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.

 
 
 
 

The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.


The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.