What are the real causes of homelessness?

'Tent City' in central Sydney. Image: Getty.

The UK is experiencing rising levels of rough sleeping and homelessness. It’s not the only nation where this is happening – there are clear parallels in Australia, too. As a UK academic researching homelessness, who recently attended Australia’s National Homelessness Conference in Melbourne, I know that both nations must be keen to find an effective response to this extreme form of poverty and exclusion. But answers will remain elusive, until everyone can understand its causes.

Policies to end homelessness often focus on ending rough sleeping – just like the UK government’s recent rough sleeping strategy. But the thing about people sleeping rough is that they can look, feel and sound different to “ordinary” citizens. And these perceived differences can be seized on to justify certain approaches to the problem – from punitive to progressive.

But US research, investigating how homeless people use services over time, has shown that problems such as mental illness, addiction and poor health are confined to a minority of people, who experience long term and repeated homelessness. Similar findings have been reported in Australia and the UK.

For instance, in England, in the autumn of 2017, there were 4,751 people sleeping rough, compared with 121,340 children in temporary accommodation, who are legally defined as homeless. And this does not even account for those who are sofa surfing; who lack their own front door, private space, physical security or any legal right to anything that could really be called a home. These people are difficult to count, but studies of the experience of homeless people show us they are there.

So, rough sleeping is a relatively unusual form of homelessness in the UK, and in Australia.

Not a choice

As homelessness worsens, it’s time to challenge the narrow views of the issue, which are driving the current social and political responses. Homelessness is not just rough sleeping and it is not just experienced by people with complex needs such as mental illness and addiction.

All too often, sleeping rough is not associated with economic and social causes. Instead, it’s widely believed that people sleep rough because they’re ill, or because they have “chosen” to be there. The role of low paid and insecure jobs, a welfare system that does not pay enough to live on, domestic violence and, perhaps above all, a lack of affordable, adequate homes often don’t appear in discussions about homelessness.

Yet countries such as Finland, which have extensive welfare, social housing and public health systems, as well as well-organised, well-resourced and integrated homelessness strategies, do not have rough sleeping – or homelessness more generally – in the same way that the UK or Australia do.

The real causes

There’s further evidence that the prevailing view of homelessness is distorted. Long term and repeatedly homeless people tend to fall within certain age ranges; they tend to be people who were young during periods of economic downturn – that is, in their 20s and 30s, unable to exit homelessness, and then who are all in middle age 20 years later. This challenges the idea that being homeless is just down to individual characteristics – if that were the case, you’d expect homelessness to be randomly distributed across age groups.

What’s more, the Women’s Homelessness in Europe Network has pointed out that the focus on the apparently disproportionately male population of rough sleepers excludes lone women with sustained and recurrent experiences of homelessness, who need lots of support, but who often sofa surf rather than sleep rough. Most homeless families are led by lone women parents, who do not have severe mental illness or addictions – their homelessness is often associated with domestic violence.

This is not to suggest that the individual is not important, or that someone’s needs or choices cannot make a difference as to whether they experience homelessness, or how long they experience homelessness for. But ignoring the associations between homelessness and poverty, welfare and health systems, or an inadequate supply of secure and affordable homes, will not address the problem.


The bigger picture

Rough sleeping is real. But so too is every poor person and family, living precariously without a settled home – and their numbers are greater. For this reason, rough sleeping should not be the sole target of homelessness policies. Countries ranging from Finland to the US focus attention on sustained and recurrent homelessness — associated with very high support needs - all of whom need assistance, not just those on the street. This includes people who get stuck in what are meant to be short-term homelessness services, unable to move on.

Prevention is also crucial, and there is scope to build on longstanding policies and support the revolutionary changes in Wales and in England, which will make prevention much more accessible and extensive. And it’s critical to ensure there are enough affordable homes, because so much of tackling homelessness is ultimately about having enough of the right sort of housing available to people on low and uncertain incomes.

The Conversation

Governments which focus on rough sleeping and fail to challenge the widely held assumptions about homelessness are missing the bigger picture. They do not understand what homelessness really is, the scale of the problem and the day-to-day realities of homeless people – let alone what we, as a society, should be doing to solve it.

Nicholas Pleace, Professor of Social Policy, University of York.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

When should you forget the bus and just walk?

Might as well talk, tbh. Image: Getty.

It can often be tempting to jump on a bus for a short journey through the city, especially when it’s raining or you’re running behind schedule. Where there are dedicated bus lanes in place, it can feel as though you speed past gridlocked traffic. But as city authorities begin new initiatives to get people walking or cycling, that could all change – and so could you.

British people are wasting tens of hours in traffic every year: London comes top, with the average commuter spending 74 hours in traffic, followed by Manchester, with 39 hours and Birmingham and Lincoln, both with 36 hours.

It might surprise some people to learn that cities are intentionally slowing down private vehicles, in order to shift people to other, more efficient, modes of transport. In fact, Transport for London removed 30 per cent of the road capacity for private vehicles in central London between 1996 and 2010. That trend continues today, as the organisation gives over more space for buses, cyclists and pedestrians.

London’s road capacity, over time. Image: Transport for London/author provided.

Clamp down on cars

The loss of road capacity for cars has occurred across most UK cities, but not on the same scale everywhere. The good news is that the changes, when made, appear to have reduced actual car congestion. It seems that by making it less attractive to use your car, you’ll be more likely to use other transport. In fact, the average speed of buses and cyclists can be up to twice as fast as normal traffic in cities such as London.

The relationship between walking and improved health has been proven to such an extent that it seems everyone – your doctor, your family, regional and national government – wants to increase physical activity. The savings in health care costs, are via improved fitness, reduced pollution and improved mental health, and its impact on social care are huge.

For instance, Greater Manchester wants to increase the number of people who get the recommended level of exercise (only about half currently do). The most advanced of these plans is London’s, which has the specific goal of increasing the number of walks people take by a million per day.

So, the reality is that over the next few years, walking will gradually appear more and more “normal” as we are purposefully nudged towards abandoning our rather unhealthy, sedentary lifestyles.


The long journey

Consider this: the typical bus journey in the UK is almost three miles, with an average journey time of around 23 minutes. The equivalent walk would take approximately 52 minutes, travelling at just over three miles per hour. It seems obvious that the bus is much faster – but there’s much more to consider.

People normally walk at least a quarter of a mile to and from the bus stop – that’s roughly ten minutes. Then, they have to wait for a bus (let’s say five minutes), account for the risk of delay (another five minutes) and recover from the other unpleasant aspects of bus travel, such as overcrowding.

This means that our 23 minute bus journey actually takes 43 minutes of our time; not that much less than the 52 minutes it would have taken to walk. When you think of the journey in this holistic way, it means you should probably walk if the journey is less than 2.2 miles. You might even choose to walk further, depending on how much value you place on your health, well-being and longevity – and of course how much you dislike the more unpleasant aspects of bus travel.

The real toss up between walking and getting the bus is not really about how long it takes. It’s about how we change the behaviour and perceptions we have been conditioned to hold throughout our lives; how we, as individuals, engage with the real impacts that our travel decisions have on our longevity and health. As recent converts to walking, we recommend that you give it a go for a month, and see how it changes your outlook.

The Conversation

Marcus Mayers, Visiting Research Fellow, University of Huddersfield and David Bamford, Professor of Operations Management, University of Huddersfield.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.