When the majority of us think of homelessness, images of sufferers squatting on the streets and in building entrance ways come to mind. But visible rough sleepers are just one side of the story. There is a hidden population of homeless people invisible to society, and it’s about time we took notice.
The secret society of the hidden homeless
A staggering number of people who lose their homes are not captured in official figures. These are the people who find themselves in temporary, unsafe, and unsatisfactory accommodation. This can include squatting, floor and sofa-surfing with friends or family, and living in hostels.
Tragically, many people resort to desperate measures to secure a roof over their heads; from committing crimes in order to be thrown in prison cells, to carrying out sex work in order to afford hotels.
While they hope that their moves are temporary, they find themselves trapped in this situation permanently. All too often, these people become trapped by their circumstances, despite their desperation to find employment and to contribute to mainstream society. They become marginalised, excluded, and invisible.
The hidden figures
Because people dealing with this brand of homelessness have been largely ignored by society, there are no official figures to reflect this population.
We rely on the audits of charities such as Crisis, who have accumulated data indicating that roughly 62% of homeless people are hidden and 92% had experienced hidden homelessness at some point. Crisis have also estimated that in Britain there are around 380,000 hidden homeless people. A poll by Homeless Link found that 32% of 2,000 UK adults had either experienced all forms of homelessness – including sofa-surfing at a friends’ place – or knew someone who had.
As if these statistics weren’t bad enough, current trends suggest hidden homelessness is only set to rise. It is also worth noting that these audits were not carried out this year, and given the general lack of official numbers, the real and invisible figures may well be much more dire. With hidden homelessness predicted to be costing Britain as much as £1.4 billion a year, it is crucial that action is taken to tackle the causes and improve the pathways out of hidden homelessness.
Who is falling victim?
Hidden homelessness can happen to anyone struggling with a range of disadvantages; from unemployment, substance addiction, or mental health problems, to the breakdown of relationships or traumatic events. Due to the isolating nature of these circumstances, Crisis have found the vast majority to be single adults.
According to Crisis, the people affected “are amongst the most vulnerable people in our society”. Sadly, it is estimated that one in three hidden homeless individuals suffer with mental health problems and one in four struggle with a serious substance addiction.
Other factors existing in Britain today, such as soaring house prices and the benefits system trap, contribute to people losing their homes. When money struggles combine with traumatic events – which in turn is intrinsically linked with addiction and poor mental health - losing a safe and stable home is an all too frequent result.
Hard to escape
The sad truth is it’s an incredibly hard situation to pull yourself out from. Homeless charities have criticised authorities in failing to provide adequate advise and assistance. Namely, to inform people properly about their entitlements to accommodation, and for not giving enough the opportunity to submit a homeless application.
On top of this, mainstream society does not look kindly upon those without secure jobs and homes. It is common for people to lose their jobs when their employer discovers they don’t have a home of their own. Likewise, employers do not wish to hire the homeless. The stress of hiding their situation from employers can also become a huge debilitating strain. The whole experience is often traumatic, denying that person dignity and diminishing confidence, which makes striving for financial independence much harder.
Women’s hidden homelessness
Of this hidden fragment of society, it is believed that women’s homelessness is the most unreported and hidden by nature. This is due to its link with domestic violence and other forms of abuse, whereby a large percentage are lodging with family and friends as a means of escape. A study from the No Woman Turned Away project by Women’s Aid from 2016 to 2017 found that 40% of women were escaping abuse this way, while an earlier study of women’s homeless by Crisis reported this percentage as high as 51%.
Many homeless women interviewed have also revealed innovative ways in which they have kept hidden from view, in places unknown to services and the general public. For example, many women have established sexual partnerships with men in order to put a roof over their head, or have identified rough sleeping spots off the streets and away from the public gaze. As such, Crisis go as far as to brand the “common perceptions of rough sleeping, and the conceiving of this as ‘the visible face of homelessness’” as “based upon a (male) gendered understanding of the nature and experience of sleeping rough.”
Time for change
This invisible population needs to be brought out of the shadows. It is only once that we have an official census of the hidden homeless that we can begin to properly understand this social crisis, and from this identify solutions.
Both a cultural and political shift is needed in our views of homelessness. It is not enough to provide people with a roof over their head if it is not stable and safe, and if it creates barriers when people attempt to rebuild their lives. We need to ensure that adequate help and support is given so that these people have access to the tools and services that will enable them to re-enter mainstream society. This includes access to health services where mental illness and addiction can be treated and managed, as well as opportunities to reskill and find a job.
The so-called current male gendered understanding of homelessness also needs be addressed. The Homeless Link call for a “gender-specific approach to rough sleeping that is responsive to women and men’s different routes into and out of homelessness”. They believe that this can be achieved if specialist women’s sector organisations and the rough sleeping sector come together and work collaboratively.
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