Changing perceptions about homelessness in San Francisco

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Case Study: Tipping Point Community

In the Bay Area, 1.1 million people don’t have the resources they need to meet their basic needs. Since 2005, Tipping Point has invested nearly $300 million for housing, early childhood, education, and employment solutions in the region.

Tipping Point partnered with Media Cause to help create campaign concepts and marketing for their “All In Campaign” which aims to change perceptions about homelessness in San Francisco—not just by sharing facts, but by inspiring residents to ask WHY.

The Challenge

Homelessness has become deeply ingrained in the fabric of San Francisco’s community. So much so, in fact, that it often goes ignored.  Every night, an average of 8,000 people find themselves with no place to call home. And every day, the rest of SF’s residents walk by their homeless neighbors’ tents and makeshift dwellings without even giving them a second thought…unless that thought happens to be one that’s shaped by fear or misunderstanding.

San Francisco wasn’t always like this. But over the years, residents have become desensitized to seeing their neighbors on the streets—and, to hearing the promises from officials to help improve the situation go unfulfilled. While frustrations keep growing, progress has stood still.

When Media Cause began working with the All In Campaign, created by Tipping Point Community as part of its Chronic Homelessness Initiative, the organization was facing a dual, and daunting, challenge: 

How could they more effectively hold elected officials accountable to their plan of reducing homelessness? 

And maybe even more importantly, how could they get an apathetic and skeptical public to care?

The Strategy

In order to get San Franciscans to support the All In Campaign, we needed to meet people where they were—by acknowledging their apathy and their misperceptions around homlessness, and moving the conversation back to a place of humanity. After talking to many individuals on all sides of the issue, we recognized that regardless of whether their perspectives came from a place of fear, frustration, or compassion, there was a shared common belief: finding solutions to the homelessness crisis would be a win for everyone.

The harder challenge, we learned, would be convincing them that it was also everyone’s responsibility to pitch in.

Taking a cue from human and behavioral psychology, we hypothesized that simply providing people with facts and figures in an attempt to change their minds might just come off as more “wallpaper” to be ignored. We had seen other campaigns and initiatives find some level of success in humanizing the individuals experiencing poverty, rather than speaking about the situation as a faceless issue-to-be-addressed, and understood that helping San Franciscans relate to the individuals behind the tents, shelters, and headlines could provide them with a different perspective than they’d previously considered. But we also had a hunch that simply providing them with the perspective wouldn’t be enough. We had to figure out a way t o get them to arrive at this different perspective on their own.

When someone else questions our beliefs, we get defensive. But when we’re inspired to question our own beliefs, we get curious. So that’s what we set out to accomplish.

With the strategic platform of questioning as our north star, we built our campaign’s concept, and execution, around the basic transformative power of asking WHY. 

    • Why are we one of the wealthiest cities in the country, yet more than 8,000 SF residents have no safe place to call home?
    • Why do we walk by our unhoused neighbors and ignore them? 
    • Why do we care more about the cleanliness of our streets than the people living on them?
    • Why do we accept the situation as it is, rather than questioning what it could be?
    • Instead of pointing fingers at people experiencing homelessness, or expecting someone else to step in, WHY aren’t WE doing something to help?

By asking these types of questions, we aimed to start a bigger conversation, and help people not only rethink the way they perceive their homeless neighbors, but also get curious about the role they could play in helping to create real change.

When it comes to homelessness, people have such strong opinions, and they’ll shut down any information that challenges their beliefs. Using the questions approach helped us cut through that defensiveness and communicate our message from a place of shared curiosity.

Luisa Montes, Communications Manager

Implementation

  • To bring our strategy and approach to life, we blanketed the city (once the shelter-in-place orders were lifted) with provocative questions that invited San Franciscans to reexamine their own beliefs: turning apathy into empathy, misperceptions into compassion, and inaction into involvement

    In other words, we asked questions that we hoped would get people to care—and act.

    The first layer was overcoming apathy through awareness. We ran an OOH campaign, using buses and posters in store-fronts across the city, as well as a digital ad buy, to ask the WHYs and HOWs of homelessness to San Franciscans. All of our messages led to the All In website, where residents could pledge their support and continue the conversations, learn more about the situation, and collaboratively work toward solutions.

  • The second layer was transforming misperceptions into compassion through education. Throughout the campaign, we’re continually sharing stories from people experiencing homelessness, as well from leaders of service organizations and others on the front lines. For those who are more persuaded by data, we’re also making evidence about homelessness more accessible and digestible, providing support to help hold elected officials accountable to the reaching goals they’ve publicially set.

  • And lastly, through the nurturing stages of the campaign, we’re providing resources to move SF residents from inaction to involvement. Once someone engages with All In, we continue to cultivate their curiosity by offering them opportunities to be part of the solution to homelessness in their city, in whatever ways feel most relevant and attainable to them. For some, it may be by acting at a micro level—for example, by stopping to talk to an unhoused neighbor in the street, or having “blessing bags” on-hand with personal hygiene essentials that someone experiencing homelessnees may need for the day. Others may want to get engaged at the neighborhood level, by attending city council meetings, or asking for more supportive housing in their communities. And still more residents, although a much smaller subset, may be inspired to get involved at the city or state level by becoming an advocate for their homeless neighbors, and helping to maintain pressure on elected officials.

    Regardless of HOW someone engages with All In, we believe the campaign can have a profound impact on changing perceptions, and creating impact, if we’re able to inspire even one person to reconsider their beliefs and simply ask WHY.

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