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Case Study: Understanding homelessness

This video interview is with Ailsa Cameron, Lecturer in School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol, specialising in housing care services.
Would you like to tell us a little bit about your research at the University? My recent research has been looking at the experiences of homeless women and it was a longitudinal study, so we talked with the same women three times over 18 months to explore their experiences of homelessness and what support they receive from Social Care, Health Services.
So I think indirectly for homeless people to make the move into permanent housing, they need a lot of support, they need the opportunities to be able to build support networks and consistent support networks. And in order to do that they need support from services and those services themselves need to be consistent and sustainable, because moving from homelessness into permanent housing can take many, many years, so the support needs to be sustainable. How do you feel about the impact of your work?
So our work builds into the evidence-base about homelessness and locally the work that we’ve done I think contributed to debates about how best to support homeless people and there have been changes in the way, there’s a pilot service going on at the moment about how to support homeless people. Now our research didn’t directly introduce that change but I think it contributed to debates that led to developments.
So the work that we’ve done consistently suggests that in order to move out of homelessness people need consistent joined-up support from different agencies. So that’s what we’ve suggested should happen and practice has moved on to reflect that. So given the fact that our societies have a security net and some of the layers are more safe and financially safe, why do you think homelessness is such a big problem?
So there are many causes of homelessness and some of those are structural factors, so it’s changes in the economy, rising unemployment, increasing poverty levels, changes to welfare benefits, lack of affordable housing, changing in housing policy, those, all of those factors can contribute to a context in which homelessness is more likely and then there are individual factors that might increase the chances of someone becoming homeless. So experiencing domestic violence can lead to homelessness, drug and alcohol problems, mental health problems, loss of a job, working in an insecure occupation without a consistent wage coming in. So there’s lots of different reasons why individuals might become homeless.
I think the of the women that we’ve spoken to about their experiences of homelessness it’s quite clear to us that they they talk about being at a higher level of risk, particularly if they’re in mixed shelters. They talk about wanting more women-only services, services where they can relax and just chat amongst themselves, rather than being in a much more threatening and hostile environment such as a mixed hostel. So as a city and as a community, what do you think we can do more or better to help get those people out of the streets as fast and as effectively as possible? I think the people in charge of Bristol are in a really difficult position.
You know they don’t have the money necessarily to spend on homelessness and they’re having to make tough decisions about what services to withdraw money from and I think the mayor has come up with his 100 beds in 100 days initiative to get people in Bristol to think more imaginatively about how they can support homeless people. And I think that’s an important initiative particularly in a context of very little public funding, but I don’t think it’s enough.
And I think we have to think about changing people’s attitudes to homelessness, understanding the reasons for homelessness, understanding the relationship between policy and homelessness and in doing that I hope that our students will be able to contribute to a more progressive attitude to homelessness and a more progressive attitude to policy making around homelessness. Undoubtedly there’s a stigma towards homelessness, it’s not being able to access the same opportunities to anybody else, it’s the responses that people give you as they walk past you in the street, that weighs heavily on homeless people. I think it is possible to recover and I’ve met many people that have moved out of homelessness into settled accommodation and beginning jobs again.
So I think it’s absolutely possible to move to that.

Ailsa Cameron is Senior Lecturer in School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol.

She works within the Centre for Research in Health and Social Care researching adult social care and support. Housing care services are a special focus on her research. She reviews the links between health and social care services.

Much of Ailsa’s research was within the University of Bristol’s TARA project, which looked to track homeless women’s experience of social care and the wider support system over a long period of time.

Some of the key findings of the TARA project identified that the experience of being ‘homelessness’ may well be different for women than men. The way that we conceive of the notion of ‘home’ is related to how we view genders. Key recommendations from the research identified that statutory and voluntary sector workers can work together to better support women using these services and that safety issues are a good starting point for any service. It was also important to recognise the gendered experience of homelessness and how this impacts men and women differently.

To read more about the TARA project, follow this link to read a report of the key findings. Or, if you have access to a library which provides access to online journals, you can read a research paper on the project by going to the link in the ‘See Also’ section below.

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