Friday 27 February 2015

Drawing homelessness and the ethics of charity fundraising appeals

By Jon Dean, Sheffield Hallam University.

In doing their work, charity fundraisers have to ask themselves moral and ethical questions. Public requests for donations need to appeal to a wide range of donors in a variety of ways, and face the task of competing for space in an already image-saturated market. Therefore the fundraising campaigns they design need to stand out, be effective in soliciting donations, and an efficient and prudent use of funds. However, we also expect charities to hold themselves to a higher moral standard. While we would expect a private company to present an air-brushed (metaphorically and literally) view of their product, the fundraising materials used by charities have a duty to represent the issues they are trying to tackle sensitively and the services they can provide accurately. How do you be a successful non-sensationalist in a cultural climate where sensationalism dominates?

A recent blog for The Guardian by an anonymous charity fundraiser reveals the problem:

In charity marketing we know that we manipulate the truth – any story told in full detail will lose 99% of readers. So we pick the bits that will have most impact. We miss out the red tape of the process, our frustrations at the charity’s inefficiencies and the confusing extra detail – they are too much to explain in a direct mail letter or hard-hitting advert.
The fundraiser goes onto point out that they have to regularly put their morals to one side to meet targets, even if this may damage long-term relationships with donors. In this continuing debate within the sector, the voice of the recipient of donations, the individuals (mis)represented, is usually absent.

In previous research with Beth Breeze (Centre for Philanthropy, University of Kent) we went into homelessness charities and asked homeless service users their opinions on a range of images used in fundraising literature. Service users, who came from a range of backgrounds but tended to be younger people, viewed the fundraising literature we showed them as stereotypical, inaccurate, and in some cases, a bit upsetting. However our participants were advertising realists: the overwhelming message that came from our focus group sessions was that charities should continue to use such images if they were shown to be the images that elicited the most donations. Service users trusted the charities that were helping them: while they were unsure that the images currently used were completely ethical, they were willing to suspend their moral discomfort ("You can't have morals when you're homeless", said one young man) if that meant continued or greater service provision.

Ultimately it has been reasoned that charity fundraising materials have to appeal to the current public idea of that charitable issue, rather than challenging or reframing it: the images in homeless charities’ fundraising literature have to represent what charities think donors think homelessness ‘looks like’. Therefore in this new article in SRO I present findings from an experiment testing what potential donors think homelessness looks like.

In teaching, and later in recorded, anonymised focus groups I asked undergraduate students to 'draw what homelessness looks like', building on the creative visual methodological approaches of David Gauntlett, Nicola Ingram, and increasingly many others. No more instructions were provided, and despite the occasional protestation about their own drawing ability, it is a task which I have regularly found students take to with gusto and intrigue.

The results of these drawings are quite stark. Picture after picture shows a bearded man, begging and sleeping on the street. The inclusion of female figures and families is rare. This issue of rooflessness, while the most extreme and vulnerable instance of homelessness in the UK, affects, according to best estimates, 2% of the homeless population any one night. The issues of sleeping in hostels, or receiving shelter from friends, or being housed by a Local Authority in temporary accommodation such as a bed and breakfast, or even inadequate housing, are almost completely absent. The images shows individuals not communities, and even though most of the students I work with are studying for degrees in politics and sociology, political or social issues are missing from their drawings. Inequality, domestic violence, serious injury, military service, and mental health problems are all closely associated with pathways into homelessness, but do not come up in participants’ instantaneous visions of what homelessness looks like. The drawings are also very literal, with few abstract or metaphorical contributions.

The vast majority of homeless experiences (many of which are gone through by students with substandard or dangerous housing) are ignored, with homelessness crystallised in the issue of rooflessness. Of course, rooflessness is the most vivid and acute representation of homelessness, but such a reduction of the issue has consequences. As discussed in the article, some authors have argued that both policy practitioners and the media have worked to present homelessness as narrowly as possible in order to disconnect people's experiences from the reality, creating or reinforcing an artificial divide between the homeless and non-homeless.

Using their drawings as a starting point therefore, I saw these sessions as an opportunity to practice Freire’s critical pedagogy. The process of drawing literally draws out preconceived ideas about homelessness, and provides a base on which to build critique and examine students’ own experiences of homelessness and the emotions these have aroused in the past. This critical thinking occurs both about the realities of homelessness, as students are unaware of the extent of the different forms it can take, and about the impact of social structures and institutions, such as the media, on their conceptions. As one participant said, “The worst of it is all we see, and that is what society preys on.”

Unfortunately, this article concludes that as the reoccurring images produced by students are so similar, narrow and stereotypical, producing fundraising literature which contain more accurate and more contextual images could be a risk to the income of homelessness charities. While social media and new technologies give fundraisers a more diverse set of tools to spread their charity’s message, we should not expect the traditional images associated with homelessness fundraising literature to disappear any time soon. Therefore if efforts to critique, politicise and deindividualise homelessness as an issue cannot necessarily take place in fundraising literature, it must take place in classrooms and the other spaces of civil society. It is hoped using creative visual methods such as the drawing session utilised in this article may be small addition to achieving this.

Monday 9 February 2015

Neoliberal Nomads: Housing Insecurity and the Revival of Private Renting in the UK

By John Bone, University of Aberdeen

The emergence of a so-called 'Generation Rent' is a phenomenon that is gaining increasing prominence in political and media discourse, in recognition of the growing numbers of, in particular, young UK citizens who cannot gain access to the fabled 'property ladder'. This growing constituency are depicted as the main casualties of a UK housing crisis; victims of a combination of mushrooming house prices and undersupply which have conspired to freeze them out of owner occupation, while the level of disaffection being generated by this scenario was most recently illustrated by London’s ‘March for Homes’. The roots of this housing crisis have been exhaustively analysed, by a broad range of academic and other commentators, while many of these accounts suggest that it has largely arisen as much by design as via the caprice of markets.

A raft of interventions by successive UK governments have facilitated and supported the increasing marketisation and financialisation of the UK housing sector. In short, the late 1970s and early ‘80s 'free market' shift in political and economic policy has had a profound effect on housing. In the first instance, a newly deregulated and expanded financial sector targeted residential property as a highly convenient vehicle for the expansion of consumer credit. Consequently, extended mortgage lending in a competitive market saw home ownership grow; a process accelerated by the Thatcher government’s sell-off of council housing. In turn, expanded mortgage lending was followed by rising house prices as private sector supply failed to match rising demand. Against this background, potential gains from rising prices also began to shift public perceptions, from viewing housing as an essential utility to regarding residential 'property' as a lucrative personal investment vehicle.
This metamorphosis of the housing market was consolidated by the revival of the private rented sector, as both investment class and mainstream tenure. The latter was also facilitated by UK government policy (introduced through Housing Acts of 1988 and 1996), that radically reduced security of tenure, and by the financial sector's offering of new Buy to Let mortgage products aimed at amateur investors. As we know, these developments taken together have seen a great expansion of private renting, while the investment activities of a million or so private landlords has been a significant factor in driving prices ever higher and squeezing out many potential first time buyers, who have now become private sector tenants. Government support for this scenario has also extended to providing advantageous tax arrangements for landlords over owner occupiers.

In addition to ideological motivations, UK governments have also become ever more reliant on the residential property sector as an engine of economic growth, as rising house prices have boosted consumer confidence and activity in an expanded service sector by providing collateral for consumer credit in what has become a substantially debt-fuelled economy.
In a number of senses the revival of private renting has re-established some of the characteristics of the sector that prevailed in the late 19th and early 20th century, with the caveat that the new class of landlords are drawn from a much broader base than the small exclusive elite who rented property to around 90 per cent of the UK's population at that time. What is returning, however, is the spectre of sub-standard, prohibitively expensive and, critically, insecure housing that motivated a groundswell of political unrest in the past; the scenario that mobilised the mid 20th century's progressive reform of UK housing towards a mixed private/public and highly regulated form of provision. While there has been a good deal of attention paid to rising costs and declining standards affecting contemporary tenants, perhaps lesser attention has been paid to the consequences of long term insecurity.

It is clear that tenancies covered by the Assured Shorthold Tenancy (the majority in the sector) are wholly inconsistent with tenants’ capacity to establish a stable and secure home, given that after an initial 6 month term tenants can be arbitrarily evicted at two months notice. Evidently, this has practical implications in terms of access to workplaces, and for children of the growing number of families housed in the sector to rely on continuity with respect to schooling, where the latter can be disrupted at the whim of the landlord.

Arguably, however, less well understood are the subtler and deeper effects of the lack of control and predictability experienced by private sector tenants, where again the implications for families are perhaps particularly acute. In such conditions, maintaining friendships and community engagement can be increasingly difficult, while there are related implications for mental health and well-being.
Psychologists have long understood that some of the most stressful aspects of experience are founded on our limited capacity to deal with onerous demands and complexity as well as unpredictable and uncontrolled change. Sociologists have also long recognised the ill effects of such conditions on the psyche and, indeed, in terms of collective well-being. Recent discoveries of how the human brain functions are now offering evidence that underscores these widely recognised observations. For example, it has been demonstrated that we have a highly limited capacity to deal with information at a conscious level while, where we are overburdened, the consequences are experienced as significant arousal of the 'fear system'. In terms of ’real world’ implications, this may explain why we are prone to routinising and simplifying much of what we encounter, attempting to impose a significant degree of control, consistency and stability in our lives. It may even be the case that modern urban living of itself, as Georg Simmel notably observed, challenges us in this respect. Following from this, it may be reasonable to suggest that chronic insecurity regarding something so fundamental as one’s home (as with employment) is liable to critically undermine the conditions conducive to emotional stability and well-being, while a growing body of empirical evidence also supports this perspective.  In addition, once more drawing on neuroscientific findings, it appears that there may also be a relationship between the formation of long term memories, that are integral to the construction of our personal biographies, and the neural processes that orient us in geographical space. Simply put, it may be that spatial relocation, particularly where this is also involuntary and uncontrolled, may have a subtle but profound negative effect on our capacity to readily sustain a coherent and consistent biography; a stable self identity.

For the reasons outlined above, a reappraisal of the social and psychological effects as well as the more evident practical and economic ramifications of marketised housing is perhaps long overdue.
Read the full article in Sociological Research Online on which this blog post is based.