Nonprofits take to social media to educate public about homelessness

front steps blankets

At first it felt daring to tell people the truth about homelessness. When Amy Price kicked off Front Steps’ annual blanket drive just before Thanksgiving last year, she knew a few things – that the shelter Front Steps operates for the city did not have room to store and maintain bedding, that clients at the shelter slept on mats with whatever they carried around to cover them, and that the small, cheap throws donors typically sent in were not enough to keep a grown man warm. “They’re great if you’re a kid on the couch watching Frozen,” said Price.

But she also knew that a blanket large enough to cover a grown man would be something he kept. He could use it outside and while he’s on a mat in the shelter, and he would keep it and carry it and not leave it behind as trash. But blankets this size cost about $20, about four times the price of a cheap throw. 

To explain all this on a Facebook post seemed like a bad idea. At best, maybe no one would read it. At worst, donors would be offended and think the nonprofit was being ungrateful. But she posted it anyway, and the response was a surprise. 

Full-sized fleece blankets came in from across North America, with the most recent coming from a girl scout troop that included loving notes to the shelter clients. As of this week, Front Steps has received 987 blankets. And not-so-coincidentally, end-of-year donations are up, too. 

Nonprofits had been ambivalent about social media when it was first popularized, unconvinced that it was useful and too concerned with fears it would distract from other work. Today, nonprofits like Front Steps are using social media for more than fundraising. They’re jumping into conversations around social issues and educating audiences about the needs and solutions. 

Julie Burch of Caritas of Austin says their approach is to focus on the positive outcomes of the nonprofit’s work. For example, a popular series of posts are tagged “#moveinmonday” and highlight the stories of recent clients Caritas has helped move into housing. “I don’t like to talk about where people have been,” she said. “I like to talk show how far they’ve come.” 

At Front Steps, Price has also posted about the problem with food donations left on the ground by misguided donors, or how not everyone outside the shelter is experiencing homelessness or one of their clients. Her technique is to temper honesty with humor.

Both Front Price and Burch said their posts are an antithesis to posts that perpetuate myths and misinformation about homelessness. And because other social media users comment on their posts – including some of their clients – they’ve learned a lot about how to tell more effective stories. “Social media has been a remarkable tool given how this story has been in the public eye so much,” said Price. “I would never have believed I would spend this much energy on it, but it informs so much else.”

NOTE: This article appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on January 12, 2020.

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