What’s more important: having a home or having a relationship?

What’s the difference between someone experiencing homelessness and someone with a place they call “home”?

One answer is that people that experience homelessness do not have anyone that they can call to give them a home and they cannot get one themselves. Why do we think giving people a home is the sole solution to this situation? It isn’t but there are pioneering practitioners we can learn from as we seek to support people experiencing homelessness to find a home and to build support social networks.

As the chart below shows, some of the most common reasons for losing your home in the UK are to do with relationships breaking down. It might be that someone has been asked to leave the home by their friends and family, domestic abuse, breaking up with a partner or other forms of violence or harassment.

Huge numbers of people in the UK do not have people that they feel they can rely on or have bitter experience of being abused by those closest to them. The housing system reacts to this but does little or nothing to address it.

1 in 20 people do not think that they could rely on someone from their family if there was a serious problem.

Even before the pandemic, more than 1 in 20 people said they often or always feel lonely.

Between 5-10% of adults say they were victims of sexual abuse before the age of 16.

1 in 12 say they have been victims of domestic abuse in the last year.

It is not suprising some of the people who are always lonely, who have been victims or sexual abuse as a child, who have been victims of domestic abuse or who do not feel that they can rely on anyone in their family for help, end up homeless.

How does the state or charities working with people that experience homelessness respond to this? For many organisations the focus is, understandably, on finding people appropriate accommodation as quickly as possible. 

There seems to be a couple of implicit assumptions here: either stable housing will provide a foundation from which people can build supportive relationships OR there’s nothing that can be done to help people to build these relationships, so the focus should be on getting the fundamental needs addressed. I do not believe either of these statements.

We know that there’s very little evidence that providing people that previously experienced homelessness with stable accommodation leads to “social integration”.

We also know that people are increasingly challenging the notion, commonly associated with Maslow, that housing is in some way a more fundamental need than positive relationships. 

Years ago, when I was volunteering at a nightshelter I had to tell someone they were not allowed to stay at the shelter if they insisted on bringing their dog with them. He replied “but I love my dog”. He certainly did not see housing as more important than relationships.

Finally, we know that there is a growing body of promising practice around supporting people to develop sustaining relationships, for example, The Relationship Project, Every One Every Day and Civic Square.

Those working to end homelessness in the UK can learn a lot from these practitioners and start to support people that have experienced homelessness to both get a home and start to build positive relationships.

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All data from https://share.homelessnessimpact.org/

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