Labelling the homeless – is there an elephant in the room?
When is someone no longer homeless? When do you stop referring to homeless people and starting thinking of them simply as people? These are some of the questions raised for me by a long-term research study which followed the futures of over 260 formerly homeless people.
I recently attended the launch of Rebuilding Lives: Longer-Term Outcomes for Homeless People who are Resettled. This is the latest report by Dr Maureen Crane and others at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit of Kings College London.
This research followed up on over 260 single homeless people over 5 years, individuals who had originally been rehoused by various agencies such as Centrepoint, St Mungo’s Broadway and Thames Reach in London, Framework in Nottingham and St Anne’s in Leeds. Such detailed and extensive longitudinal data is really interesting and useful even if – being honest – the findings themselves are not particularly earth shattering – they seemed to me to be more about affirming assumptions.
Returning to the opening point, when do we start to think of the previously homeless as just people? People who, yes, may still be facing problems; but these are just as likely to be about poverty – poverty of opportunities and options. Poverty of social interactions, poverty of seemingly no light at the end of the tunnel…… These are issues also being faced by millions of others in society who have never ever come across the radar of housing or homelessness support agencies or statutory bodies. And just like formerly homeless people most will have somewhere to live.
By giving someone a label, or at least persisting in using that label, are you really doing them any favours or are you justifying your own support service existence?
Creating system dependency
Creating independence is the oft stated goal but how often have we seen this as actually creating dependence? I believe this risk is probably recognised by most housing and homelessness support agencies but rarely spoken about…..just like Jumbo sitting over there in the corner!
Some of the early learning from Commonweal’s Peer Landlord shared housing project, testing a supportive shared housing model, it is seemingly less successful for those that have spent even just a modest amount of time in the hostel or supported housing system which too often requires people to follow a housing pathway.
Too many people become institutionalised very quickly to the extent that the support they need to live outside of that system is greatly increased.
The growth in interest around housing first models is surely in part a reaction against such institutionalisation endemic in the homeless industry’s traditional responses. There will be some individuals with very complex needs but our failure to distinguish between those that need ongoing support and those that don’t but who find themselves receiving it anyway is unhelpful.
Thames Reach, when delivering the Peer Landlord scheme, are increasingly taking new Peer Landlord tenants from services such as No Second Night Out – helping those that have recently fallen through on to the streets at a point where many just need a roof and a stable base to quickly rebuild or re-start their lives. These are people for whom other housing support services are not needed. However, employment or health and well-being support might be just the same as for anyone who has recently become redundant, left prison, suffered a relationship breakdown or for numerous other triggers that can tip people in to initial homelessness.
Is housing support always needed?
With the rise of generation rent, the greater use of fixed term tenancies by social housing providers and the disappearing dream of home ownership, for many lifetime housing stability doesn’t exist. They may not be living in their aspirational housing, they may want something different – better – they may expect to achieve something better but most would not consider themselves homeless and an accessible, stable, affordable roof is maybe all that is required from the housing sector.
The Rebuilding Lives report shows that once housed many / most people stay housed and make a home. It calls for active tenancy support to be commissioned by local authorities and their partners where required. My fear is that where required will more often be defined by the agencies and we lose sight of what might be best for the individual preferring to mould them to our services not the other way around or even acknowledging our service is no longer needed and allow others to provide the ones that are.
Now where’s my bag of peanuts for Jumbo……?
Chief Executive of Commonweal Housing
Top blog image © Stefano A