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.

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.