At Museum of Homelessness, we‘re often asked why more and more people are becoming homeless in one of the wealthiest nations on earth. There is no doubt that austerity policies have played a huge role, but we have to dig deeper to answer the question properly. Over the last year, funded by the Wellcome Trust, Museum of Homelessness has worked with a leading social cognition researcher to understand how our brains respond to homelessness, and how the stories we can tell make a difference.

The neuroscience of social exclusion

Dr Lasana Harris, senior lecturer in Social Cognition at University College London, has spent the last decade researching the neuroscience of social exclusion both in London and at Princeton University.

His research has found that when someone encounters a person who is homeless, their brains often trigger a sort of ‘neural defence mechanism’ in which their pre-frontal cortex does not activate as it should.  This means they do not always recognise that the person in front of them is a human being, because they are homeless.  This ‘dehumanised perception’ can be directly observed in the brain and helps explain why we often walk past people who need our help, rather than offering them our support.

We should also consider how this affects relationships made in professional or policy settings. We chose to explore health for our project with Dr Lasana and look at what people’s experiences are in accessing healthcare provision. Lasana’s pioneering work means that we now understand the change that is happening in the brain that stops people viewing others as fully human. His research helps us utilise our museum collection to help tackle this underlying problem.

Telling stories, changing minds

The Museum of Homelessness collection includes everyday objects given to us by people affected by homelessness and people working in the field, along with a story about what that object means to them. These include a set of medical notes that tell the story of a young woman’s experience of stigmatization on a labour ward, and a set of inhalers which tell the story of a person being discharged onto the streets 23 times in one year. There is a set of scales, given by a senior health professional that speak of the rebalancing needed for health inequalities to be addressed.

We have also worked with The Queen’s Nursing Institute, whose staff kindly gave a call out for objects and stories: this had a huge impact. After Museum of Homelessness storytellers shared these stories (spoken in the donor’s own words), 95% of the visitors to our exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery said that they felt more able to help and signpost people they met sleeping on the street. We also want these stories to change people’s experience of systems of care.

Deliberately different

There is growing evidence that the stereotypical imagery and narratives commonly used by some charities (and in mainstream media) to tell the stories of vulnerable people reinforce a dehumanised perception within the brain. These traditional approaches may help with short term fundraising, but ultimately they add to the social pressures and root causes behind the increase in homelessness.

The Museum of Homelessness’s approach is deliberately different.  We focus on the object rather than the person, while still offering a platform for voices that are usually silenced.  Tackling the housing and homelessness crises require us to address the social factors that contribute to the problem. We all need to take responsibility for what’s happening and ask ourselves some difficult questions about the ways in which we work.

We hope that our work can help organisations of all sizes to counter social exclusion more effectively. One of our priorities for 2019 will be our partnership with the Patient Safety Translational Research Centre and the Public Programmes Team at Manchester University NHS Trust, in which we’ll test how objects and stories can inform better policies and practices.

Over the last year we have met and worked with wonderful, passionate and committed health professionals and we are looking forward to continuing our collaborative work, to make positive changes for people affected by homelessness.

Jessica Turtle
Co-founder, Museum of Homelessness

Follow Museum of Homelessness on Twitter: @Our_MoH


Photo by Joel Fildes of Objectified at Manchester Art Gallery.

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