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What's behind low levels of literacy among people experiencing homelessness?

A lack of literacy can affect all aspects of day-to-day life and is more common among those experiencing homelessness – but Literacy100 has a solution

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Literacy levels in the UK remain a big issue, with a 2019 report revealing that nine million adults struggle with basic reading and numeracy skills.

In an effort to curb illiteracy among those who experience homelessness, dyslexia specialist and seasoned non-profit worker, Julia Olisa, decided to co-found Literacy100. Established in 2019, the organisation works to develop literacy through influencing public policy and providing resources and recommendations to homelessness charities. 

“Based on research carried out in 2010 and 2014 by two homelessness charities, around 50% adults supported by the sector have inadequate literacy for their daily needs,” Olisa tells The Big Issue. “There is no reason to assume that this percentage has improved today.”

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She continues: “Life without literacy is complicated and stressful. Adults affected by homelessness can be supported into independent accommodation. But, without literacy skills, how much more difficult is it to deal with the documentation and form-filling required to sustain a tenancy?

“Opportunities for employment are restricted when you can’t read and write. Dependency on the help of others to complete a CV and submit applications is a handicap and a humiliation.”

Olisa explains how it can impact daily life.

“Day-to day activities such as shopping are a challenge when you can’t write a shopping list, your choices are restricted to the goods you have learned to recognise, and you’re not sure what you will have to pay. Other days see you struggling to catch the right bus, to fill in forms at the doctor’s, to send a birthday card, or to read letters about your housing or benefits.

So what lies behind the low literacy rates among people experiencing homelessness?

“The question is: Why didn’t adults with inadequate reading and writing learn these skills as children?” Olisa answers.

She explains that some of the common reasons are “very little formal or informal education”, that learning has often been disrupted by frequent moves from school to school, there are complications caused by learning difficulties and “a link between poor academic achievement and the psychological adversity they have faced as adults”.

“Some adults who have negative, even traumatising childhood  memories of school are reluctant to risk sitting in a classroom again. Their psychological vulnerabilities are not always recognised or addressed,” Olisa says.

Literacy100 is determined to challenge this. Their charter and report offer many recommendations to the sector, such as appropriate staff training, creating effective policy, and tackling the deeper issues behind illiteracy, such as learning difficulties or past traumas.

It also emphasises the need for the development of the field of adult literacy. The majority of research focuses on child illiteracy, which leaves a significant gap in research, required to effectively combat adult illiteracy.

“Our charter and report have been informed by experts in their fields,” Olisa adds. “We are calling for recognition of the literacy needs of adults affected by homelessness, understanding of the hurdles that stand in the way of their learning, and access to literacy learning opportunities.”

Melanie Goldberg is a member of The Big Issue’s Breakthrough programme.

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