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Homelessness is more than a definition

During COVID-19, homelessness made the news in waves due to the support offered by councils, hotels, and the government. Once again though, it has gone quiet; apart from the odd report showing that some councils are continuing to use their funding to support hotels to keep the homeless housed. Little is mentioned of the councils who have abandoned these people at the earliest opportunity.

Maybe the story was getting old, maybe the thought of people returning to the streets was too much to hear about. Maybe it is because no one knows who is and who is not homeless. With a definition that changes depending on who is discussing it, this comes as no surprise. 

Answers to many questions fail to have a uniform response. Such as: Are people who sleep on their friend's settee homeless? What if it is for one night? What if it is for six weeks? Who decides whether they are sub-tenants or sofa surfers?

Homelessness is a topic that everyone has heard of and many have experienced. The meaning varies between people, organisations, and policymakers. With so many variations, it is impossible to gain a true meaning. Does it even matter if one exists?

Many organisations will avoid categorising what being homeless means altogether, instead, they base their definition on what they consider to be a home rather than what it means to not have one. Others assume that everyone already knows and an explanation is not required. The importance of having a place to call ‘home’ can be found here, where E.R. Ambler discusses the physical and psychological meaning of a home to call your own.

There have been many attempts to define homelessness. Europe endeavoured to create a meaning which was based on physical, social, and legal meanings. Unfortunately, each country differed so much in their political, ethical, and moral viewpoints that the typology was ignored by most of the individual countries. Does it matter that there is no global or even national definition? In terms of research, funding, and provision for those in need of housing yes!

Research is open to a myriad of interpretations. The funder wants to know certain information and commission what they think will get the answers. The researchers have read their brief and used their interpretation to create a way to collect the data. Then the participants are providing the information under their own beliefs of the definition. 

Once the outcomes finally reach the organisations that are making decisions on rehousing, the results are once again interpreted, and policies are developed based solely on their individual local understanding of the results. There is so much room for interpretation! With everyone's version different, it almost makes the research redundant. 

This top-down research approach does not answer what the people who are homeless want and need, just what the researchers, commissioners, and local authorities think they need. Without clear definitions, agreed to by all it is impossible to get the statistics and understandings that matter. 

We are therefore continuing to be left with a mixture of ideas. People who are considered homeless and entitled to rehousing in one city yet deemed to be already housed in the next. All because they may or may not fit into the tick boxes that are irrelevant to their circumstances. 

The only way to get clear and uniform data is to provide a definitive definition for all local councils and this has been successful for small portions of homelessness research. 

The rough sleeping snapshots that take place each year ask local councils to count the number of people who are out on the streets for the night. The room for manoeuvre is so small that we get some useful figures. How did they manage this?

The meaning given to local authorities is very clear and precise, it provides details of what is and is not included in the rough sleeping definition as well as the date on which they need to compile the data. 

Despite this, it is still nowhere near to understanding the true extent of homelessness as it does not include people who are in hostels, shelters, or temporary homes; and the thousands who are sofa surfing.

Research and marketing that is based on this stereotypical view compromise the funding that is received by charities. The number one reason that people chose to give to a particular cause is due to a personal connection or affiliation. How many people can identify with only owning a sleeping bag or bedding down in doorways? They are more likely to identify with losing a job and being unable to pay the mortgage.

Then there is the rest of the stereotypical view; homeless people are often regarded as not trustworthy, with some researchers finding that many would feel uncomfortable if someone who had been homeless was rehoused in their area. Is this down to misconceptions that the homeless are deserving of their status? Like the yin and yang of worthy and not worthy. Possibly from the way that information is given to the public through stereotypical views. It is time for things to change.

Having a clear and well-thought-out definition that incorporates the bigger picture allows awareness to be raised. The awareness that no one is immune to the possibility of not having a home. 

Breeze and Dean sat down with people who were homeless and asked them what they felt was important when people considered the label. The generic answer was that the public needed to understand their commonalities and understand the story that led to the situation. They discussed the need to create cohesion of identities rather than disconnection. There are so many posters of street dwellers but very few showing the person behind the image. 

It is important to take the time to understand that one man is homeless because he chose to let his wife and children remain in the family home; understanding that a woman has had to sleep on any sofa she could get each night because the business that she had worked hard to build went bankrupt during the COVID-19 lockdown; understanding that the teenager had to run from their home due to abuse. These are the people who need to be involved in the planning of definitions, these are the people who need to be seen as individuals when making decisions. 

Is it possible that instead of a generic definition professionals, politicians and local authorities need to develop skills in listening, empathy, and person-centered working to gain an awareness of the complexities of homelessness? Maybe, one day, the subject of a definition will be consulted on their thoughts.

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