Hearing Homelessness

It is often hard to imagine the lives and experiences of other people, even more so when they belong to a group that’s so far removed from your own.

The social phenomenon of testimonial injustice refers to a repression of minority voices from general understanding. In other words, the experiences of minority groups are not common knowledge because those groups are not able to share their experiences widely.

People experiencing homelessness are highly vulnerable to testimonial injustice. The nature of homelessness means that individuals are systematically left out of many social experiences. People experiencing homelessness lack the opportunity to share their experience because they do not have access to mediums of communication.

This leads to a two-way street of dehumanisation. The general population do not have access to the experiences of people experiencing homelessness and in response fail to relate to them. Whilst people experiencing homelessness do not have the opportunity to share their experience and thus miss out on a key part of the social experience.

Because people experiencing homelessness cannot represent themselves to a wider audience the common misconceptions about homelessness are perpetuated by a largely negative media coverage. And whilst the Government debates the latest schemes of short-term thinking and funding, very real people are faced with a continued social injustice.

Further, the social isolation faced by people experiencing homelessness often leads to a worsening of mental and physical health (and other symptomatic behaviours) whilst the stigma surrounding homelessness serves as a barrier between support services and the individual in need. The preconceptions of homelessness and rough sleeping thus perpetuate a vicious cycle of ignorance, blame and abdication of statutory and societal responsibility.

This cycle of discrimination means that people experiencing homelessness withdraw from the public domain, further diminishing their opportunity to be heard and understood. At the same time the notion of personal responsibility combined with blame leads to the assumption that the individual has intentionally and wilfully “failed to engage” and thus no more should or can be done for them.

Humanising support is integral to homelessness relief. The importance of simply enabling someone to be heard and understood must not be understated. Non-judgemental, “housing first” approaches to ending homelessness are a significant step forward, where accommodation provision comes with housing and tenancy related support to assist the recipient in overcoming systemic and societal barriers to sustaining housing in the long-term.

Equally though, any ‘roof’ will not do. Accommodation must provide the dignity of space and quality of facilities that any other member of a modern western society would expect. The response to homelessness has long focused on people: Outreach Workers, Support Workers, Key Workers, Navigators, etc. without necessarily focusing on the opportunities these people have at their disposal to place individuals into a standard of accommodation which might lead to success. “Everyone In” showed what can be done when support was coupled with a better standard of accommodation and this lesson should not be lost in any post COVID era.

From this position there is hope of challenging stigma through better community integration and understanding. To be realised though, the structures that represent society must be willing to play their part. Health and Social Care Services, Mental Health Services, Drug and Alcohol Treatment Services, the Department of Work and Pensions etc. must all recognise that at some or even many points in the journey to rough sleeping, an individual has been let down by them. We must work backwards to treat the problem, for homelessness and other related behaviours are merely the symptoms of the underlying cause.

Such an enlightened approach would build greater confidence in those experiencing rough sleeping to come forward in asking for and accepting help, whilst each success will teach us more about how best to work with, rather than dismiss, the experiences of rough sleepers.


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