As part of our ambition to provide early career researchers and recent graduates with an opportunity to share their thoughts and expertise on how we build a better region, we are delighted to welcome an article from Craig Mitchell.
Craig graduated in May 2022 from the Open University and shares his thoughts on why a pluralistic approach is needed to address the many causes of homelessness.
Summarising the mood in Britain post-1945 in the form of a question, the late Tony Benn asked if full employment could be achieved in times of war, why couldn’t it be achieved in times of peace? This feeling lead to the election of the Attlee government and the corollary was a suite of imaginative policies the most famous being the establishment of the National Health Service. A contemporary problem would benefit from a similar line of thought, homelessness. During a war of a different kind, when the coronavirus was at its most potent, inflicting a significant amount of illness and death, ingenious policies were advanced to combat it. One such policy was the ‘Everyone In’ scheme which began in March 2020. Thousands of rough sleepers were removed from the streets and provided with emergency accommodation as part of efforts to resist the spread of Covid-19 . The scheme was, however, not viewed as a long-term effort to wage war on the scourge of homelessness. The question is if homelessness can be so effectively dealt with during a pandemic, why can’t it be effectively dealt with in times of normality? Homelessness, then, ought to be tackled with the same energy and focus as it was during the pandemic.
The government defines homelessness as follows, “People sleeping, about to bed down (sitting on/in or standing next to their bedding) or bedded down in the open air (such as on the streets, in tents, doorways, parks, bus shelters or encampments). People in buildings or other places not designed for habitation (such as stairwells, barns, sheds, car parks, cars, derelict boats, stations, or ‘bashes’ which are makeshift shelters, often comprised of cardboard boxes)” . Important to note is the discrepancy between this definition and more expansive ones which include those residing in temporary accommodation such as hostels or bed and breakfasts. For this and other reasons, precise figures are hard to arrive at. The best that can be given is an approximation. However, it is not controversial to say that the figure is over 200,000 in England with over 17,000 of those situated within the West Midlands . The number of homeless individuals includes a not-insignificant amount of children which reinforces the moral urgency needed in redressing it. To make matters even worse, 45 people died while sleeping rough in the West Midlands in 2020 revealing that the ultimate price may be paid for such abject impoverishment .
There are a myriad of causes behind homelessness and policies aimed at resolving it need to account for the varied nature of the problem. The causes and their effects vary according to place and circumstance but a brief examination of a few of them is worth considering here. Important to note is that explanations often fall under two categories, environmental and individualistic. Environmental factors include things like job and housing market conditions and poverty. Individualistic factors include things like mental ill-health and substance abuse. Often in the academic world, there is a penchant for dichotomies but as to homelessness, a pluralistic approach provides the most explanatory power due to the complex interaction between the environment and the individual. It has the further benefit of removing the unfortunate tendency some have in assigning blame to the individual for their privations.
A substantial contribution to the risk of becoming homeless is childhood poverty. This is associated with an increased likelihood of experiencing financial hardship later in life. Impoverishment has a malignant effect on mental and physical wellbeing. Another environmental risk factor is the absence of strong familial and social relationships. The presence of stable social and family bonds can serve as a shield against homelessness. Causes such as these demonstrate the interplay between environmental and individualistic factors. They can exacerbate mental and physical ill-health potentially leading to harmful ways of alleviating suffering. Individualistic factors (which some use to blame people for their plight believing they are the ultimate cause) can be caused by way of uncontrollable environmental factors.
The lack of social housing can also be advanced as a cause. The persistent shortfall of housing resulting from a consistent failure to build enough homes means there is a shortage of supply. Therefore, too many people live in insecure accommodation while their income is greatly diminished by expensive private rent. There needs to be an effort to increase the rate at which secure and affordable social housing is constructed. Evidence suggests there is a relationship between a well-functioning housing market and a lower occurrence of homelessness. Research also suggests the state of the housing market has more of an influence on homelessness than the state of the job market . In response to this, at the cost of £9.6 million, the Housing First scheme headed by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) began in May of 2018 and helped more than 500 people off the streets . This has reduced a great deal of immiseration and needs to be kept in place over the long term. Its effectiveness renders it far too important to be merely used as a short-term fix. The Housing First approach ought to form the keystone of a multifaceted approach to dealing with homelessness. Once a home is provided, personal problems related to mental and physical health, employment, state of finances and so on can be remedied more easily. Personal progress is easier to make when one feels they have some stability.
Some well-meaning people avoid disparaging remarks about the homeless and refuse to engage in the kind of thinking that sanitises the true nature of the problem by always laying blame on the individual for their destitution. This is laudable and fair-minded but can occasionally lead to the misapprehension that “homelessness can happen to anybody”. Despite the variability of causes, the fact is some people are far more vulnerable to homelessness than others. Therefore, a targeted approach that recognises that homelessness cannot simply just “happen to anybody” will be more effective. For those unfortunate enough to be sleeping rough, ingenious and effective policies like the Housing First approach used in the West Midlands, provide a stable footing upon which other issues can be confronted and, hopefully, overcome. A secure home should be viewed as a right and the absence of one should be remedied as quickly as possible.
The fact that the reasons underpinning homelessness are pluralistic means that pluralistic solutions are required. Policies that focus on a single cause will be too narrow in scope and will leave a variety of contributory factors unaddressed. The approach also needs to be both remedial and preventative. By assessing the risk factors, homelessness may be somewhat predictable and a means of intervention needs to be available. It should not be considered predetermined and the pluralistic approach which acknowledges the salience of environmental factors and the way they can aggravate individual factors like mental and physical ill-health will require policies that grapple with the myriad of causes that result in someone being homeless. A clear path to support is essential. Not only can homeless people then enable themselves into living fulfilling lives, but this means they can also use their abilities to contribute to society through employment.
None of the aforementioned policies or ideas will act as a panacea, but they will contribute significantly to reducing homelessness. The number of rough sleepers in the West Midlands has been falling over the years. It is remarkable what can be achieved and the amount of suffering that can be alleviated when homelessness is met with energy, focus and imagination. This should be the perennial stance taken until the rate of homelessness is as low as it can be. If homelessness can be so effectively dealt with during a pandemic, it can be effectively dealt with in times of normality.
 Bramley, G., Fitzpatrick, S. (2018) ‘Homelessness in the UK: who is most at risk?’, HOUSING STUDIES, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 96-116.
About Craig Mitchell
Craig Mitchell completed his degree in politics, philosophy and economics with the Open University in May of this year. He is particularly interested in political and economic policy, political commentary and journalism. Craig is pursuing a career in political research and journalism and would like to focus on economic inequality and the impact of political ideologies.