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Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité: Breaking the cycle of housing poverty (part II)

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité: Breaking the cycle of housing poverty (part II) cover image
Treating homeless people with dignity and respect and providing them with equal opportunities are key elements of breaking systemic and individual cycles of housing poverty.

Egalité (Equality) – The need for Equal Opportunity

Equality is all about how we treat people who are different to us. It is about treating everyone with the same dignity and respect regardless of how different they may be to us or the circumstances they may be facing.

At a micro level, if you were to take the time to stop and talk to someone who is sitting by the side of the road with their sleeping bag, they would tell you that being treated like a human being with dignity and respect is high up on their list of needs. Many people are prepared to give money or take the time to buy them some food or a cup of coffee but very few people actually stop and talk to them. Why is this?

So often what characterises the way we view and treat “the homeless” – and even using that term that labels and boxes people is part of the problem – is either contempt or pity. The former is linked to a belief that the person has most likely done something to bring the situation upon themselves such as alcohol or drugs and that somehow homelessness is their fault. They are viewed as having participated towards and maybe even perpetrated their own circumstances. The latter is linked to a belief that they are life’s or society’s victims that need saving. Treating a homeless person as the perpetrator or the victim of their misfortune shifts the focus away from the fact they are a human being. A homeless person is first and foremost a human being. They have a story that they would value an opportunity to tell. They have problems that they want to talk about like the rest of us if someone is prepared to listen. This can be an essential part of the process of helping them to build a narrative around their lives that makes sense of where they are at without them feeling like they are either blameworthy (perpetrator) or weak (victim).

At a macro level it is about equal opportunities. In 21st Century Britain, it is meant to be illegal to discriminate against anyone. Every organisation is required to have an equal opportunities policy that clearly sets out how the organisation will go about treating everyone fairly with no regard to any artificial barriers such as the fact that the person may be homeless. In theory, this should include an equal opportunity to housing which surely is one of the primary things a homeless person needs but what does that look like in practice.

The problem is that there is not enough housing to go around. According to Shelter, we need to build homes faster at a rate of around 250,000 per year to keep up with the demand. It may actually be quite a bit more than that. The significant shortage in housing, is a major obstacle to encourage Landlords to consider housing people who they may perceive to be higher risk. It is also a contributory factor in keeping rents high and pricing those on a low income out of the market. Add to this the fact that council housing stock is dwindling fast with more than a 50% reduction in stock over a 30 year period from the early 1980s to early 2010s according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Admittedly this has been largely replaced by housing associations over the same period and the total quantity of social housing stock has remained stable. The issue is that the demand has substantially increased over the same period with waiting lists for social homes growing year on year. Consequently, more than 1 million people are currently on waiting lists across the UK for social housing as uncovered by Shelter as part of their Big Conversation on Social Housing.

All of this adds up to a lack of affordable, available and sustainable accommodation for people on low incomes or benefits. We are simply not building enough affordable accommodation. If we are to provide equal opportunities in housing to those on low incomes we need to tackle issues of discrimination, problems with the benefits system (see an earlier blog post on Universal Credit) and make sure that there is enough housing including truly affordable housing to go around (more on this later as to what affordable housing really means).

This has a direct knock on effect on access to the labour market since many homeless people are caught in the catch 22 situation of no accommodation, no employment, no employment no accommodation.

There are numerous factors involved in #MakingHomelessnessHistory, one of which is surely realising that a homeless person is a human being and treating them with the dignity and respect that they deserve. Maybe us seeing them differently and helping them to see themselves in a different light could be a starting point to breaking their cycle of poverty. This can only be done through building relationships which is where Fraternité (community) comes into the equation. This is where we will pick up next time.