Here are seven commonly held myths about homelessness that need debunking - and fast.
Myth 1: People choose to sleep rough – and you shouldn’t encourage it by donating or giving tents.
Fact: The issue of people giving tents to rough sleepers has been in the news recently following the comments of the director of the Huggard centre who argued that it means people are less likely to seek help. We saw similar comments from Carwyn Jones who said in December 2017 that on a recent visit to homeless charities: “…it was clear that there are some people who have lived on the streets for years, and for some people it seems to be a choice that they make”
This view is remarkably similar to that of Ronald Reagan, who in 1988 said: “They make it their own choice for staying out there……… There are shelters in virtually every city, and shelters here, and those people still prefer out there on the grates or the lawn to going into one of those shelters.''
Unfortunately this is at best simplistic. There is a wealth of research into why some rough sleepers don’t access emergency accommodation, much of it focusing on the fact that many shelters are to all intents and purposes unsafe places where people are left unsupervised and unsupported. Dr Peter Mackie told the equalities, communities and local government committee that one of the “key limitations of current services in Wales” is that of “unsuitable, absent or inadequate support”. He pointed out that local authorities have no statutory obligation to meet the housing-related support needs of the homeless community, including rough sleepers. As such, many individuals “go unsupported”. Additionally, he emphasised that “time limits on support can be particularly problematic”.
One obvious example why this matters is that of homeless people in employment. A relatively new phenomenon caused by the interaction of insecure employment, cuts to in-work benefits, changes to the law making it easier to evict, and the rising cost of housing. A growing problem that has seen a specific type of hostel open in Manchester. Often these circumstances mean that somebody will lose their home before they lose their job. People in such circumstances usually remain in employment for a short period afterwards (around 2 weeks on average) but in this situation having a pay check and bank account can make them vulnerable to be being preyed on by other rough sleepers.
It is worth remembering as well that rough sleepers are simply the most visible element of homelessness. But there is also a ‘hidden’ homeless population of people who sleep on their friend’s sofas, families stuck in temporary B+B accommodation, and people living in such poor quality accommodation that it makes their health substantially worse. It is estimated that 7,000 young people each year face this form of hidden homelessness.
Myth 2: Homeless people all have severe mental health and/or substance abuse problems.
Fact: Whilst there is no doubt that some homeless people do have mental health or substance misuse problems, it is the experience of rough sleeping that itself can be traumatic, leading to people to medicate with alcohol or substance misuse.
However it is extremely simplistic to pretend that substance misuse or mental health is the sole causes of homelessness.
- Family breakdown
- Relationship breakdown
- Violence and harassment (eg: from neighbours)
- Loss of tied accommodation
- Leaving prison
- Leaving care
The reality is that the causes of homelessness are numerous, complex, and although substance misuse can be a coping mechanism used by some rough sleepers, it is simplistic to pretend this is the only reason why people become homelessness.
Myth 3: Homelessness has nothing to do with government policy
Many Tories still do not accept that their benefit cuts and austerity are behind the rises in homelessness that we are all seeing. Whilst homelessness existed in 2009 prior to Tory austerity, the dismantling of the welfare state – with over 100 changes to social security that all reduced entitlements – has played a key role in removing the social safety nets that people relied upon when dealing with circumstances such as eviction, loss of a job, or relationship breakdown. In particular changes to housing benefit combined with the excessive use of sanctions have left people destitute. The rise in rough sleeping is ‘undisputed’ with estimates in the region of a 45% increase in estimated rough sleepers since 2015, and a 27% increase in households threatened with homelessness being reported by local authorities. These facts are the tip of the iceberg as any google search suggests.
Crisis has a comprehensive plan for ending homelessness throughout the UK, a plan that contains recommendations for every layer of government, including specific sections for Wales.
Myth 4: Many people begging aren’t really homeless.
Fact: Sometimes you hear this from people who want to deny the extent of homelessness. There is of course the problem of fraudsters pretending to be homeless to get donations from the public, although that doesn’t strike me as a particularly lucrative criminal enterprise. However, this is a wider problem effecting the charity sector – fraudsters will also pretend to raise money for cancer victims, and nobody argues that this shows actual cancer charities aren’t needed.
Myth 5: It costs too much money to tackle rough sleeping
Fact: For the UK as a whole, the Crisis plan for ending homelessness estimated that the total costs of ending homelessness between 2018 and 2041 was £19.3 billion, but would bring financial benefits of £53.9 billion. For Wales, that cost is just £535 million, and brings benefits of £1.47 billion over that same time period. That’s a rate of return that would earn you a 6 figure bonus in the city of London.
There is however one issue that needs highlighting – local authorities and social security) are responsible for the cost of preventing and rapidly resolving homelessness, but the costs of letting homelessness happen and persist are spread across the NHS, Criminal justice systems, and social security. Silo thinking and budgetary pressures therefore do account for a failure to invest in prevention and resolution of homelessness.
But above all else, as the recent comments on rough sleeping demonstrate – prejudice remains amongst those who make decisions on where to invest. Prejudice that Crisis have clearly shown is costing you – the taxpayer – billions of pounds.
Myth 6: Homeless people are dangerous.
Fact: Actually all the research shows that homeless people are more likely to be victims of dangerous people. Research for crisis found that rough sleepers are more than 17 times more likely to be a victim of violence than the general public, with the research showing that for rough sleepers
- More than 1 in 3 have been deliberately hit or kicked or experienced some other form of violence whilst homeless (35%)
- More than 1 in 3 have had things thrown at them whilst homeless (34%)
- Almost 1 in 10 have been urinated on whilst homeless (9%)
- More than 1 in 20 have been the victim of a sexual assault whilst homeless (7%)
- Almost half have been intimidated or threatened with violence whilst homeless (48%)
- Almost 6 in 10 have had been verbally abused or harassed whilst homeless (59%)
Myth 7: Wales has ground-breaking legislation to help prevent homelessness.
Fact: Whilst there were positives in the 2014 Housing (Wales) act, not least the introduction of a duty to prevent homelessness at local authority level, that particular act was more regressive than was proposed in the original 2012 white paper. The act retained the tests for priority need, intentionality, and local connection in assessing whether Local Authorities have a duty to provide housing for individuals. This remains regressive and incompatible with a housing first policy. Since then, the equalities, communities, and local government committee has recommended abolishing priority need so that all people can get assistance. The Welsh Government instead wants yet another review to delay action.
More worrying is the lack of delivery on the prevention duty, highlighting the wider problems within Welsh Government in translating good intentions to action. The Wales Audit Office have published a study on how local authorities have been implementing their new duties to prevent homelessness. It concludes that:
“local authorities are reacting to the problems caused by homelessness with varying degrees of success, but there is limited focus on preventing the fundamental causes of homelessness.”