Framing Conversations about Human Services

frameThe FrameWorks Institute has published a series of studies investigating the most effective ways to communicate about seven social justice issues: criminal justice, human services, affordable housing, education, budgets and taxes, parenting, and aging. The issues of human services and affordable housing are particularly relevant to homeless providers and advocates. This blog post summarizes some of the key points from the institute’s Talking Human Services report, but interested readers are encouraged to check out the full document available here.

The Talking Human Services issue addresses where we are going wrong in talking about human services and how best to engage the public in supporting and understanding the field. The main barrier in the human services narrative is that it remains anchored in a charity model; in this model, we often get stuck in a differentiation between the “deserving and undeserving poor”, and much of the action is focused on proving the worthiness of those receiving services. In reality, human services do much more than address problems for those who are experiencing the worst possible conditions. Human services focus on prevention with a large focus on social determinants; promotion of well-being through ensuring supports, such as employment, transportation, and education; and direct supports for those exposed to multiple stressors so they can regain and maintain an improved quality of life.

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Why are human services messages failing? The study first analyzed how Americans think about what well-being means, what threatens it, how we improve it, and what human services are and how they work. They found that the public tends to associate well-being with financial self-sufficiency and physical health, and that lack of willpower, bad parenting, and dangerous communities threaten well-being. In regards to improving well-being, the most common answers were that individuals are responsible for improving their own well-being, that the government should but cannot help due to greed on the parts of both politicians and recipients of services, and that informal networks need to step in to help. When asked what human services are, many did not know what the term “human services” meant and if they did, they defined them as purely direct services, charity, or a temporary provision of basic needs. In these answers, there is a prominent theme of individualism and a misperception of what human services are or how to help.

How do we change these messages? The study found that the use of a “building well-being” narrative provides the most effective answers to questions about human services:

  1. What is at stake?
    • Human Potential – Help people recognize that everyone needs support and human services benefit everyone.
  2. What kind of support do people need?
    • Construction – Use a construction metaphor to explain what well-being is and how it is shaped. Explain that well-being is built and strengthened by things such as social relationships, community resources, and opportunities. This metaphor communicates the importance of a strong foundation for growth and the need for ongoing support, and emphasizes that human services construct well-being and address faults in the way well-being was constructed rather than focusing on or blaming personal characteristics.
  3. What threatens well-being?
    • Construction – Use extensions and implications of the metaphor, such as bad construction or unpredictable weather, to explain how context affects outcomes. For example, discuss how “spotty construction” of a house, like inadequate support, can lead to later problems. The “unpredictable weather” metaphor emphasizes that there are things outside of an individual’s control, such as economic downturn, that affect well-being, much like how bad weather can affect the stability of a house. 
  4. How do we ensure well-being for all?
    • Construction – Use this metaphor to help people think about the different ways human services support well-being. Compare human service professionals to the professionals who construct buildings. Point out that there are several specialists who help in the construction of a building, such as planning, building, and ongoing maintenance specialists, much like how human services professionals are involved in many different areas of building and sustaining well-being.
    • Life Cycle – Use life cycle examples to help people understand that human services help people at all stages of the life cycle from infancy to older adulthood. Provide concrete examples of different programs that serve people in all stages of life and to a diverse array of recipients.

The public tends to fall into traps of thinking that make it harder to gain support for human services, such as misunderstanding what these services are and a large sense of individualism that can be difficult to break. This framework provides a tool for human service professionals and advocates to break through these traps and further human service efforts.

Keep an eye out for an upcoming post about the FrameWorks Institute’s issue on framing conversations about affordable housing.



Blog Post Author: Kelsey Whittington, MSW, graduate assistant for the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services.

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Housing is Health: Reflections from Durban, South Africa and the International AIDS Conference

When I talk about what I do, I am never sure if I should describe myself as someone who researches homelessness or someone who researches health issues, including HIV/AIDS. In reality, I do both. Before going the research route, I worked as a social worker in Chicago managing supportive housing programs for people who were homeless and HIV positive. The intersection of HIV and homelessness is still a personal passion, as well as the focus of much of my research.

This July I had the opportunity to attend and present at the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa. This conference, held every two years, is a huge gathering of more than 15,000 researchers, health care professionals, activists, policymakers, and government leaders who come together to discuss all aspects of the AIDS epidemic. Presentation topics run the gamut from the development of vaccines and new drugs to the social issues that drive the epidemic, such as the criminalization of sex work, poverty, and social inequalities. It was humbling and exciting to be among this group of people from around the world, with such vast and varied knowledge and experiences.

Initially, I was a little disappointed at what felt like a lack of attention to housing issues in the conference program. My online search of the hundreds of conference presentations yielded only a handful with “homelessness” or “housing” in the title. I soon found, though, that homelessness was in fact addressed in a number of ways. For example, in one session I attended, none of the presenters had made housing and homelessness a focal point of their research—and yet it came up several times. One presenter discussed the HIV risk context of women who were displaced in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and no longer had permanent housing; another described how young injection drug users in Vancouver were more likely to share needles when they didn’t have a stable home base from which to access syringe exchange and other harm reduction services; and a third presenter discussed homelessness as increasing the risk of sexual assault for HIV positive immigrants in France. Hearing all of these examples solidified my belief that “housing is health”—without stable housing, it is infinitely more difficult to feed one’s self, to seek treatment for various conditions, to take medication, to practice harm reduction with regard to sex or substance use, and to protect one’s body.

One of the highlights of the conference was having the chance to visit the Denis Hurley Centre, a nonprofit agency that works with homeless and low-income people in Durban. Like many of the homeless-serving agencies that I am familiar with in the U.S., the Denis Hurley Centre strives to serve people with dignity, to care for their basic human needs, and to give people opportunities for growth and empowerment. It was interesting to me to learn what this looks like in a South African, and specifically a Durban, context. Durban is a large and diverse city that is home to people of many different racial, ethnic, religious, and national backgrounds. The director of the center, Raymond Perrier, mentioned that he wondered if this was the only social service agency in the world that is named for a Catholic bishop but that maintains a halal kitchen, as the agency has a large Muslim clientele. To me, this is a great example of the social work credo of “meeting where the client is at.”

Disturbingly, I also learned from Mr. Perrier that in advance of the conference, the police had “swept” the central business district and forced many of the homeless people staying there to relocate elsewhere. I have heard of such sweeps occurring before major events in U.S. cities and elsewhere, but to do this before an HIV conference with a theme of “access, equity, rights now” seems particularly cruel and ironic. South Africa has one of the world’s largest HIV epidemics, with approximately one in five adults living with HIV, and even higher rates among poor and marginalized groups. Being homeless is hazardous to one’s health, and it’s particularly detrimental to HIV health. When people don’t have a safe, stable place to stay—and when they are forced by police to move from their places on the street—it is very difficult to adhere to lifesaving HIV medications. I knew this to be the case with the clients I worked with in Chicago, and Mr. Perrier described how it is the same in Durban. The idea that the conference would cause even one HIV-positive homeless person in Durban to disrupt their medication adherence is deeply troubling to me.

I left South Africa with the sense that while it is important to acknowledge our geographic, national, and sociopolitical differences, problems like the criminalization of homelessness and the lack of safe and affordable housing for many HIV-positive and at-risk people are truly global in scope. Visiting the Denis Hurley Centre showed me that the solutions to addressing these problems are both local and global. It is one thing to talk about access, equity, and human rights, but it is a far more difficult thing to live out this mantra in a world that constantly denies the rights and the value of so many lives in so many locations.

And yet, there is always hope and work to be done still.

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Blog Post Author: Elizabeth Bowen, PhD

Elizabeth Bowen, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at the University at Buffalo (UB)-State University of New York. Her research focuses on the relationship between housing and health. She is the UB faculty contact for the National Homelessness Social Work Initiative and co-leads the New York/New Jersey regional network of social work programs.

Like this post?
Check out this one that Elizabeth wrote in April 2016.

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