It’s traditional as we enter into a period of Christmas excess (let’s face it, with the economy the way it is we all need some festive cheer even if it is on the cheap…) for news coverage to turn to those deemed ‘less fortunate’, such as homeless people – and if recent reports by Shelter are anything to go by, that category is also potentially growing.
Homelessness isn’t just about losing a home – numerous studies (including for example NatCen research on homelessness among LGBT young people and my own research on transitions through homelessness) have found a complex link between trauma and homelessness.
Often traumatic episodes or unsettled home lives can be the precursor to homelessness – and these can include extreme physical or sexual abuse – in this context leaving ‘home’ can be considered a form of escape. Yet once homeless there may be cold comfort – people can enter a cycle of alcohol and drug misuse, be subject to further abuse and exploitation, and this can also be part and parcel of increased mental health issues and alienation, a feeling of being invisible to society (as a current online photography exhibition attests to). It’s then increasingly difficult for people to begin to access the support available and make the sometimes slow and difficult route back into being ‘housed’. Sometimes support is not available or individuals can’t adhere to the strict regulations that may be put on them to maintain temporary accommodation.
Yet having started by saying homelessness isn’t just a housing issue, it is true that homelessness is also always a housing issue. Earlier this year NatCen hosted a breakfast briefing with leading experts from the US and Europe presenting evidence on the success of a US based approach called Housing First to policy stakeholders in London. You can hear my podcast on Housing First on the Community Care Magazine website and read the publication.
Housing First is based on the premise that permanent, independent housing, where an individual can settle and feel secure, is a human right. It recognises that it’s the first step for people who are chronically homeless, mentally ill, and may also be substance users, to be able to find some stability in their life. Housing First has been subject to a number of evaluations and randomised controlled trials in the US which have evidenced that not only is it successful in terms of the number of people who maintain their accommodation, and a reduction in their drug use, it’s also very cost effective – the alternative is often a cycle of institutions and A & E admissions which ultimately cost the State more than providing permanent housing.
With the new housing strategy out in the UK it’s clear the government is committed to addressing housing inequality (with £400m pledged to homelessness prevention), though there are also concerns that decreasing housing affordability and changes to housing benefit will lead to increased housing insecurity this year. What approaches such as Housing First illustrate is that housing remains key to both avoiding and starting to recover from the extreme trauma and alienation manifest by being homeless.