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Housing

There is no single image of a ‘homeless person’. Let’s bust the myths about homelessness

Homelessness goes far beyond people sleeping rough, though studies show that remains a common misconception

The sight of a homeless person on the street makes a lot of people bow their head to avoid eye contact. And we’ve all heard the stereotypes that “homelessness is a choice” or the person should “get a job”. But these are, of course, misconceptions.

Not only now homelessness is on the rise during the cost of living crisis, but throughout time, generalisations about people experiencing homelessness have been wide of the mark and damaging.

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“There is no image of a ‘homeless person’. The reality we see is each person has a unique set of circumstances that brought them to where they are and dreams for when they move on from homelessness for good,” said Debra Ives, operations director at Evolve Housing and Support.

Homelessness also goes far beyond people sleeping rough, though studies show that remains a common misconception.

In experimental surveys conducted by think tank the FrameWorks Institute, commissioned by the homelessness charity Crisis, researchers found the most common ‘prototype’ of homelessness in people’s minds was of a middle-aged man aged 40 to 60 who has been sleeping rough for a long time and is assumed to have serious mental health and addiction problems.

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The Centre for Homelessness Impact charity is aiming to correct that narrative by creating a free image library for media publications to use that document people experiencing different types of homelessness. The aim is to stop the use of stereotypical images, such as someone lying on cardboard in a doorway.

“The actual experiences of the vast majority of people affected by homelessness are effectively invisible in the public mind,” it said. “This creates a great obstacle to efforts to prevent and ultimately end homelessness.

“How might we change this? Well, we have collated a set of evidence-based images that chronicle what homelessness actually looks like in 2022. We commissioned photographs of people experiencing different types of homelessness across the United Kingdom in order to show the reality of what homelessness looks like: people living in hostels and bed and breakfast hotels, families raising children in temporary accommodation, single people who’ve spent years sleeping on friends’ sofas.”

New research from housing and homeless charity Shelter shows at least 271,000 people are recorded homeless in England, including 123,000 children.

Homelessness is a huge, complex issue and it’s time to step up and debunk the misconceptions.

Homelessness is not a ‘choice’

Research conducted by Evolve in 2019 found 72 per cent of respondents believed people who are homeless could get themselves off the streets if they wanted. This goes hand in hand with the misconception that being homeless is a choice.

Government figures from winter showed up to 5,940 households were threatened with homelessness in England due to section 21 evictions between April and June 2022. These “no-fault” evictions are among the biggest drivers of homelessness and give households only two months to leave their accommodation and find a new place.

We are currently experiencing a cost of living crisis, huge energy costs, spiralling interest rates and the annual food inflation rate jumping to 13.3 per cent in December.

We can now understand that with only two months’ notice to leave your home, there is inevitably an increase in the  number of people finding themselves homeless.

But of course the cost of living crisis isn’t the only situation that can lead to having no permanent home.

Individuals may also suffer from mental health issues, family issues, addictions and more. “Our own research has found that past trauma, often going back to childhood, is incredibly common among people who are homeless,” Ives said.

“Our frontline advisers are working tirelessly to help people who are desperate to escape homelessness – from the parents doing all they can to provide some shred of a normal family life while stuck in an emergency B&B, to the person terrified of another night sleeping rough.” said Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter charity.

It’s not true that homeless people don’t want to work

First of all, many people who are homeless do work. And for those that don’t, it’s often because they face barriers.

“Many, if not most of the people we support have jobs. People who are rough sleeping or sofa surfing, or in temporary accommodation also have jobs,” said Ives.

There have been reports of nurses and healthcare workers having to sleep in their cars because financial issues leave them without accommodation. In-work poverty is spiralling out of control and this can lead to homelessness. Although someone is employed, the pay they are getting may not meet the cost to live in a permanent home.

Other factors which can affect a homeless person looking for work include:

– No current address, which most employers need for an application

– Little to no access to phones or power to charge their phone

– Limited means to wash or clean before an interview or a shift at work

– The Victorian-era Vagrancy Act means it is illegal to be homeless on the street in the UK, therefore they may have a criminal record 

– They may suffer from mental or physical health challenges. Shelter’s research found almost two thirds (63 per cent) of people said that living in temporary accommodation had a negative impact on their mental health.

– Addiction or assumption of addiction may hinder chances of getting employed

-There may be gaps in their employment history which can look suspicious to employers

The unemployment rate in the UK currently sits at a low of 3.7 per cent coming in close to the lowest level in five decades.

Regardless of the high homelessness rates, unemployment rates are also declining.

Originally from Baghdad, Mo escaped Iraq to live in Spain and eventually came to Merthyr Tidfil in 2011. His family were all killed in the war. He has been living in a B&B for several months, and is awaiting a decision on his asylum claim. Image: Centre for Homelessness Impact

You don’t have to be sleeping on the street to be homeless

You don’t have to be sleeping on the streets to be considered homeless.

Hidden homelessness is defined as people with no home but who aren’t picked up in the official figures, often because they are staying temporarily with friends or family members. This could include sleeping on someone’s couch on a temporary basis, staying in a hostel or in a car.

The Student Beans UK Housing Insecurity Report found one third of UK students admitted to facing housing insecurity, while half of them claimed they had to “sofa surf”.

Shelter additionally found the number of homeless households in temporary accommodation has risen by 74 per cent in the last 10 years.

Faith, 20, who has been sofa surfing. Image: Lucy Ray/PA Wire/ Centre for Homelessness Impact

Homeless people are not all older males 

As the FrameWorks Institute and Crisis study showed, a lot of people immediately think of an older male who perhaps has addiction issues when they think of a person experiencing homelessness. But it’s not true.

“We are seeing a huge increase in calls from young people to our Helpline and they don’t fit that description at all,” said Paul Brocklehurst, senior helpline manager at Centrepoint.

This misconception is harmful, Centrepoint says, because it is leading to young people being judged as ‘not homeless enough’ to access support, leaving them in unsafe conditions.

“Our Helpline speaks to young people every week who are getting turned away from their local housing office because they are unable to prove their homelessness or told to sleep rough before they can access support,” said Brocklehurst.

“In the past people have been surprised that I am staying here,” said Hannah, a young woman staying at an Evolve service.

“They have said to me: ‘You used to work in supported living, what are you doing here?”

People wrongly believe homeless people are unreliable or destructive

“We know from our work that even when they are trying to move on with their lives, misconceptions persist about the personalities of people who have been homeless,” said Ives. 

From supporting many homeless people, Evolve have noticed they are less likely to get accepted when they apply for flats and this is partly because landlords and letting agents have preconceptions about them being unreliable or even destructive.

“This is just not the case, but it makes it harder to leave homelessness behind.”

Homelessness is on the rise and debunking misconceptions of people experiencing it is the first place to start when trying to help. 

“When we hear people make lazy assumptions, we must step up and inform them that they are wrong,” said Ives.

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future. 

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