The ‘label’ of homelessness

The human impact of the ‘homeless’ label, and how we might begin to reduce stigma.

In exploring the ‘label’ of homelessness through reading and study circle discussion, I’ve been reminded of Joe, a 30 year old who I supported for 3 years starting when he was 16.  Joe has faced homelessness most of his adult life, having lived in over 300 emergency and temporary accommodations. I’ve considered how being labelled ‘homeless’ may impact Joe’s wellbeing, and how organisations might help through influencing the discourses of homelessness.

A memory that remains as vivid as the day I first saw it is of Joe, aged 16 on the Royal Mile close to his then home which looked out onto Holyrood Palace and the Scottish Parliament.  I saw the inequality in the contrast between Joe’s world which included poverty, neglect, adversity and isolation, and the consumer capitalism of the city around him.

Visual discourses of homelessness tend to portray people who experience it as needy, or people who have been rescued and now live a ‘normal’ life (Hodgetts et al., 2005 & 2006).  Such discourses do little to focus minds on people’s strengths and skills, or to inspire hope (Nunn, 2004; Radley et al., 2005); furthermore this discourse perpetuates society’s understanding of people experiencing homelessness as a group of ‘others’ (Gerrard and Farrugia, 2015; Rosati, 2012).

That sense of separation is felt by Joe who, in line with research (Parsell, 2010; Weiner et al., 1988), has spoken of feeling judged and unwelcome; he ‘others’ people he sees as living ‘normal’ lives (Seidman, 2013).  As a person whose understandings and aspirations are shaped by the visual discourses of consumer capitalism (Gerrard and Farrugia, 2015), Joe is reminded of things he does not have daily.  In contrast to the individualist views which underpin broader societal reasoning (O’Neil et al., 2017), Joe feels he has been let down by ‘the system’, feeding hopelessness for the future;  Joe accepts homelessness as part of life and does not expect improvement.

It can be argued that discourses of homelessness discourage Joe from feeling motivation and hope; and promote stereotypical understandings (McCarthy, 2013), doing nothing to address stigma – an issue cited as significant by people with lived experience (GHN, 2018).

While being labelled ‘homeless’ has detrimental consequences, there may also be benefits.  The label has been used successfully to generate political, research and practice interest, and in Scotland we are seeing the consequential development of frontline services; the beginnings of system change to a rapid rehousing model (Housing and Social Justice Directorate, 2018); and a growing evidence base.

Organisations can influence understandings of homelessness through the images and messages they communicate, and have the opportunity to begin to shift understandings, reducing stigma (Devereux, 2015).  This thinking validates the Housing and Social Justice Directorate’s current action for a public awareness campaign to tackle negative attitudes and stigma about homelessness.

In summary, it is generally unhelpful to people to be labelled ‘homeless’, particularly given current social understandings of the issue and the stigma this creates.  People should not be defined by their housing status/problem, but should be seen (and see themselves) as equally valid members of society who are individuals with strengths, skills and potential.  A concerted effort by organisations to change the discourses of homelessness as part of a broader campaign should be a positive step towards changing attitudes and reducing stigma.

Written by:

Jan Williamson – Streetwork Assistant Director of Services

PRESS RELEASE: Streetwork Launch Get Digital

PEOPLE experiencing homelessness in Scotland are to be given the chance to learn digital skills so they can access opportunities presented online – thanks to an initiative being launched by two of Scotland’s leading homelessness charities.

Edinburgh-based Streetwork and its sister charity, Glasgow-based Simon Community Scotland, are welcoming a £250,000 Scottish Government grant to provide nationwide training and support so that people experiencing homelessness can gain the necessary skills to take advantage of digital technology, such as mobile phones, laptops, desktops, and tablets.
The initiative – called Get Digital – aims to make online services and opportunities more accessible. This includes looking for accommodation, connecting with friends and family, using online maps, accessing welfare benefits and applying for jobs.
People who are affected by homelessness will find their often regular contact with Streetwork and Simon Community Scotland will now include a digital skills assessment, training and support.
Scottish Government minister, Kate Forbes MSP, Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy, will help officially launch the nationwide scheme at an event in Edinburgh, on March 7th.
She said: “Digital should open doors for everyone. The Get Digital programme recognises the power of digital to provide those affected by homelessness with the opportunity to improve their digital skills and achieve their goals. The Scottish Government is very proud of the strong relationship we have with Streetwork and Simon Community Scotland and are pleased to support a programme like this that has the potential to change so many lives for the better.”
Spearheading the scheme at Streetwork is its Digital Inclusion Programme manager, Jamie Trout.
He said: “Without digital skills, people experiencing homelessness face a real barrier in trying to find solutions to their situation. Through Get Digital, we are opening up an entire world of opportunity. Using their newly-acquired skills, people can begin accessing the online world and the opportunities it brings. With so many aspects of our lives accessed through digital channels, digital inclusion is essential to empower people to bring about change in their own lives.”.
Lorraine McGrath, chief executive of both charities, added: “The Get Digital campaign is a great new initiative that we are sure will change the status quo for those affected by homelessness. It will provide users with digital skills that most of us take for granted and will encourage them to feel comfortable in the digital age.”
Get Digital is working with SCVO’s One Digital programme and the Mhor Collective to develop and deliver training for staff to become ‘digital champions’.
Says trainer and researcher, Irene Warner Mackintosh: “It’s fantastic to be working with Streetwork on this exciting project that’s helping to address the challenges of digital exclusion. To have this brilliant team of volunteers and staff, who are already working so closely with folk experiencing homelessness, also helping with everyday essential digital skills will hopefully make a huge difference. Everyone should be able to access the opportunities of being online.”
In the coming months, over 250 staff members at Streetwork and Simon Community Scotland will be trained as ‘digital champions’, following which they will begin providing support to people experiencing homelessness in learning digital skills and engaging with the digital world.
The Get Digital tools, training and support will then be shared with a range of homelessness service providers across Scotland with the aim of creating a nationally-recognised programme.
Notes to editors:
Get Digital is being launched on Thursday 7th March, at Streetwork’s Holyrood Road Hub – 22 Holyrood Road, Edinburgh EH8 8AF.
The media is invited to send a representative, from 0945 to 1100.
Please confirm your intention to attend by contacting Scott Crawford at or 0141 418 6980.
Free-to-use post-event photographs can be sourced from the following link:
About Streetwork
Founded in 1991, Streetwork is a homeless charity that enables life off the streets for people in Edinburgh.
Streetwork’s ‘street team’ is regularly joined by the likes of GPs and vets, to provide practical assistance to people sleeping rough (and any pets they might have). Every day the team reach out, respond and help people resolve their homelessness so that they can recover and thrive.
Streetwork operates out of two premises in central Edinburgh: One on South Bridge and one on Holyrood Road (a support and amenities hub for people who are homeless). From the hub, the following services are provided: Individualised support, health services, digital skills training, employability services, washing facilities, telephones, internet access, correspondence address, etc.
Streetwork is a sister charity of Simon Community Scotland, a Scottish homelessness charity based in Glasgow.
For more information on Streetwork, please visit:
About Simon Community Scotland
Simon Community Scotland has been working alongside people who experience homelessness in Scotland since 1966.
It delivers around 170,000 hours of support every year and engages with up to 3,000 people at risk of, or experiencing, homelessness. It operates a ‘Street Team’ from premises near Glasgow’s High Street and also provides accommodation, including emergency accommodation, in 12 locations across Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and North Ayrshire.
For more information on Simon Community Scotland, please visit: