Has the homelessness sector become a social construct?

Recently we published Wisdom from Behind Closed Doors’ which captured the voices of people living in supported accommodation, rough sleeping and sofa-surfing. The emphasis with the Wisdom series is to deeply and actively listen to feedback and genuinely hear what people have to say.

From recent news stories, and across the media, we are now witness to more and more people sleeping rough. The lack of housing and changes in welfare reform are most definitely significant factors, but from the ‘Wisdoms’ we also heard…..

“Hostels are not safe, hostels are full of people either using or dealing drugs”

“I was offered temporary accommodation but when that ended I was out on the street again”

So as a charity, working alongside people on the street, what is our role in tackling homelessness? How do we, within new psychologically informed thinking, react? Well, the answer isn’t what you might expect!

The homeless sector has become a social construct, an industry.

What we have come to recognise is that over time, for understandable reasons, the sector has evolved as a social construct, an industry that provides all that we can to help people get off the street. We have the homeless art class, the homeless GP and the homeless haircut – all of which were created as a response to what people, who may have been unable or too embarrassed about their situation to look outside of services, had asked for. However, when we actively listened to the people we work with it became clear that this separate, social construct has created a huge psychological barrier.

Imagine that your sense of belonging, your identity, your status, your connections, and your source of human warmth all came from within a service. Everyone in your life is either paid to be there, wants something from you or is with you to feel good about themselves. This has segregated people from mainstream society and the result is people adopting a ‘homeless identity’, elements of which many people maintain even if they are fortunate enough to escape this false reality.

Imagine in this situation you are offered a flat. That would be great, yes? But this opportunity will take you away from the services you know, your sense of community and connection. You will be living on your own in an unfamiliar area. Resettlement services recognise the practical barriers, and to an extent, the isolation but in reality the huge psychological leap to give up everything that is familiar and move away, even if it is from a false or unhealthy familiarity, is so great that many people return to the streets. We have heard it said that people return because they have ‘complex needs’ but many people return because the system has made them dependent. We segregate people at huge cost and then face another huge cost to try and integrate them back into communities, which is a job we don’t do well in many cases.

By failing to really listen and hear what people are telling us and therefore fail to understand what we have created, we are maintaining a status quo, a broken system which is contributing to people becoming trapped in services and prevented from reintegrating into the community. We have become part of the problem.

Are we, as a sector, up for this challenge? The movement towards the paradigm shift required to start treating people like people?

By carrying out the ‘Wisdoms’, it became very clear that the system when you become homeless is not working. It is process led, not person led.

From the very beginning of this process there are too many invasive questions which serve only to dehumanise, humiliate and, at worst, institutionalise people in homeless services.

People are diagnosed or given a label for what are understandable reactions to their environment and situation.

Too many people are referred to unregulated hostels where they are prey to drug dealers and pimps. People’s fear and the coping mechanisms they develop to live in threatening and scary environments is pathologised as a mental health problem. We say things like, ‘1 in 4 people have mental health problems’, but a significant number of these people are trying to cope with a broken system, not a ‘broken brain’.

Local authorities deliver social control, not social care.

There are widespread Local Authority ‘homeless pathway’ strategies which people move along if they can jump through the relevant hoops. For example:

To move from the hostel to a 9 month supported housing project, I must commit to stop drinking and attend an alcohol agency.

What I’m thinking is: I have been through rehab 4 times before, what I want is a place I can call my own without people interfering in my life. If I have to ‘behave’ and go for a 9 month stint, I will end up doing something that will mean they will throw me out. It’s hopeless.

So pathways reinforce an approach which is more about social control than social care. People respond as many of us would by complying, feeling grateful and moving through the system. However, people are also left feeling helpless with this enforced guidance or angry and potentially less compliant at the injustice of being blamed for their situation by a system which is saying:

‘We can’t just give you a home, you’ve got to earn it or at least prove you can be an exemplar citizen by not drinking and behaving yourself.’

If we could listen to the people we are trying to ‘help’, and perhaps walk in their shoes for a day, we might experience how it feels to be judged by the system. People begin to feel hopeless, dependent, or at worst suicidal, all of which are an understandable reactions to the frustration of the situation. Instead of asking, ‘Are we the cause of these feelings? Are we creating a barrier stopping you from getting through this tough time?’ it becomes another mental health diagnosis.

The greater the problem of rough sleeping, the more pressure Local Authority commissioners are under to respond to government targets. And not forgetting stressed local councilors, who are dealing with community complaints about rough sleeping. So contracts designed to help reduce ‘bad behaviour’ and prevent street begging, which are often solely focused on people’s deficits, become quick fix attempts to get people off the streets and into work.
We know from a growing body of research that focusing on negatives doesn’t work and trying to control or ‘fix’ people’s behaviour, instead of listening to their situation, will never achieve the long term, sustainable outcomes that we want to see.

The system, which we define as the interaction between government, statutory services and service providers (note that people are not involved in this chain), is informed by deficit thinking in a world where research tells us this won’t work. Services are happy to articulate their new strength based and asset based work but fail to recognise that this type of work cannot be delivered within a deficit system. Tweaking it or trying to ‘fix’ bits of it all through the lens of ‘people are the problem’ just won’t work.

The new fads and Apps are sadly well-intentioned but still give individuals the same message – you cannot achieve without us. You will always need someone as you go through a tough time. In the sector, we have experience of working with people who are so institutionalised that they still expect to be ‘rescued’ years after they have moved out of services, ‘People will still feel sorry for me and help me’. Sometimes this is viewed as a personal weakness but this is what a system which has ‘done to’ the person creates.

The current system views people on the street as having ‘complex and multiple needs’ and by ‘fixing’ all the problems, like a tick box exercise, the person will be fully functional and out of homelessness. This doesn’t work.

In challenging the system we are not pointing the finger, and clearly we aren’t saying that great work isn’t going on, but to truly impact on rough sleeping and homelessness we must start by listening, acting and shaking up the status quo.