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What causes homelessness and rough sleeping?

Three related reports published in March 2019 by Alma Economics and commissioned by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government along with the Department for Work and Pensions, seek to review the evidence on the causes of homelessness and rough sleeping and to provide options for modelling to understand future trends and to appraise policy. The reports are comprised of a rapid evidence assessment (a systematic review of the literature); a review of models of homelessness; and a feasibility study.

Causes of homelessness in the UK

The aim of the rapid evidence assessment was to summarise the existing evidence on causes of homelessness in the UK in order to identify the main theories underlying homelessness, its main causes and how those causes vary for different sub-groups and among different types of homelessness as well as geographically and over time.

The review found that most research divides causes of homelessness and rough sleeping into structural factors (wider societal and economic issues that affect the social environment for individuals) and individual factors (personal circumstances of individuals including traumatic events, mental ill-health, addictions and relationship problems).

Structural factors leading to homelessness

Some more recent approaches recognise the interaction of structural factors alongside individual factors i.e. structural factors create conditions within which homelessness is likely to occur and people with personal problems which leave them at risk of homelessness are more vulnerable to being affected by these adverse conditions. In this way, the high concentration of people with complex personal problems in the homeless population can be explained by their susceptibility to adverse structural forces and not solely by their personal circumstances.  

The rapid evidence assessment is a systematic review of the literature and as such, contains a summary of the key papers, which is an excellent resource for researchers into the causes of homelessness. The literature does not extend to Northern Ireland and is heavily weighted towards examining homelessness in England, which is a consequence of the paucity of research focused on NI, rather than a reflection on the scope of the review, which is comprehensive. [However, one piece of research, which was missing from the review was that by Lynne McMordie (2018) on chronic homelessness in Belfast]. As well as providing a useful definition of three types of homelessness (statutory homelessness, single homelessness and rough sleeping) the review outlines the main factors leading to homelessness.

Structural factors leading to homelessness include:

  • Lack of affordable housing
  • Decline of social sector housing as a proportion of all housing
  • Tighter mortgage regulation and higher costs for first time buyers
  • Unfavourable labour market conditions / rising poverty levels
  • Growing fragmentation of families
  • Reduced welfare provision

Individual factors include:

  • Relationship breakdown (including domestic abuse and violence)
  • Mental illness
  • Addiction
  • Discharge from prison
  • Leaving the care system
  • Financial problems

Family homelessness more likely to be a result of structural factors than individual issues

The reasons for family homelessness are recognised as being different to those for single homelessness, with families more likely to be homeless because of structural factors and many families more likely to be ‘hidden homeless’ (such as staying with relatives), not seeking out formal support until they have been homeless for some time. For single homelessness, personal factors as outlined above are seen to play a more significant role, with relationship breakdown a major factor. The literature shows that young single homeless people are also more likely to be rough sleeping.

The role of poverty and its interaction with other factors

Research demonstrating the interaction of structural and personal factors shows that poverty is a powerful predictor of homelessness, but that it interacts with other factors in different ways. For example, poverty has a strong causal effect on mental and physical health outcomes and entrenched poverty is also linked to serious forms of drug misuse and chronic offending, all of which are implicated in increasing the risk of homelessness. However, the review concludes that there is a lack of clarity around the importance of different factors and whilst these are shown to interact, there is no attempt to gain an understanding about how a set of causes interacts, or the dynamic effects of different causes on homelessness. The review explored research that looked at pathways into and out of homelessness, but was critical of research that suggested “eviction” as a cause of without exploring the factors leading to eviction.

Trends in homelessness

The review covered how homelessness differs by sub-groups (such as young people, LGBT, older people and women) as well as how homelessness differs across geographical areas, with different areas having different emphasis on causal factors. In terms of changes over time, it was noted that trends in explaining the causes of homelessness have been subject to the same changes as general trends in ideas over time (moving between individual to structural explanations, to an understanding that these forces interact). The explanations for homelessness in the 1960s tended to reflect the emphasis on individual pathology which was prevalent at the time (e.g. ill-health, substance abuse, addiction). By the 1980s there was a shift to an emphasis on structural factors as a primary driver of homelessness, including the lack of affordable housing for low income groups. Since the 1980s there has been something of a reversal in terms of explanations, reverting to relying on primarily individual factors in explaining homelessness, until more recently when there has been a recognition of the interaction of these two categories of factors and a recognition of the complexity of those interactions.

The rapid evidence review of the causes of homelessness and rough sleeping concluded that homelessness is a complex phenomenon that emerges as a result of intricate interactions between a broad set of policy, economic and personal factors.

Tagged In

Research, Homelessness

This article was written on 9 April 2019. It should not be relied on as a statement of the current law or policy position. For help with housing issues please contact our helpline on 028 9024 5640 or use our online chat service at www.housingadviceNI.org.