also inextricably linked to issues like racial injustice, education and employment options, and public safety. Highlighting these intersections broadens public understanding about housing’s impact on community life and helps build coalitions that can address these interconnected challenges.

By crafting stories that highlight the connection between housing and well-being, contextualizing individual struggles within the larger framework of systemic failures and underscoring the intersections with other key issues, we create a powerful narrative that can drive effective solutions.

Here are some great examples of this in action:

A New York Times interactive photo essay following the lives of two young students who are homeless in NYC. 

The Seattle Times outlines a program helping youth and young adults who are homeless, and explains how one program participant became homeless and the ways current systems didn’t help. 

Writer Leslie Rose on her own experience of homelessness and domestic violence, featured in MomsRising.

The Voices of Homelessness podcast, presented by the National Coalition for the Homeless highlights the stories of people who have experienced homelessness.