CAUSES OF HOMELESSNESS – STRUCTURAL OR INDIVIDUAL?

Up until the late 1960s, structural causes – particularly economic factors such as unemployment, poverty and housing supply – were viewed as the primary cause of homelessness. Since then, a shift towards a view of causation linked to the individual has emerged. This led to people transitioning through homelessness being viewed as higher risk, somehow inadequate; and with this came a sense of their moral failure. From 1979, successive Conservative governments openly expressed pejorative views around individuals experiencing homelessness which has become somewhat engrained in public perception.

Homelessness is consequently associated with vagrancy, begging, criminality, substance and alcohol misuse, and mental health. This is not specific to one particular political leaning. New Labour introduced Public Place Orders and ASBOs in 1998 and made begging a recordable offence in 2003. They also developed well-funded homelessness programmes targeting the criminal justice system, substance misuse and mental health. Clearly the approach was also based on a view of homelessness due to individual causes as opposed to structural ones.

Contemporary scholarship no longer ascribes homelessness with reference to this binary view and it is now perceived to be a complicated combination of several factors linked to both structural and individual issues. Unfortunately, this view has been very slow to develop.

The implications – whose responsibility?

When the causes of homelessness were primarily viewed as being structural, the responsibility was perceived to lie with the State. Government economic policy clearly impacts upon unemployment and poverty, likewise housing policy determines the sufficiency of housing supply. A parliamentary research paper issued in 2015 identified that “Successive Governments have failed to ensure housing supply matches demand”.

As perception shifted towards individual causation, the responsibility was effectively transferred over from the State to the voluntary and charitable sector (VCS). This has been particularly true under Conservative governments whose belief has been that the State should not interfere unduly with issues of personal choice and responsibility. Even with increased interventionism under New Labour, the approach was still linked to individual causation. This has continued to contribute towards the systemic institutionalisation of people transitioning through homelessness, whereby government- as part of its homeless policy -targets substance misuse, criminality and mental health which reinforces the view to both the public and the individuals concerned that these are the underlying causes of homelessness.

The VCS has not done much to counter this view – their approach over the same time period has been based on seeking to “fix” broken people and tackle their deficits as a means of tackling and preventing homelessness.

A different way of thinking that leads to greater partnership working

If the reality is more complicated than this false binary view, then so is the issue of responsibility. It is not either the state or the voluntary and charitable sector, but the two working in partnership to tackle the underlying issues and build on each other’s strengths. This may or ought to be one of the most significant revelations for the sector that has come out of the COVID-19 pandemic. The “Everyone In” programme is described in a government paper published on 24th June 2020 as a “government-led drive [which] has brought together councils, charities, the private hospitality sector and community groups…”.

This initiative is an excellent example of partnership work but also confirms that the binary view is a false one. In order to bring “Everyone In” there was a requirement for government funding, provision of supply of housing and a recognition by government that it should act. At the same time at a local level, it required partnership working to bring the statutory, voluntary and charitable sectors together into the same space to make it work in practice. Even with this partnership approach, the outcomes were not guaranteed. The partnership working in and of itself was not sufficient. It needed a joined-up approach which was flexible, strength-based and person-led to make it work. Hotels that insisted on enforcing rules, tackling substance misuse, criminality and mental health issues were- in this author’s humble opinion – doomed to fail. At the very least they would fall short of the substantial potential for achieving significant positive outcomes with the resources provided

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