2.THE DEFINITION OF HOMELESSNESS
This chapter discusses the importance of defining homelessness, and the impact or effect of the various definitions may project. Certain stress is placed on the definition of ‘home’-lessness. Homelessness is a sensitive word to use that can unconsciously paint pictures in people’s minds of a ‘tramp’ walking the street, that’s seen upon as smelly, dirty and hungry, or the alcoholic drug addict. To view all homeless people in terms of these stereotypes is to do many of the homeless community an injustice. It can also be seen as an obstacle to tackling and a serious problem.
There is still no common ground of agreement on the definition of homelessness in the English literature. In spite of this, the supposed definitions have shaped and formed public policy, moulded and manipulated public opinion, identified causes and defined solutions. For example:
Statutory definitions: include families in unwarranted housing or temporary accommodation, but exclude most single male rough sleepers.
Voluntary organisation promotional literature: Most literature promoting individual organisations define homelessness in terms of causal factors that evoke public sympathy, for example, “6,050” of young people who arrived at Centrepoint in 2017 – 2018 was a result of “parents no longer willing or able to accommodate”, and “1,866 where violent related reasons”, (Centrepoint 2017). The lack of a comprehensive definition, that is acceptable to all, prevents cohesive action on tackling homelessness both as a phenomenon and before it occurs. Carter (Burrows et al 1997), suggests this is because social policy itself has become so ’embroiled’ in finding complex explanations that it has created ‘individualistic discourses’, which deny or obscure any ability to recognise real need even when confronted with rough sleepers. For example, homelessness is often analysed in accordance of a wide spectrum of attitudes, namely structural factors or psychological (individual pathological) factors (Watson and Austerbury 1986). Structural factors are arguments about, for example, the high demand for housing, unemployment, rising rents and house prices. Psychological factors focus on the individual and the way they fit into society, defining homelessness as a condition of detachment from society characterised by the absence or weakening of the common bonds that link them to a network of interconnected social structures. homelessness is a form of alienation from the rest of society, caused by the loss of a common bond, for example, work, family or home, that links or connects the individual with society. So, for an individual to lack a bond effectively excludes them from society. For Watson and Austerbury (1986), however, the psychological emphasis implies a need for institutional provision, psychiatric treatment or social work intervention. The truth probably lies somewhere between the two. For some the ‘common bond’ can only be re-established through some form of social work intervention; whereas others simply need the security and stability associated with well-being and ‘home’. There are currently 4 main types of definition of homelessness:
1. Statutory or Legal definitions: are used by national and local governments and are enshrined in the legal framework via legislation. The British statutory definition defines families with dependent children and without access to accommodation, as homeless and those accepted as in ‘priority need’ on the grounds of ‘vulnerability’ (i.e. aged 16 or 17, pregnant, suffering from mental ill health, aged 18 – 20 and where previously in care or vulnerable as a result of having to flee their home because of violence or the threat of violence). This excludes the vast majority of single homeless people, especially men.
This definition places the responsibility on the individual to prove that they are homeless and that they deserve help. Those single people identified as undeserving (i.e. not old, not pregnant, in good mental health), are not entitled to be housed under the law. The UK’s statutory definition of homelessness does not include roofless people. They are identified as rough sleepers, not ‘homeless’. They are not counted in the governments’ homeless statistics.
2. Statistical definitions: identify an issue as a social problem then measure the magnitude of that problem. Such definitions are not discussed in the literature as a separate category; they are incorporated into other categories. Yet they play an important role in shaping the general public’s attitudes, fundraising campaigns and political agendas. Statistics on homelessness are derived from literally counting people identified as homeless. Therefore, the definition used, determines the number or people that are counted and in turn the size of the problem. For example, in 2013 – 2014 the homeless figure in Britain ranged from 81,880 households (Shelter 2018). The former figure refers to those ‘households’ accepted as statutorily homeless in England. Statistical definitions tell more about the organisation collecting them than about the actual phenomena they are designed to measure (Hutson and Liddiard 1994).
3. Housing shortage definitions: are commonly used in Britain. This reduces all other factors/problems that may cause homelessness to the lack of accommodation (i.e. rooflessness) or its unsuitability (e.g. bed and breakfast, hostel, friends’ floors). Therefore, homelessness may be caused by a shortage of suitable affordable accommodation in the housing market, in turn, hostels are full because there is no suitable ‘move-on’ accommodations available. Little regard is given to individual autonomy or capability to cope in accommodation, sustain a tenancy or resettle in housed society.
4. General Public’s definition: This definition is not discussed in the literature at all, yet it is an exceptionally important definition. The definition used by the general public establishes how much money organisations receive from donations and therefore has a direct impact on solutions to homelessness. It can be moulded and manipulated by the media and charities promoting and advertising themselves. The definition held can create apathy or public outrage and it can create stereotypes that are useful or undermining (e.g. drunk/dosser that does not want help; the lone mother struggling to keep her baby. The use of or manipulation of the general public’s definition has never been more powerful than when it prompted a change in legislation via the powerful portrayal of homelessness in films like ‘Cathy Come Home, 1966’.
2.THE DEFINITION OF HOMELESSNESS