What Causes Homelessness?

My research so far has shown me that the root causes of homelessness are often never dealt with. Homeless people are sometimes given the money they need or the emergency housing they need, but not the support structure which prevents them from becoming homeless once again. This cycle of homelessness perpetuates when this support is not available, so what causes this to happen?


The Government

I’m going to start by reading a recent House of Commons research paper concerning Statutory Homelessness in England. The writers have collated the results of multiple papers on the subject which will hopefully give me an overview of the current situation. Conveniently it has a section called “The causes of homelessness” so it seems like a good place to start. However, even the summary makes for a worrying read.

“Homelessness arising from parents/friends/relatives being no longer willing or able to provide accommodation remains significant, as does homelessness arising from the breakdown of a violent relationship. However, the most frequently cited reason for loss of the last settle home is now the ending of an assured shorthold tenancy in the private rented sector. In the second quarter of 2016 this reason was behind 41% of all statutory homeless acceptances in London.”

Even more concerning is that the government’s own statistics aren’t to be trusted,

“The figures exclude those who are homeless but who do not approach a local authority for assistance and those who do not meet the statutory criteria.”

The UK statistics authority also found that the Homeless Prevention and Relief statistics,

“Do not currently meet the standard to be National Statistics.”

The summary goes on to suggest that the recent increase in homelessness is also attributed to a continuing shortage of new housing.

The paper goes on to divide the causes of homelessness into two categories, Structural Factors and Personal Factors.

Structural Factors

According to this paper, a lack of social housing is the key structural cause of homelessness. The overall demand for housing is pushing prices up beyond what the larger population can afford. This causes more people to apply for social housing which currently doesn’t exists. Cuts in public funding during the 1990s has meant investment in social housing has stagnated. The Right to Buy scheme which allows tenants of council houses to purchase their houses from the government. Has caused nationally 1.7 million council homes to be sold, removing a vast amount of social housing from public ownership. This has exacerbated the social housing problem even more. More dire still is the regeneration initiatives. These initiatives are aimed at redeveloping ‘unpopular’ council estates, this often means the removal of high density housing in favor of low density housing with greater occupancy rates.

Personal Factors

The kinds of personal factors attributed to causing homelessness have been brought to light for quite a while now. Brian’s Story and Hidden and Homeless both highlighted stories of abuse and neglect. In fact, any documentary on homelessness will likely have a story of terrible circumstances, violence and abuse. However, this paper accepts that,

“Across the majority of homeless groups, the ‘personal’ factors that cause homelessness are relatively unrecorded and unanalysed.”

And,

“Overall, we know relatively little about the personal, social and economic circumstances of homeless families and other vulnerable people accepted by local authorities for housing.”

However, the report goes on to mention that people leaving ‘institutions’ are more vulnerable to becoming homeless by being ostracized by society when they leave. This could be people leaving prison, hospitals, psychiatric placements or young people leaving care. Each carries with it a social stigma that makes it difficult for people leaving such places to return to society successfully.

It goes on to highlight how the existing structures already in place to help homeless families are unable to do so. Especially for families who are in violent domestic situations, seriously in debt or very poor. These kinds of families, in extreme cases are called ‘problem’ families. They are usually known to government agencies, but have such complex problems that they are currently extremely difficult to help.

Although, perhaps the most damning part of this section concerns the government’s recent policy regarding Local Housing Allowance (LHA),

“Research conducted by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) (publish in August 2010) found that almost a fifth of local authorities had reported an increase in homelessness as a result of the Local Housing Allowance (LHA). LHA replaced Housing Benefit for new claimants in the deregulated private rented sector from April 2008 – as a general rule it is paid directly to claimants rather than their landlords. There was evidence to suggest that direct payment of LHA to claimants had resulted in increased rent arrears (and evictions) of private sector tenants.”

The reasons for homelessness as reported by local authorities in 2015/16 lists ‘End of assured shorthold tenancy’ as the number one cause of homelessness at 31%. In 2010/11, this figure was just half that, at 15%. In London between April and June 2016, 41% of homelessness was due to the end of assured shorthold tenancy. This increase in homelessness can be directly linked with the government’s Local Housing Allowance and welfare reforms. This section concludes with a report from the Crisis Homeless Monitor: England 2016

“the planned lowering of the total benefit cap to £23,000 in London and £20,000 elsewhere announced in the Summer 2015 budget, means that there are concerns that families with more than two children may find both affordable rented and social rented housing, not only in London, but also in much of the rest of the country, beyond their means.”

Welfare Reforms

The report goes on to further describe the government’s welfare reforms and what impact they’ve had on homelessness. It also mentions the Localism Act 2011 which allows local authorities to offload their duty to find social housing for homeless families. It permits the government to find suitable housing in the private rented sector instead of social housing. It seems to me that this act is just a way to avoid building new social housing. It strikes me as a very blatant attempt to avoid solving the main issue, the lack of affordable housing. In February 2014, Shelter and Crisis published a study concerning the quality of this accommodation,

“The households in this study had hoped that they would be able to rebuild their lives after the trauma of homelessness in a safe and secure property with heating and hot water and that it would provide a stable long-term base. The research found that ‘in the majority of tenancies, these needs weren’t met. This impacted housing satisfaction to the extent that two thirds of people were unhappy with the original tenancy they were moved into.'”

In response to welfare reforms, Grainia Long, the then CEO of the Chartered Institute of Housing called for an urgent national review of government policy in regards to welfare reforms and the Localism Act,

“There is a clear conflict here – the Localism Act was supposed to make it easier for local authorities to help extremely vulnerable people find a home but welfare reform is making it harder. We think the government should carry out an urgent review. Welfare changes including the benefit cap and the bedroom tax are aimed at cutting the housing benefit bill – but ultimately the most effective way of achieving that would be to build more genuinely affordable homes.”

Perhaps the best summation of the government’s welfare reforms and their impact on homelessness comes from the Crisis Homeless Monitor: England 2016 report,

“Two thirds of local authorities in England reported that the 2010-2015 welfare reforms had increased homelessness in their area. Negative effects of welfare reform on homelessness levels were much more widely reported by local authorities in London (93%) than in the North of England (49%).

Northern local authorities most commonly cited the extension of the Shared Accommodation Rate to 25-34 year olds (44%), and benefit sanctions (33%), as the primary welfare reform measures driving homelessness in their areas. In London, on the other hand, the maximum cap on Local Housing Allowance rates was by far the most frequently identified welfare change inflating homelessness (reported by 69% of London Borough Councils).

Almost three quarters (73%) of English local authorities anticipated that the roll out of Universal Credit would further increase homelessness in their area.

Particular concerns focused on the impact of altered direct rental payment arrangements on their already fragile access to private tenancies to prevent or alleviate homelessness.”

The paper concludes with many examples of poor government performance in regard to tackling the problem. From this paper I’ve concluded that recent austerity measures introduced by the government in response to the global financial crisis, have directly impacted the poorest in our society. Welfare reforms coupled with a lack of new social housing has demonstrably caused the increase in homelessness across the UK. This is not to mention the numerous personal factors which can cause people to become homeless, many of which are also made worse by these very same welfare reforms.


The People

We live in a democracy, so governments just don’t appear out of nowhere, they are elected by the people. So what do the people think about homelessness? From my own experience, in just the few weeks that I’ve been researching this subject, I’ve seen members of the public engaging and talking to homeless people. Admittedly, this is just my own experience, so I want to see what the general public thinks about homelessness and whether apathy with regards to problem can inadvertently cause it. After all, what incentive do politicians have to solve the problem, if the will of the people to solve it is not there?

YouGov

The results of a 2013 YouGov poll suggests that the public are conflicted about homelessness,

“35% say most homeless people have ‘probably made bad choices in life that have got them into their situation’, while 27% say they may well ‘have had a bad start in life and been unfairly treated by society’. 25% think neither and 13% don’t know.”

“Many Brits (45%) feel annoyed when someone they don’t know tries to ask them for money, while many also feel intimidated (34%), sorry (21%) or guilty (15%).”

“Older people seem to be firmer in this respect: 49% of over 40s feel annoyed compared to 39% of 18-39 year olds, and only 11% of over 40s feel guilty compared to 32% of 18-39 year olds.”

British Social Attitudes

I was unable to find a more recent national survey on homelessness, but instead I’ve found NatCen’s 33rd annual British Social Attitudes report. This national survey has sampled over 3000 people every year since 1983. Most interesting to me are the sections on mental health and welfare. I think these are the sections most relevent to homelessness.

Mental Health

From my initial research into homelessness in phase one, I found that 70% of homeless people suffer from some form of mental illness. Which is why I think understanding what the public thinks about mental health will help me to understand the broader attitudes towards homeless people.

The summary of this research has an interesting fact,

“People who have personal experience of mental health problems, or who know someone close to them who has had such problems, express lower levels of prejudice.”

What’s clear from reading this research is that people’s opinions change quite a lot if they’ve had a personal experience of mental health,

“Attitudes vary among different groups in relation to feeling that they have control over the things that affect mental wellbeing. For example, 21% of those with personal experience of mental health problem(s) agree that the things that affect mental wellbeing are out of their control, compared with 11% of those without such experience.”

The same pattern can be seen in the section on attitudes towards depression and schizophrenia,

“For both depression and schizophrenia, there tend to be higher levels of tolerance among those who have personal experience of mental health problems.”

The report concludes that,

“Certainly attitudes to mental wellbeing and mental health problems are strongly related to a person’s own experiences and knowledge of mental health problems. This might imply that increasing knowledge and awareness among the wider population could help tackle prejudice (though this is undoubtedly an over-simplification of a complex issue).”

My main takeaway from this research is that increasing knowledge and understanding of the issue is vital. The public’s prejudicial attitudes towards homelessness as seen in the YouGov poll above, suggests that the majority of the public doesn’t understand the facts around homelessness. But does this prejudicial attitude actual cause homelessness? I doubt that it does directly, but it may prologue or perpetuate it, making it much harder for homeless people to get the help they need.

Welfare

I’m interested in this research to see if the public supports the government’s recent welfare reforms.

The summary has an interesting fact,

“61% think a working-age couple without children who are struggling to make ends meet should look after themselves, rather than the government topping up their wages.”

I would like to know the number of people who would agree with this statement if it meant that the working-age couple might be homeless without the support.

According to this research it would appear that support for cutting benefits is low,

“Fewer than 1 in 10 support cutting benefits for carers, the disabled, those on low incomes – and, indeed, the retired. Well under 2 in 10 support less government spending on benefits for single parents. The one instance where there is considerable, though still less than majority, support for reducing benefits is in respect of the unemployed.”

And,

“Only around 3 in 10 actually oppose increasing welfare spending on the poor, that is the very opposite of what the government has been trying to achieve.”

However the picture changes when asked about unemployment benefits, in fact, the majority of the public supports a more stringent approach then the government has proposed,

“To measure support for the idea of limiting the duration of unemployment benefit, we first of all asked whether ‘a person who is receiving unemployment benefits’ and ‘who is fit and able to work’ should ‘receive unemployment benefits for as long as it takes them to find a job’ or whether instead they ‘should only be able to receive unemployment benefits for a limited amount of time’. The latter option is tighter than anything that has yet been proposed by the government . . . it is still the case that as many as three in five support the idea in principle, even if we cannot be sure what they think the limit should be. Moreover, there is no sign here of support having diminished over time – if anything the opposite is true. On this topic it would seem there is considerable and consistent support for a relatively tough regime.”

Although, when asked another question in regards to someone trying to improve their skills the results are much different,

“However, the picture looks a little different when we look at the responses to a second question in which respondents were asked whether ‘a person who is receiving unemployment benefits and who has limited job skills or work experience’ should ‘be required to look for work straight away in order to continue receiving unemployment benefits’ or instead ‘should be offered help to improve their job skills while continuing to receive benefits before they are required to look for work’. Here just 3 in 10 think that the person with limited job skills should be required to look for work straight away, a figure that also has remained very stable over time. Perhaps the person who is trying to improve their job skills is thought to be making an effort that the person who is unemployed for a relatively long period of time is not.”

These responses show that the majority of the public are unsympathetic to people with the ability to work, but are currently not. Whereas they are more charitable to people who are currently unable to work, but are trying to improve themselves. I think the response to these two questions are especially relevant to homelessness. Prejudice towards homeless people, especially rough sleepers may stem from the idea that they are lazy and not trying to fix their problems. After all, the only image the public sees of them is when they are sitting on the streets, asking for money.

The second half of the research focuses on the ideology and self-interest of those taking part. It concludes that a person’s ideology or political affiliation has more impact on their views than their self-interest. However, self-interest can become the primary effector of a person’s view as in the case of the young demographic and housing benefit,

“Hitherto we have found that younger people are less likely to oppose topping up the wages of a low income couple and limiting the duration of unemployment benefit. However, they prove to be more likely to back cutting the housing benefit of those who have a spare room. Most likely, this reflects the fact that, on this subject, the self-interest of younger people would appear to be in tune with the government’s reform. Younger people who are struggling to find somewhere to live, or at least somewhere big enough to live, may well feel that older people who are occupying properties that are bigger than their needs following the departure of their children from the family home should be encouraged to downsize to a smaller property.”


So What Causes Homelessness?

There are many personal and structural factors which can cause a person to become homeless. Many have been highlighted in my research already. The reality is, that given the right unfortunate circumstances, anyone can become homeless. Brian’s Story is just one example of this. However, I’ve found that the recent rise in homelessness is demonstrably due to a government policy of welfare reform which lacks compassion. I believe that a significant cause of homelessness is poor government policy coupled with a lack of affordable housing. Although what I also think makes matters worse is the perpetuation of dangerous stereotypes about homeless people and a lack of understanding about the issues many homeless people face, whether these be mental health problems, drug addiction, prejudice or many others. However, if my research has shown me anything, it’s that homelessness doesn’t have a simple cause. There are so many factors at work, from global economics to domestic violence to drugs and crime. I think however, that above all, the problem is a lack of attention. The lack of understanding of hidden homelessness and the way homeless people are perceived needs to change.

What Can Be Done About It?