Broken relationships and trauma are at the heart of homelessness

From Greg Hurst in THE TIMES, 2 September 2019

Living rough is inherently dangerous. People who sleep on the streets are physically vulnerable. They are also at the mercy of the elements and often lack easy access to healthcare: rough sleepers are much more likely to die of treatable conditions such as lung and heart disease or cancer.

However, rough sleeping is much more complex than the lack of permanent housing. Talk to people who live on the streets and two common themes emerge.

One is broken relationships, with a spouse or partner, with parents, with siblings and with wider networks of family, friends or former colleagues. To be down and out is to be outside social norms.

The other is trauma. Many people who end up sleeping rough have multiple needs beyond their lack of a home, such as mental illness or substance abuse. Beneath this often sits a deeper trauma such as from abuse or loss, which is why many rough sleepers drink alcohol or take drugs such as heroin or spice to blot out pain.

Andy Cook, 52, a mental health support worker in Bristol for the charity St Mungo’s, who was homeless in London for 13 years, says: “Most people who sleep rough don’t have adequate diets. Immune systems are compromised through drug abuse, alcohol abuse. So people are going to end up unwell, physically, because of being on the streets.

“I remember some mornings waking up with just a puffa jacket on and covered in newspaper and a piece of cardboard because I didn’t have a sleeping bag. You would hide it during the day and it would get cleared away.”

Other countries have tried different approaches. Finland is the only EU country where homelessness is falling. Since 2007, its government has built homeless policies on the foundations of the Housing First principle, which gives people who become homeless a permanent home of their own as soon as possible.

It then provides them with the help and support they need. That may be supporting someone trying to tackle an addiction, assisting them to learn new skills or helping them get into training, education or work.

Glasgow city council has adopted a similar approach to halve the time homeless families spend in temporary accommodation and end its use of bed-and-breakfasts for accommodation. Its Housing First scheme will replace 100 temporary furnished flats and 500 hostel places with 600 Housing First tenancies for the city’s most complex and disadvantaged service users.

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s hardline populist prime minister, has taken a typically robust approach to ridding his country of homelessness by changing the constitution to make sleeping rough illegal and giving police powers to round up the homeless. Another law allowed police to force people into shelters and destroy their belongings if they disobey three times in 90 days.

A year on, one charity worker said that the campaign was not going according to plan. “Homeless people have been sent to trial, but judges have taken up some cases with the constitutional court, while other cases have been quashed, leaving a bit of a mess,” said Andras Lederer, an advocacy officer for refugees with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.

* Additional reporting: Charlie Parker

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