#AskCaCHE: Covid-19 & homelessness – Twitter Q&A summary

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)’s Festival of Social Science is an annual celebration of the social sciences and their impact on the wellbeing and economy of society in the UK. This year the Festival, which takes place from 7 to 15 November, is a digital-first event; and, for our part, we hosted a series of Twitter Q&A sessions throughout the week. This blog provides a summary of the second session (10/11/20) in which Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, our homelessness theme lead, answered your questions about her project on Covid-19 and homelessness, part of a wider programme of work by CaCHE on housing policy and the pandemic.

Q1: Hi Suzanne, could you start us off by telling us a little more about the aim of your research project, please?

The aim of this project is to examine systematically the public policy response to homeless people during the Covid crisis across GB, including geographical variations within and between the devolved nations. We will explore the impacts of Covid both on homeless people and on those trying to assist them and, crucially, what it means for future policy and practice.

Q2: Sounds great – thanks! And what stage is the research at now?

We have undertaken all of the fieldwork in England, Scotland and Wales and have analysed most of it too. So we’re aiming to write up the interim report this month.

Q3: Could you also say a little more on the fieldwork – what kind of fieldwork have you undertaken and what type of evidence/data have you gathered?

We are interviewing ‘key informants’ (senior policy makers and homelessness sector stakeholders) and service providers working directly with homeless people in all 3 GB countries. We are also drawing on interviews with people who were both homeless and destitute in England during the initial lockdown (telephone interviews conducted in spring 2020). And, finally, we are also drawing on administrative data records in all 3 GB countries and a national survey of local authorities in England.

Q4: Hello Suzanne, your influential work on conceptualising homelessness has been really important in framing policy responses, but do you think that the theories we’ve got are sufficient to explain and respond to what’s happening at the moment?

I was wondering, for instance whether you think the critical realist perspective you outlined in your 2006 @HousingTheory paper offers more or less insight to thinking about Covid19 and homelessness as a massive structural event than, say, rights-based approaches?

Good question! Think they pick up on different aspects of the issue: the critical realist paper is an attempt to get to grips with causation (the ‘is’), while the rights-based papers are a more normative take on what ‘ought’ to be done. So I don’t see them as competing theories or accounts but sitting in different spaces.

On the causation point, I do think it is very interesting because one of the key arguments that myself and other colleagues (notably Glen Bramley) have tried to make in recent years is that poverty lies at the root of homelessness, at least in the UK. The idea of ‘middle class homelessness’ was largely a myth perpetuated by the media and certain charities. That was something that I tried to explicate in the CR paper. But that is where we honestly don’t know if COVID is such a game changer – especially its labour market impacts – that you might really see a much broader swathe of the population exposed to homelessness risks. But that really comes down to policy choices – Government can decide to ‘Break the link’ between losing your job (and income) and losing your home. There have been very welcome emergency measures during COVID – on local housing allowance, on Universal Credit and on sanctions and debt-related deductions. We need to see those extended.

On the rights-based point, I think we have evidence emerging that the existence of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 (HRA) made it more feasible to respond quickly and effectively to single homeless people during COVID than would otherwise have been the case. Having that broader set of rights in place, since the HRA came into force in April 2018, has meant that single homeless people (the group likeliest to sleep rough) are more ‘visible’ to local authorities who have now to provide at least some relief and prevention assistance to them.

Q5: On that issue, I’m interested to know how the previously “invisible” have become “visible”. More presentation? Better intelligence and surveys? And how sustainable is this for future real-time “mapping” of this group?

Two related things have happened. First, post the HRA, single homeless people now have entitlements to material help from local authorities, so are more likely to come forward and apply for assistance, making themselves known to those authorities. Second, the administrative data system that records local authority activity under their homelessness duties has been substantially improved – changing over from very basic headcount data to individual case records recording details on applicants’ profile and outcomes. This radically improved scope, quality and coverage of administrative data is now a long-term and structurally embedded feature of the system.

Q7: The festival of social science is a celebration of the social sciences and their impact on the wellbeing and economy of society – how would you describe the value of your research?

This homelessness stream of work in CACHE, like really all of my work, aims to improve public policy responses to people experiencing the most extreme forms of disadvantage – homelessness, poverty, destitution, complex support needs. Together with colleagues, my work has had real world impacts – including changing the law on homelessness in Scotland, Wales and, most recently, in England.

Q8. Lastly, are there any emerging findings that you can share now and when can we expect more?

In collaboration with the charity Crisis, CaCHE has already published early results of our work on homelessness and Covid19. This first publication captured the early stages of the response in #England. Showed real successes- a remarkable & very fast response by Govt, local authorities & third sector partners to accommodate people sleeping rough, or at risk, & to eliminate use of communal shelters. A very important success of this strategy is that infection levels have remained low in the homeless population in the UK, unlike in US, for example. But subsequent ‘mixed messages’ from the Westminster Government had put local authorities in a difficult position. Especially on how ongoing accommodation and support for people with ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ or who are otherwise ineligible for benefits, or help under the homelessness legislation,  is to be provided and paid for. This left LAs in a difficult position, & seemed a throwback to the discredited ‘localism’ agenda which left underfunded LAs with too little support in tackling homelessness. But there have subsequently been new policy & funding announcements which suggest that, thankfully, Government is retaining an involvement in this policy space.


Date: November 13, 2020 7:16 am


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