Morgantown Unsheltered: Shifting the Stigma
2022 WV PRSA Crystal Award Winner- Community Relations Campaign
Unsheltered populations throughout the country are often heavily stigmatized, and it was no different in Morgantown, West Virginia. As a result, the Morgantown Special Committee on Unsheltered Homelessness needed help with a creative approach that would address this stigma.
Our team completed both secondary and primary research on the issue, looking at academic articles and previously successful campaigns, conducting expert interviews in Morgantown, and completing ethnographic research. During the course of our research, we found that Morgantown residents had a lack of understanding about the unsheltered population that led to ignorance about their situations and their role in the community. We also found that there was a fear in certain community members about raising concerns regarding the unsheltered population and their experiences. Finally, there was a difference in perceptions among housed community members and the unsheltered population. While the unsheltered population felt like they were part of the community, not all community members felt the same way.
These issues could all be traced back to a lack of conversations between different community groups about the unsheltered population.
Create a multifaceted campaign that educates Morgantown residents about the complexities of poverty while also increasing public empathy for the unsheltered population. Research showed that targeting community leaders with a combination of emotions-based and information-based strategies would be the most effective way to capture the community’s attention as a whole. This led us to focus our attention on City Council members, neighborhood association leaders, business owners, and police officers.
“The unsheltered population is not homeless; their home is here.”— Governing Brand Idea
With Humans of Morgantown, we encouraged community members to embrace the unsheltered population as their neighbors and discussed that “Houses don’t make neighborhoods. Neighbors do.” To accomplish this, we created a pop-up exhibit, website, and social media pages.
The Humans of Morgantown pop-up exhibit, which is available for community groups to book, provided educational statistics about the unsheltered population and shared the stories of sheltered and unsheltered individuals side-by-side, asking people if they could tell who’s sheltered and who is not. The inability to distinguish the stories humanized the unsheltered individuals, showing that they are not an “other,” but are instead normal community members. This pop-up exhibit was presented at a Morgantown City Council meeting, and is currently on display in a local church where our message is being heard by a large portion of our target audience.
The Humans of Morgantown social media pages shared the stories of unsheltered community members over Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter posts while also providing educational statistics via Instagram stories. These posts provided more in-depth stories about the individuals than was possible on the pop-up exhibit. The social media posts provided the community with a consistent flow of stories from members of the unsheltered population and provided human faces to the stories being shared, helping our target audience to further connect with the stories of these individuals and continuing the work to humanize the unsheltered population.