RALLYchat — United Way and Tipping Point on smarter issue framing to end homelessness

United Way of Greater LA’s #EVERYONEIN Campaign Launch at Echo Park Lake on March 9, 2018

Rachel Horning: Hello everyone, and welcome to #RallyChats, a semi-regular series of discussions among RALLY experts and leaders in politics, communications, and journalism. Today’s topic is about homelessness and I’m excited to welcome Chris Ko, Director of Homeless Initiatives at United Way of Greater LA, along with Stephany Ashley, Campaign Manager, Chronic Homelessness Initiative at Tipping Point (in San Francisco). In addition, I’m joined by two RALLY colleagues, Rachele Huennekens, Senior Account Executive and Jacob Hay, Account Manager. Welcome, everyone!

Rachel Horning: To start, can you tell us a little bit about your work?

Chris Ko: Sure thing. I direct Homeless Initiatives for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. Our efforts in ending homelessness started as a joint effort with the Chamber of Commerce here and has grown to encompass more than 300 community partners. And given LA’s patchwork geography and politics, we work as the main nongovernmental partner, along with the county, the city, and our local homeless services authority to change the trajectory of homelessness here in Los Angeles. We do that via strategies on 1) monitoring data, 2) investing catalytic funding, 3) improving systems/policies, and 4) empowering the public.

Stephany Ashley: Thanks Chris — and I’m with Tipping Point Community, a nonprofit neighbor up north serving the Bay Area. My initiative is specifically focused on San Francisco. Tipping Point set a goal to reduce chronic homelessness by 50% in 5 years in SF. Like LA, we’re partnering with the City and County and trying to leverage partnerships to make meaningful progress on the issue. Our strategies to get there are: 1) create permanent exits to homelessness (AKA homes) 2) prevent more people from becoming homeless and 3) optimize the public sector. We’re looking to LA for inspiration all the time, so it’s great to be in conversation with you here, Chris!

Chris Ko: I’ve always thought of Tipping Point as United Way 2.0 so the love goes both ways!

Stephany Ashley: Nice!

Jacob Hay: Thanks Chris and Stephany. I work with Chris and his team on the United Way’s Everyone In campaign. It’s the public-facing effort to share solutions that are in place and working, and keep momentum moving forward.

Chris Ko: We’re very excited about this next leg of work with RALLY

Stephany Ashley: Such a great name for a campaign, I really love it

Chris Ko: It took me 3 days to fully get the double meaning of the name, so hopefully that shines through even without the logo 🙂 You can visit our landing page for that here: www.everyoneinla.org.

Rachele Huennekens: And I’ll add that I’m with RALLY’s San Francisco office, and we worked with Tipping Point Community in the summer of 2016 to execute a communications strategy for T Works: Homelessness. Among other things, we created a shareable infographic that explained how four major public systems in the city touch the chronically homeless, which featured statistics and an original illustration by RALLY’s Director of Design. It was used on the Tipping Point website, Facebook, and shared with the press.

Chris Ko: Rachele, do you have a copy of that graphic that you can pin here? (see Tipping Point’s graphic below)

Rachel Horning: Thanks, Rachele! To begin to really dig into our conversation, could each of you share your perspectives around the types of messages and message framing that have resonated most with your target audiences?

Stephany Ashley: Well, I should perhaps frame this by saying that the campaign we’re developing is still being crafted. So right now we’ve done some research into messaging but haven’t executed the campaign yet. That’s coming soon though, so stay tuned.

But the main perspective that I think is worth sharing is that in San Francisco at least, people are hyper-aware of the problem. We don’t need to tell anyone that this is a problem, everyone feels that every day. But we do need to talk about solutions. There’s a lack of faith in solutions to homelessness, and if we can’t imagine something being solved, we’ll never be able to solve it. So I think that’s a key part of messaging: getting us all to believe we can do better and then talking about how.

Chris Ko: That really resonates with me. I think we are at the juncture where everyone is convinced that homelessness is a critical issue for the livelihood of our regions.

Stephany Ashley: As far as who those spokespeople are, I think we’re still figuring that out. But I hypothesize that it might not be the usual suspects.

Rachele Huennekens: I second Stephany’s point on overcoming people’s lack of faith that solutions are possible. For public audiences in the SF Bay Area, I think there’s a lot of cynicism and burnout about issues of homelessness and housing affordability, so we need to find a creative and sharp way to overcome that attitude.

Chris Ko: What messages are key now are about setting expectations. People want to know what the plan is and what’s possible and what’s happening but by “plan,” they don’t mean a literal 20-page or even 5-page document — they mean clear numerical goals and milestones along the way. So, I think messages that seem transparent, relay progress, and tell results are critical.

Stephany Ashley: The truth is that there is a *lot* of work being done on this issue in both of our cities, but the experience of the public is that the situation is not getting better, it’s getting worse. So how do we both convey the progress that is being made, the work that is being done, while also pushing for bigger and bolder solutions?

Chris Ko: In terms of messengers, I think having more spokespeople who are perceived as being independent and third party are key. We’ve learned from Tim Iglesias up north that facts don’t fight fear and that messengers are key.

Rachel Horning: It seems like a big debate is based around the owners of the “need to end homelessness” narrative. Whose role do you believe it is to elevate and disseminate solutions-oriented messaging? Are we elevating the right voices/spokespeople in the fight to end homelessness?

Chris Ko: We know that solutions-based messages should not be primarily be delivered by public offices. Mainly because the public is so skeptical of government at this point.

Stephany Ashley: And understandably so.

Chris Ko: But at the same time, what we also know is that independent voices need to build confidence over time back in public actors. It does not serve us long-term to have progress be divorced from government actions.

Rachel Horning: So how can messengers better communicate strategies to affect change at the policy level? Or would you argue that’s already happening?

Chris Ko: Something critical we’ve learned from our work is that we cannot affect large-scale and certainly sustained policy change without public communications. But rewinding the tape, I’d say that public communications on its own cannot also affect policy change without institutional and administrative advocacy on the inside as well.

Stephany Ashley: What do you need from the public to advance your policy work?

Chris Ko: I think the main thing we need is for the public to activate and more clearly voice the quiet majority that does support solutions.

Stephany Ashley: I wondered if you might say that. And what does activating and amplifying their voice do to those who oppose solutions?

Chris Ko: Great question. I think it’s just as much for our elected officials. A certain set of the opposition will continue to oppose but I think it gives just enough space for our elected officials to point to the support that is often seen only in polls or other places outside of public discourse.

Stephany Ashley: I love how you framed this. I worked briefly in local government and so often the squeaky wheel gets the oil (or stops the cart from moving forward). The idea that there is a silent majority that are supporting solutions that just aren’t as activated is powerful.

Chris Ko: And I think the key to this is knowing when and how public comment moves things forward. So also working directly with policy makers to lead that public comment or lead the implementation that flows from it. There is so much work that happens on those sides but that climactic moment when key ideas or projects get approved is critical too.

Rachel Horning: In terms of that “silent majority” activation, a key tension (or lack thereof) in our work with UWLA was the lack of a pervasive Boogie Man in the fight to end homelessness. Let’s talk about the framing of homelessness itself. First off, have you found it to be productive to have a Boogie Man, or to name one in its absence?

Stephany Ashley: Personally, I don’t believe so. Because I believe the Boogie Man is more complicated here, and that naming it puts a lot of people on the defensive.

Jacob Hay: In LA, part of the campaign is taking a grassroots approach. We’ll have organizers go door-to-door and be in meetings in the neighborhood where supportive housing and other solutions need to move. I’m excited to see how that develops.

Chris Ko: The media definitely loves the Boogie Man. Maybe we should make it the Boogie Woman to give both genders some equal love in villainy.

Rachel Horning: Fair enough!

Chris Ko: But understanding how to frame an issue with “another side” is critical to getting earned media. So even if it’s not a person, certainly we do well to frame what is keeping progress from continuing. For example, the Boogie Man can be our development process in building supportive housing.

Rachele Huennekens: Definitely, the press loves controversy and conflict frames. But I agree with Stephany that perpetuating that may alienate some folks, in the long run. So perhaps we show inequality as the Boogie Man, and expose some of the scarcity arguments as myths. Have any of you taken that approach?

Stephany Ashley: Exactly. I think that divisiveness though has hindered our ability in SF to make meaningful progress on this issue. To me, it’s the scarcity model of capitalism that can really dismantle progress and coalition building for solutions. In SF, most people feel scarcity — in terms of money and housing especially. The reality is that we do have enough to house our homeless population, and it doesn’t have to come at the loss of anyone else. So, I want us to think about the issue as though we actually do have enough.

Chris Ko: I can see that being a powerful frame.

Stephany Ashley: But yes — it is about how resources are distributed. One fact that really changed my thinking on this is that it would take 1% of our housing stock to house every unsheltered homeless person in SF. And 0.6% of our city budget to pay their rent! So it’s doable.

Rachel Horning: This begs the question, what is the carrot and stick in this fight? If the carrot is housing, for example, that’s a slow-moving marker of success that simply doesn’t satisfy a lot of people’s need to see instant improvements.

Stephany Ashley: Not if we can house people faster! Lol but really, there may need to be a stick in terms of creating and accessing housing.

Rachel Horning: Toucé. Do you believe we need to balance the shorter-term wins with the longer-term wins in terms of communicating progress and impact out to the public to keep them both engaged, and agreeable to improvements?

Stephany Ashley: It’s unconscionable to me that there are units sitting vacant in SF for decades while people sleep on the street. So I would advocate for a policy stick there.

Rachel Horning: I’d be curious to know how each of your orgs frame those policy/advocacy sticks.

Chris Ko: We worked with each local city councilmember to lead on creating 222 units of Supportive Housing in their district over the next few years and we’re transparently tracking progress on that commitment with a public tracker. But to go back to our earlier point on other strategies, we’re also actively working with the offices to help them achieve that goal. This is a goal we WANT them to achieve and far surpass.

Stephany Ashley: Chris how did you get all the city councilmembers on board with that goal? How did you get them each to commit to that number? I imagine in some of their districts they faced significant pushback?

Chris Ko: Lots of meetings 🙂 and key statistics. Also making sure we were partnering with the leadership of the Council President and the Chair of the key committee on this issue with a couple nontraditional allies. I think people always feel better about jumping in when everyone is too.

Jacob Hay: I think they also understood the public pressure too. At some point, you don’t want to be the last one on the boat.

Stephany Ashley: Did you do any community organizing to make their constituents supportive of it in advance?

Chris Ko: We definitely bring key community constituents that were representative of the broader community support to meetings. But the key was knowing that all districts would bear equal load.

Rachele Huennekens: What about sticks RE: funding? Is there a way to say, bluntly, we simply HAVE to pay for this? I’m thinking of the harm-reduction model of public health… How do we show policymakers and voters that subsidies for and development of affordable housing for people will cut costs, in the long-term?

Chris Ko: What’s interesting is that the argument about things being cheaper in a mass public environment does not always move the needle. It DEFINITELY moves the needle with some key audiences that we mentioned before: analysts, editorial boards, business leaders.

Stephany Ashley: In SF there is a feeling among many like we already spend “SO” much money on the issue. But I’d like to reframe it as: what if we just agreed to spend what it costs to solve it?

Rachel Horning: There are so many different circumstances that lead people into losing the security of a home. Each of you have been on the front lines of activating communities and communicating solutions-focused information with the goal of either passing legislation, funding measures, and most especially, overcoming NIMBY-ism. Could you walk us through what’s working? What isn’t working? And where we go from here?

Chris Ko: At the end of the day, people want to know what’s happening and if something is going to take longer, why, and what to expect in the mean-time.

Stephany Ashley: There are many factors that lead people into homelessness, yes. Everyone has a different story. As one formerly homeless person said to me “the only thing easy about being homeless is becoming homeless.” But there is really one way out, and that’s a home to move into. Everything else can change once that happens, but very little can change before then.

Chris Ko: YES! I think housing is a unifying frame for the multiple causes of homelessness — for the 2/3’s here that struggle with episodic homelessness, it’s locating housing that exists to accept time-limited subsidies. For the 1/3 that struggle with chronic homelessness, making supportive housing cheaper and quicker and in all regions, is key. And for those on the brink, working on the affordability of housing in our broader market is the key to prevention. Housing crisis = homeless crisis…and housing emoji’s FTW.

Stephany Ashley: In terms of NIMBYism, I think we’re reaching a turning point here in SF where people are just ready to see something work. I was talking with someone who lived on a block where we were thinking about building some PSH, and they said “Well, homeless people already live on my block, so I’d rather have them live in a house!”

Rachele Huennekens: I think another thing that is working, and Tipping Point Community and UWLA deserve credit for, is keeping up a drumbeat. We simply can’t look away from this painful reality of so many people suffering without homes — every election cycle, every major public event (like the Super Bowl in SF and Olympics bid in LA) and even the news media collaboration that happened last year in the Bay Area, are ways to push our solutions. We need to be relentless.

Chris Ko: Yes, there are things that work now that have always worked. Classic community organizing with speaker training and deployment is critical. We have regional organizers that are on the ground to lead the supporters we’re cultivating through the other channels. We have a three-part strategy that begins with broad communications ­–> weekend family-friendly pop-ups and week night story-telling events –> community organizers there to deploy those that make it through the funnel. Also, keeping away from open-mic “town halls” on development proposals are CRITICAL.

Stephany Ashley: Oh really?!

Chris Ko: Again, as Tim has taught us, don’t organize your opposition. Open house style gatherings where people can come ask questions and talk to key people in the project

or small group table discussions force actual conversation and dialogue.

Rachel Horning: And with that, folks, I’d like to thank each of you for joining our chat today! We covered a lot of important ground today, and I’m excited that we’ll be able to share this out broadly. Any final comments that you’d like to leave your readers with?

Chris Ko: We have gone through a lot of iterations on this issue, and while it might feel like Groundhog Day, we are truly in a unique era of our fight to end homelessness.

Stephany Ashley: Everyone in!

Chris Ko: Excited to continue partnering with the RALLY team on this and learning from the Bay on this critical issue. #EveryoneIn!

Rachel Horning: Yes! #EveryoneIn — go team. Thank you all!

RALLY is an issue-driven communications firm that takes on sticky political and social problems and finds ways to push them forward.