Homeless Enough?

“He doesn’t look homeless enough,” my director told me as I presented the new thank-you cards I had just designed for an upcoming event back in the fall. The thank-you cards were to be handed out to people donating food at one of our events and had a photo of a smiling man with his son from our center on the cover.


Doesn’t look homeless enough? Having worked in many homeless shelters over the years, my first response was to say that homelessness comes in many shapes, sizes, genders, races, and “looks.” I was mad. Was I supposed to put a man digging in a dumpster instead of someone who was successfully working through our program?


I was answered with a stern look and an explanation that statistically speaking, more donations come in when images of “homeless looking” people are used (the biggest donations are received using images of old, white men with beards). Photos of people who are actually on the street, sleeping in alleys, holding cardboard signs, and sad looks are statistically what is going to get people to donate more. Although I have been working and volunteering around homelessness for years, this year is my first time working a couple steps back from the front line in the marketing department. So, for the entire year I have been faced with this internal dilemma: how do you market homelessness?


When someone is in a situation where they are sleeping on the street, holding a cardboard sign asking for money/food, or first coming into a shelter, it usually isn’t their best day. If I was in that situation, I would be less than thrilled about someone taking my photo, much less putting that photo on a card, brochure, website, etc. Honestly, I would be downright mad. So, as I am asked to use and post photos of people in very vulnerable situations, I can’t help but think that these are actual people who are hurting in so many ways, and they probably don’t really want their photo on the front of our newsletter. It’s a matter of dignity and respect. Everyone has an idea of what the “typical” homeless person looks like; we don’t need to reaffirm a stereotype by pushing those images even more.


Instead I try to use more images of people who are working successfully through the programs at our centers. These people usually look happy, hopeful, and motivated. They are living and working through an intense program in attempts to make serious change in their lives, and they should be celebrated for that. I have folders and folders of kids playing and laughing, mothers holding their newborns with pride, and men with GED or Alpha program diplomas. People who don’t look homeless. But that doesn’t sell.


So, this internal conflict that began in my first weeks here continues. Do I use images of people who look happy and successful in the programs out of dignity, respect, and celebration, or do I use images of people who look dirty, sad, and vulnerable in order to get more donations to help the organization do more for the community. It has been an endless battle, and each day I am working towards an answer.



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