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Prevention of homelessness through housing measures is ineffective and expensive


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Presentation given by Dr Eoin O'Sullivan, Trinity College, Ireland at a FEANTSA conference on "People who are homeless can be housed:
An insight into successful practices from across Europe", Cardiff, Wales, 2008

Published in: Health & Medicine
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Prevention of homelessness through housing measures is ineffective and expensive

  1. 1. Preventing Homelessness? Eoin O’Sullivan, Trinity College Dublin .
  2. 2. • What are we preventing?• How do we know we have prevented homelessness?• Preventative Strategies, Primary or universal; secondary and tertiary.• Prevention or deterrence?
  3. 3. Understanding the complexity of homelessness• Nicolas Pleace argues for a complex definition and suggests that any meaningful notion of homelessness needs to be disaggregated ‘into meaningful and verifiable groups of people with shared pathways into and through homelessness’.• Such an approach would seek to identify distinct sub- populations within the overall homeless population rather than examining homelessness as a self-contained category. The category ‘homeless’ is further divided by gender, age, location, response, and so on.
  4. 4. • The complexity perspective is also informed by the view that explanations of homelessness cannot be directly inferred from the individual characteristics of homeless persons.• In other words, for every homeless person with risk factors such as a care history, family breakdown, physical or sexual abuse, offending behaviour, lack of social support networks, and so on, there is a further unquantifiable, but nonetheless large number, who have some, if not all, of these characteristics, who are not homeless.• Homelessness is not the predicable fate of poor people and individual correlates of homelessness are inefficient predictors of future homelessness.
  5. 5. Distorting the Reality of Homelessness - Methodological Issues• Much of the existing research on homelessness relates to those households who are either long-term homeless or repeatedly use homeless services. In contrast, little is known about the characteristics of people who stop using homeless services after a short time.• As research has moved away from cross-sectional or point-in- time surveys to longitudinal approaches researchers became increasingly aware that households moved into and out of homelessness on a more frequent basis than cross-sectional studies revealed.• Cross-sectional research, primarily utilising structured face-to- face interviews, provided information on the ‘demographics and disabilities’ of the homeless, but in the process distorted the reality of the situation.
  6. 6. • In addition, cross-sectional research has little relevance to social policy making because of its inability to identify previous circumstances that may be associated with the duration, ending, and recurrence of homelessness.• More importantly, point-prevalence bias leads to the confounding of causes of the occurrence of an event with the cause of its persistence and one consequence of confounding incidence and cause is that it can lead us astray in designing interventions.• For example, as it seems clear, if mental illness and substance abuse are not important initial causes of homelessness, preventative policies focusing on such factors will have a limited impact on its incidence.
  7. 7. The Composition of the Homeless Population• Cross-sectional studies over-estimate the severity of homelessness, as at any point in time, those who are long-term or chronically homeless will be overrepresented in such research.• Robust longitudinal research (from New York and Philadelphia) has highlighted the dynamic nature of homelessness with the majority both entering and exiting homelessness relatively speedily. In broad terms, three sub-sets of the homeless population could be identified: • those who were long-term users of emergency services and / or rough sleepers; • those who had ongoing episodic bouts of homelessness; • and those who were temporarily homeless, but rapidly exited and did not return to homelessness.
  8. 8. • Approximately 80 percent of the homeless were in the final category. These research findings, which broadly applied to both homeless individuals and homeless families, albeit with some important differences, demonstrated that the majority of individuals and households did and could exit homelessness.• While not denying the importance of preventing homelessness, it is clear that doing just that was more problematic that often presumed.• As Shinn et al (2001: 96) have argued in relation to the United States, ‘current efforts to prevent homelessness are largely based on questionable premises. Tributes to their effectiveness are statements of faith that cannot withstand scientific scrutiny. (Most such efforts do useful things for needy people but have only a marginal impact on the prevention of homelessness).’
  9. 9. Homeless Interventions• In understanding the whether or not a household experienced an additional episode of homelessness following an initially successful exit, we need to distinguish between ‘dependent’ and ‘independent’ exits.• ‘Independent’ exits are generally to private accommodation, without formal support from social service type agencies and where the costs of the accommodation were largely borne by the resident, albeit with support in the form of housing allowances.• ‘Dependent’ exits on the other hand ranged from transitional housing to staying with family and friends. Those who made independent exits were less likely to return to homelessness than those who made ‘dependent’ exits. This appeared to be particularly the case when accompanied by welfare support in the form of financial assistance.
  10. 10. • Emerging research suggests that the most important factor in not returning to homelessness appears to be access to a private residence rather than agency-managed transitional housing or informal arrangements such as staying with family or friends.• The apparent lack of success of transitional housing in preventing returns to homelessness is compounded by other research which highlights that those homeless households who resided in service intensive homeless services did not have shorter stays than those in less service intensive projects.• What the authors describe as the ‘therapeutic incarceration’ of homeless families in transitional housing, whereby a disciplinary regime was imposed to ensure adherence to the ‘life-skills’ that would prevent homeless, actually worked to maintain dependency. This, the authors concluded was because individual deficits were not the primary reason for homelessness, rather the lack of affordable housing was.
  11. 11. Conclusion• The results from over a decade of research into homeless entries, homeless careers and exits from homelessness are extraordinary consistent. Homelessness, as an objective condition, occurs episodically to a considerable minority of the population (at least in the United States).• Longitudinal research shows that the majority exit homelessness relatively quickly and those most likely to exit on a permanent basis, are those who access affordable housing and or obtain financial assistance to maintain such housing.
  12. 12. • Transitional housing schemes and other interventions that aim to train or mentor individuals to reduce their risk of homelessness are largely ineffectual, as access to housing rather than individual deficits largely determines a return to homelessness.• Therefore, universal services offer the best means of preventing homelessness. Targeted preventative interventions are expensive, invidious and scientifically dubious and may lead to unintended outcomes. Advocates of such interventions must be able to demonstrate their effectiveness of their strategies, not simply assume them