The Long Read: Intersectional homelessness

Caithlin Ng 9 March 2017

The intersectionality of homelessness is often forgotten when we discuss the issue. Perhaps this is a symptom of its misrepresentation as being purely a product of alcoholism and addiction, such that homelessness is often misconstrued as being the fault of those of who have been made homeless. It is obvious, however, that homelessness is often a consequence of increasingly exorbitant housing and healthcare prices, and a fragile economy where many do not feel secure in their employment. Another possible reason for our unrepresentative idea is that a lot of homelessness is hidden, and what we do see masks its true demographic.

More often than not, the people we see on the streets of Cambridge are white males, between the ages of 25 and 50. This is a far-cry from reality. Where are the women, children, elderly, minorities, and families? With the difference in rates at which homelessness rises between different ages, genders, and social backgrounds, we need to remember that despite what we see, homelessness is a highly varied experience, and therefore cannot be addressed with ‘one-size-fits-all’ strategies.

A study published by Homeless Link, the national membership charity for organisations working directly with people who become homeless in England, found that over half of those approaching councils for help are under the age of 25. Additionally, “the main cause of homelessness amongst young people is that their parents are no longer willing to house them, with the main driver being the irretrievable breakdown in that relationship. Nearly half of young homeless people become homeless for this reason.”

Homeless youth are more likely to remain homeless in the long term. This fact is a product of both the psychological effects of the experience, and a range of other factors. These include the fact that nearly 6 in 10 are not in education, employment or training, and lack the skills to live independently. Measures need to be put in place that ensure that they are in a good position to get the physical and mental stability that they specifically require.

This can come in the form of caseworkers who act as a pillar of support, not only in the quantity of time spent with them, but also the quality. It is not enough to check up on youth in need regularly. We can also try to help them find support, whether that involves therapy, or reaching out to their family if they have any. Obviously this applies to all branches of social work, yet this needs to be emphasised particularly when it comes to homeless youth.

Yet Homeless Link reports that only 19% of cases receive government aid, and this figure is dropping with increasing benefit sanctions. The most common move-on option, for example, is emergency accommodation provided by No Second Night Out (NSNO), an organisation dedicated to helping the homeless population across England, due to its wide availability. Others seek hostels and foyers; however, these options have become increasingly inaccessible due to welfare reforms.

Women are the minority in the homeless population, with only 26% of clients of single homeless services being female. Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people, reports that there are high levels of vulnerability to mental ill-health, drug and alcohol addiction, and experiences of sexual abuse amongst homeless women. In particular, homeless women are more likely than men to have mental illness as a result of physical and sexual abuse.

A report, based on research conducted amongst 160 homeless women across England, revealed that approximately 20% of homeless women were made homeless after escaping from violence. 70% of this was from their partners. If schemes to reduce homelessness do not recognise these different levels and natures of risks, it will result in women not getting the treatment that they need. In particular, post-traumatic treatments and increased security against one’s abuser are essential to some women’s process of recovery. Some may inevitably face triggers when finding a job, which can in turn hinder the process of getting back on one’s feet.

The needs of homeless women are far from being acceptably met. Crisis research showed that “the majority of homeless women have negative experiences of approaching local authorities, with many being ‘turned away at the door’ or deterred by front-line staff from making a homelessness application.” A woman I encountered on the street in Cambridge tells me that she was turned away by local shelters, which seemed only to be taking in men. While the claim goes unverified, it is a reminder that we must question the assumption that there is equality within the Cambridge homeless shelter community. The problem escalates still: female rough sleepers are at incredibly high risks of sexual and verbal abuse. Plus, the need to make themselves invisible to avoid such encounters leaves them at greater risk of remaining unfound and thereby prolonging the problem.

Underpinning the neglect of these subjective issues is the government’s fallacious cost-cutting strategy to weed out measures which target issues that do not affect the largest population group. This leads to insufficient measures for minorities of gender, age, and ethnicity. We need to realise that this is counter-productive, in that allocating misdirected manpower for the sake of the majority is a sure-fire way to ensure that we make the best use of our resources. Why should we distribute manpower in a way that does not fully harness our resources, in order to combat limited resources?

On 4 March this year, the Government announced that it would scrap housing support payments for under-21s, a cut first put forth under David Cameron’s administration and only implemented recently. A study by Shelter, a housing charity with over 85,000 volunteers, showed that five households are now being made homeless every hour, and perhaps with no savings for taxpayers. Plus, with its abandonment of homeless youth in particular, LGBT youth or those who face difficult family situations are disproportionately at risk of being made homeless.

Research by Heriot-Watt University showed that the study would save just £3.3 million, a figure that is easily trumped by the knock-on costs if just 140 young people become homeless, meaning that taxpayers will have to pay more money overall, the Independent reports.

This is precisely the mentality described above which results in the neglect of certain population groups. The problems mentioned above extend to various other groups, including the elderly, amongst which rates of homelessness are on the rise. This can be attributed to rising healthcare and housing costs, with a report published by the Homelessness Research Institute in 2010 predicting that homelessness amongst people age 65 and older will more than double by 2050.

Imagine an elderly couple, put out of work through no fault of their own, and having to give up a house they have lived in for longer than some of us have been alive. When they are forced onto the streets, and unable to receive the help that they need to get a house under policies designed based on inaccurate homelessness statistics, and which end up costing taxpayers more, it forces us to ask whether people have a right to have a house, and how to change the way we approach the issue.

Homelessness is more subjective and complex than is often realised. However, even to recognise that fact is the first step towards granting people their right to a home in a way that actually works.