MPs want to reduce homelessness, but the prescription is having unwanted side effects

By CSAN Policy

16 November 2016 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the BBC’s first broadcast of ‘Cathy Come Home’, highlighting conditions of compounding seriousness in which people with housing difficulties could find themselves (one thing leading to another); the stigma and scapegoating associated with poverty and homelessness, and a chronic shortage of housing support from public services, if families and friends were unable to bear the burden.  On a first viewing of the film, the issues and attitudes can seem stunningly familiar in 21st Century Britain.

Over intervening decades, numerous ‘policy solutions’ to various types of homelessness have been tried.  Average life expectancy rates for people with a history of rough sleeping have improved over time.  But so has average life expectancy overall.  The gap between these rates remains large.  In addition, over the next 15 years, gaps in life expectancy for the whole population are expected to widen on socio-economic lines, reflecting increased income inequalities for example.

Despite creation of what some term a ‘homelessness industry’, with innumerable campaigns, celebrity patrons, large-scale professional organisations, the invention of ‘pathways’, and the injection of vast sums of public money, there is remarkably little evidence that any of these solutions have directly improved future life chances for new generations of people, whose histories are most likely (statistically) to predict housing challenges.  Too often, specialist analysis degenerates into questions of retrospective attribution, blame, or chicken and egg.  While there is plenty of finger-pointing about inadequate housebuilding and the impact of welfare reforms, it seems almost taboo to ask whether emerging family structures and social patterns of behaviour will exacerbate homelessness in future.

One of the striking features about ‘Cathy Come Home’ is the way in which family and neighbours try, with varying degrees of will and capacity, to help her manage the initial situation.  The play shows how good will can dry up even where there is a foundation of social capital, a network of support in times of crisis.

It has become fashionable to say that ‘homelessness is not inevitable’.  But what does this mean in terms of mutual responsibilities within families, communities and organisations?

First, perhaps it implies that every individual has a choice to ignore or close the door on someone who faces difficulties with housing.  If only it were so simple.  It might be more accurate to say that the soundbite reveals a more informed uncertainty following policy approaches of the last fifty years.  Where centred on statutory support, these approaches have delivered a clear message: a professionalised pathway for tackling homelessness is ultimately a temporary solution – it is limited by annualised budgets, the supply of skilled staff, maintaining professional boundaries, and avoidance (of fraud, being sued, or other risks to the provider).  In 21st Century public services it is further limited by quasi-science and contracting.  Not only is the person without a home a person to be labelled by category of need, but she/he becomes part of an artificial group – which is certainly not a community – valued not for the gifts and strengths of the individuals within it, but by being assigned ID number(s) within a ‘vulnerable group’, and then to receive a pre-defined ‘intervention’ from a database of ‘what works’.

The Communities and Local Government Select Committee has been inquiring into homelessness (note 1), but the ‘next generation’ solution seems like more of the same.  These legalistic models appear by their very nature to be eroding the irreplaceable social capital that, in its very vulnerability, makes us more human.

Note 1: House of Commons, Communities and Local Government Committee, Homelessness, Third Report of Session, 2016-17.

The views expressed in this blog are not CSAN policy.