Who are the homeless? Will they always be with us?
Who are the homelessWill they always be with us?
The aim of the following essay will be to construct a profile of who the ‘homeless’ people are and show how the changes in governmental policy on housing and tackling homelessness have proven counterproductive over the long run, leading to a state where the homeless and their problems have become an inseparable part of contemporary society.
To begin with, the ‘homeless’ are a broad social group, ranging from temporary sofa surfers to street sleepers. Indeed, many studies seem to concentrate their interventions on this street population rather than the more significant group known as ‘hidden homeless’ who stay with family/friends (Hilton and Dejong, 2010).
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In general, many are a potentially chaotic group who struggle in decision making, and who have or experience (a combination of) relationship difficulties, drug and/or alcohol problems, mental health issues and are often in significant debt. The process by which many become ‘homeless’ can often be through temporary stays with friends or family, which depending on circumstances, can drift into street sleeping if those networks are exhausted (Briggs. 2012). Many also lose their dignity and self-respect in this process which increases their sense of shame, and this makes them quite a difficult group to work with should their circumstances deteriorate. This is why by the time many of those who live on the streets come to the attention of various social services, their problems, including financial, social, individual and emotional are already incestuously entangled and difficult to manage (Briggs et al., 2009). Many develop increasingly unpredictable lifestyles and are sent from service to service; more often than not, they can’t manage this and drift further from contact from services and develop increasingly fatalistic thinking. It is often at this stage that many become targets of punitive systems which often work against their complex circumstances (Leibow, 1993) and, since the 1990s, subject to social control through aggressive social policies and law enforcement because they are seen as blighting community life (Matthews et al., 2007; Matthews and Briggs, 2008; O’Connor, 2007).
The inclination towards punishing the homeless population for deviance and transgression is one that is deeply embedded within the fabric of the British society (Carlen, 1996). Increasingly, a tendency to blame the economically and socially marginalized sections of society for their own problem has been noted (Jordan, 1996) and the popular image of these in the public imagination has changed little over time (ibid.). The presence of the homeless population has been rendered as being ‘out of place’ in public space, as it disturbs the otherwise aesthetic and economically ‘revitalised’ urban landscape (Cresswell, 1996; Mair, 1986; Ruddick, 1996; Snow and Anderson, 1993). This has led to the exclusion of the homeless from ‘prime’ city space (Duncan, 1983) because of their ‘spoiled identities’ (Goffman, 1968) and the fear that their existence might in some way infect the former or its inhabitants. This has required the ‘purification’ of public space (Sibley, 1995) either through the criminalisation of basic street survival strategies (Mitchell, 1997) or the re-design of inner-city environment (Soja, 2000). Arguably, this has also led to changes in the way which the homeless are treated. From an earlier ‘malignant neglect’ (Wolch and Dear, 1993) this has grown into a large-scale punitive regime, making life on the streets next to impossible unless one is criminalised and is processed through the criminal justice apparatus (Mitchell, 2001). Having outlined several of the problems which the homeless population has, the next section will provide an overview of the services available to the homeless.
The homeless and the services available to them
Parallel to the social exclusion of the homeless, a tendency of increasing charitable care has been documented – an increased number of night shelters, hostels and day centres as to provide sustenance and temporary shelter for the disadvantaged (MacLeod, 2002). In the UK, as the British government and urban managers have adopted an increasingly aggressive stance towards street homeless people, this had led to a significant increase in the number of night shelters and ‘direct access’ hostels (May et al. 2005; May et al. 2006). These represent ‘spaces of care’ (Conradson, 2003) in an otherwise hostile environment (Parr, 2000, 2003) and their numbers have been on the increase over the past two decades (Fyfe and Milligan, 2003) as a result of the social welfare restructuring and the decline of statutory service provision for marginalised groups. Even though under the New Labour substantial improvements were made in terms of the services provided and a significant reduction in the number of rough sleepers was made, those remaining on the streets were increasingly perceived as an anti-social behaviour problem (Fitzpatrick and Jones, 2005). What is more disturbing, however, is that among those living on the streets, drug use seems to be prevalent and widespread (Fountain et al. 2003). But even in cases there the homeless have had access to services – day centres or night shelters, it appears that in some circumstances, these might also have a damaging effect (Jones, 1999; Fitzpatrick and Kennedy, 2000; Jones and Higate, 2000).
The day centres, to begin with, have been one of the most relied-on services by both the ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ homeless people (those living on the streets and those staying in hostels, night shelters, relatives or friends) (Llewellin and Murdoch, 1996; Reeve and Coward, 2004; Robinson and Coward, 2003). Historically, the responsibility for operating these and the provision of emergency accommodation for single homeless people has been placed on the voluntary sector as the neo-liberal form of governance took over the welfare state and a crisis of street homelessness ensued (Saunders, 1986; Anderson, 1993).
Created as an alternative to the hostels, emergency accommodation also has its own problems to resolve. Shelters, for example, are an important part of the suburban social service delivery system, as they meet the short-term needs of the homeless. At the same time, however, such programs ultimately set up some of the most vulnerable to fail, especially those addicted to alcohol and drugs (Hick-Coolick et al. 2007). In some cases, the shelters could also be perceived as a resemblance of ‘total institutions’ (Goffman, 1961) as far as the deterioration of personhood and self-autonomy is concerned (DeWard and Moe, 2010). In cases where this type of emergency accommodation has succeeded in assisting homeless people with finding accommodation, it has been documented that the housing costs paid by the formerly homeless can be quite high,(Glisson et al. 2001).
But the provision of housing services, and places at hostels in particular can at times be inadequate and subject to strict regulation, often leading to the exclusion of those most at risk(Carter, 1999; Fitzpatrick and Kennedy, 2000). To summarise this section, even though the services provided to the homeless by the non-governmental sector serve as a safety-net in order to prevent further marginalisation and social exclusion, their operation too needs to be reformed, as in many cases it is counter-productive. Therefore, their approach and strategy should be coordinated by a national policy which takes tackling homelessness at heart. Unfortunately, as the following section of this paper will show, the current policy approach adopted by the Coalition government has done exactly the opposite – it has laid the foundation for a future social crisis.
The contemporary governmental policy on housing and its impact on homelessness
In the wake of the global financial crisis, the newly elected Conservative-Liberal Coalition Government announced ?2.5 billion of cuts in housing benefit, most of which affect LHA recipients, to be introduced over a three-year period from April 2011. These cuts will progressively exacerbate the affordability problems faced by many private tenants in receipt of the LHA. The government has implicitly acknowledged that the cuts are likely to produce financial hardship and explicitly accepted that they may result in increased overcrowding and homelessness (DWP, 2010). Despite the fact the housing market has had a significant impact on the reshaping of the welfare state (Malpass, 2008; Lowe, 2004; Malpass, 2005; Mullins and Murie, 2006), the current governmental policy will likely have serious long-term negative effects on the poorest sections of the population, for whom welfare benefits, social housing and the private rented sector have played the role of a safety net (The Guardian, 26th May 2010; Fitzpartick and Pawson, 2007; Kemp, 2011; Hills, 2007; Kemp, 2004).
According to the DCLG, between July 1st and 30th Sept 2012, 13,890 were accepted as owed a main homeless duty – an increase of 11% since the referral for the same period in the previous year. In temporary accommodation, 52,960 households were accepted until 30th Sept 2012, an increase of 8% when compared to the previous year. The Number of households in B&B hotels rose to 4,350, an increase of 29% since the previous year (DCLG, 2012). The housing charity Shelter also released statistics that indicate a sharp increase in demand for help among people who are at risk of being homeless – the organisation has seen an increase of 80% over a three-year period in the number of people who have used its hotline. Of these, 23,086 were assisted in some way by the hotline in the 12 month period to the end of September 2012, compared with 12,852 in the twelve month period leading up to September 2010 (Evening Standard, 30th Nov 2012).
The recession has also had an impact on the mainstream housing market. A report by Shelter (2013) indicates that the number of people who have experienced difficulties in paying their rent or mortgage each month has risen by 44% over the past year, reaching 7.8million. Of these, short of a million people used payday loans in order to pay their rent or mortgage and another 2.8 million people used an unauthorised overdraft in order to pay their rent or mortgage, with 10% of all doing this every month.
With this in mind and the cuts in government funding to councils, it is hardly surprising why London is experiencing such as severe crisis in terms of housing, a problem which has led to the adoption of radical measures. A research by the Guardian (4th Nov 2012) showed that many councils in the metropolis are acquiring properties across the UK for vulnerable families – among those areas being Luton, Windsor Slough, Margate and as far away as Manchester, Derby, Hull and Birmingham.
Similar are the findings of a report by the Child Poverty Action Group and Lasa, which predicts that 124,480 London households will be hit by a combination of Local Housing Allowance and under-occupational penalties. Seventeen of all London councils were already in the process of outsourcing families from the metropolis and had secured or were considering temporary accommodation outside of London for future use. Among these were Kensington and Chelsea, which had moved homeless families to Manchester and Slough; Waltham Forest, which acquired properties in Luton, Margate and Harlow; Brent, which had relocated several households to Hastings; Tower Hamlets, which had relocated a handful of families to Northampton; Hackney, which was also ‘reluctantly looking to procure accommodation outside London’ (Landlord Today, 6th Nov 2012) and Newham (Newham LBC, 5th Nov 2012).
The restricted funding of councils has led to a significant reliance on the third sector to provide a temporary solution to the problem by transferring the homeless in other boroughs and to the hands of private landlords. Some of the boroughs, however, have been hit worse than others, or so it seems. The assumption that many asylum seekers and economic migrants move to Croydon has led to the transfer of ‘problematic populations’ into another borough – Lewisham, which is in the process of building more council homes in order to meet the demand (East London Lines, 14th July, 2012). The total number of homeless families in Croydon by the end of 2011 was 1,600, of which 300 were living in B&B accommodation (East London Lines, 29th Nov 2011). If these statistics are correct, then, a third of all homeless families that are put in B&B for longer than the recommended six-week period in London are situated in a single borough! (London 24, 30th Jan 2013). What has caused the problemAccording to councils, it is the withdrawal of private landlords from the social housing market which has forced them to place more and more homeless people in bed and breakfast accommodation (24 Dash, 30th Jan 2013). Thus, the search for affordable housing outside the boroughs is justified, as the budget allocated for temporary housing cannot be stretched to cover an increasing demand – in Croydon, the number of families living in temporary accommodation has increased by 30%, compared to an overall 5% increase in London over the past year (East London Lines, 23rd Jan 2013).
Even though some attempts are made to improve the current situation – bringing abandoned properties back in use or the conversion of redundant council properties (The Information Daily, 22nd Jan 2013), such measures will hardly solve anything in the long-term, especially when working families, ex-servicemen, and community volunteers are considered of priority need for council accommodation, and not the homeless or the destitute (Guardian, 9th Nov 2012). In the words of Kay Boycott, the CEO of Shelter, ‘the fact that councils are offering people homes hundreds of miles away – uprooting families from schools, communities and jobs – is testament to the scale of London’s housing crisis’ (East London Lines, 29th Nov 2011).
The aim of this essay was to provide an overview of the profile of homeless people, draw attention to their problems and demonstrate how the recent changes in governmental policy in terms of housing and welfare provision have not provided a solution to homelessness, but have rather contributed to the problem, ultimately leading to a state where the homeless and their problems have become an inseparable part of contemporary society. As it was demonstrated, the ‘homeless’ as a social group has been considered a problematic section of society for a significant period of time. Although a safety-net of services exists and the majority of them are provided by the third sector, the pressure for meeting targets in order to secure funding could potentially lead to excluding those, who are considered to be of ‘high risk’. The current strategy adopted by the Coalition government has done little to tackle any of the causes which lead to homelessness, but has rather adopted a reactive approach, which most likely will prove to be counterproductive in the long run (WCC, 2013). In order for the problem of homelessness to be successfully resolved, however, a new approach should be adopted, one that is drawn from good practice, informed by high quality research and does not prioritise the needs of its beneficiaries (in this case the homeless) over populist discourses.
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