I often get asked what it takes to break the cycle of housing poverty. Sometimes even the question itself implies that putting a roof over someone’s head ought to be enough. There is a widespread perception that the main issue at the heart of homelessness is the lack of housing and that giving someone a place to live somehow automatically resolves all the others issues they may be facing at the same time. If that were true then we would not be reading reports like this one from St Mungo’s exploring why people are regularly returning to our streets within a year of being housed:
It takes more than a roof over someone’s head to break their cycle of housing poverty. What are those key things that will empower an individual to leave behind a life of being in and out of temporary accommodation?
Having grown up in France, the French motto itself and the ideals that lie behind it have been engrained in my thinking for a long time: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (Freedom, Equality and Fraternity or brotherhood). These three concepts are ideals about how society ought to be lived out together and have particular application for those of us who we label as “the homeless”.
Liberté (Freedom) – The need for freedom from oppression and freedom of choice
The two aspects of freedom that impact the most on individuals who are trapped in a cycle of housing poverty are oppression and choice. Freedom in and of itself is about freedom from institutional and cultural oppression and it is also about having the freedom to make choices.
Many local authorities and governments have passed laws and by-laws that criminalise homelessness itself. Measures are taken to prevent people from undertaking life-sustaining activities on our streets such as sleeping, eating and sometimes even sitting. Businesses, police and civic authorities want them out of sight as they are considered a blight on the city. Councils all across the UK have used new measures introduced by the government in 2014 (Public Spaces Protection Orders) to ban begging and rough sleeping in their city centres.
Admittedly there is a big problem with people begging who are taking advantage of the public’s generosity. They are not homeless and make a decent living from begging by the roadside. We know this to be true from our own experience in Wolverhampton. Many of the measures imposed in our city centres however are disproportionate. They unfairly target those who are genuinely in need covering up a desire to “clean up the streets” out of fear that seeing homeless people in the city might dissuade individuals from coming into the city centre.
When challenged about this, councils justify their measures by suggesting that their intention is not to target homeless people but instead to encourage and empower them to access services and break their cycles of housing poverty. Criminalising their behaviour and suggesting that rough sleeping is a form of anti-social behaviour is not a means of empowering people to break their cycle of housing poverty, it is a form of institutional oppression of those among us who are in desperate poverty. A radically different approach is needed.
The other aspect of freedom is the freedom of choice. In the 21st century society places a high emphasis on individual rights and freedoms above values such as family and community. The issue with this is that freedom is about making choices and people stuck in a cycle of housing poverty are often deprived of alternatives to choose from. Most of us start our day making choices as to what we wear, what we are going to eat for breakfast, what we are going to do with our days and a thousand other choices throughout the day.
This was epitomised in a famous speech by one of the characters in the film Trainspotting who talks about choosing heroin instead of making all the other choices before eventually realising that having to make all those little choices in life is actually what he wants. Can you imagine for one second what it would be like if those choices were taken away from you and life made them for you without you getting a say?
It is sometimes suggested that rough-sleeping and homelessness are a lifestyle choice such as was claimed by a report from Northamptonshire Council in 2016 but this is far from the truth. No-one honestly chooses to sleep rough. They might say that it is their choice but in reality they say this just to protect themselves from the cold honest truth that they actually don’t have the freedom to choose and have so little hope that their situation could change that they don’t dare believe for a better life for themselves.
Our priority for those of us that say that we want to make a difference is to realise that empowering those trapped in a cycle of housing poverty requires standing up to institutional oppression and restoring them to a place of having options and the freedom to choose.