The definition of homelessness ended:
Perhaps the first question to address in a plan to end homelessness is what exactly do we mean by ‘ending’ it? How do we define that aim and explain its component parts? During 2017, we spent six months consulting people who have experienced homelessness and those working in the sector across England, Scotland and Wales. Our aim was to agree a definition for use in this plan. This chapter sets out why a definition matters, its usefulness, and the factors considered in deciding it. All five elements comprising the definition are then explained.
Across Great Britain there are a range of different definitions applied to homelessness. These include legal definitions that relate to statutory duties, but there is no consistent or recognised definition of what an end to homelessness means. The most developed framework for defining an end to homelessness has been the European Typology of Homelessness and Housing Exclusion ‘ETHOS’5 from the European
Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA). This is the umbrella body for homelessness organisations across Europe. The ETHOS definitions are instructive for a domestic context, and were used to assist the development of the definitions in this plan. But they do not fully capture the specifics of a British context.
Between any two homelessness charities, or local authority housing teams, there is often no consistent definition of homelessness ended. At national government level, there is no such definition in any of the three countries. This means that at an individual level and across Great Britain there is no consistent description of the aims for which the different funding, interventions or policy frameworks are striving.
The lack of common agreement and application of a shared definition is a fundamental weakness in the fight to end homelessness. An approach using an agreed and consistent definition has a number of benefits. These are suggested below.
Raising our sights to consider a future where homelessness is ended – however that is defined – would allow all those participating in efforts to tackle homelessness to have a shared vision. It also allows them to see their component activity as part of that ambition. Without definition, advocates, policy makers and service providers risk disassociated or even conflicting ambitions. Ending homelessness will not be an easy or short task, but sticking to a shared ambition, articulated through a definition, will help retain a shared understanding of the task over time.
As shown in Chapter 14 ‘Homelessness data’, data collection in homelessness is fragmented, inconsistent and in some cases unreliable. A common definition of homelessness ended will facilitate a more consistent and reliable approach to agreeing the data we seek, and promote shared methodologies for data collection.
Monitoring progress towards a shared goal of ending homelessness, using an agreed definition, allows the data collected against this goal to show the success of policies and interventions. This then means effective and consistent use of evidence in decision-making.
Chapter 14 includes the case for establishing a ‘what works’ approach in homelessness, with a proposed outcomes framework for reporting against top-level targets and indicators of success.
An agreed focus on outcomes would reduce time spent on activities outside those aims, and allow an audit of planned policies and activities to achieve our aims. It would also focus resources on commissioning effective and targeted solutions to achieving these goals at a national and local level.
The rapid evidence reviews undertaken for this plan have revealed a large number of interventions that have an evidence of effectiveness in tackling homelessness. They have also revealed many that do not and significant gaps in evidence based provision. A shared definition of homelessness ended is a direct challenge to interventions without a robust evidence base, and those without a track record of success. The same principle applies to government policy. Once a definition is adopted it can be used to guide and challenge the effectiveness of those policy choices.
Driving political ownership
A definition for ending homelessness adopted and promoted by governments in each nation would be a powerful platform for making political choices needed to tackle the problem. It would allow existing policy and new policy development to be scrutinised, and legitimise involving a wider set of government departments and initiatives. It would also provide a framework of success that government budgets are directed towards.
Examples such as the Rough Sleepers Unit in England show political ownership, driven by a clear target, can bring successful cross-departmental approaches. As recently detailed by the National Audit Office in England, the absence of shared targets and approaches can lead to counterproductive political choices on homelessness.
For a definition to attract support it should reflect the circumstances of the jurisdictions where it operates. Below are some key factors that have been considered and have helped shape the definition of homelessness ended for England, Scotland and Wales.
Existing systems and context
Homelessness is not a uniform experience in different geographies, and neither is it experienced in the same ways for the same cohorts of people. For example, the North American rough sleeping and hostel/ night shelter populations contain a high proportion of people who are armed forces veterans. Consequently, in North America, strategies to end homelessness involve definitions and targets that recognise this homeless population. In Great Britain, this issue has been significantly reduced through government intervention.
In the British context there are some well-defined cohorts of homeless people that exist because of the legal duties owed to them. For example, the term ‘priority homeless’ defines a group of people who have met an arbitrary set of legal tests in England and Wales. Other groups exist for the opposite reason, particularly the recent phenomenon of homeless people defined as having No Recourse to Public Funds.
These domestic differences are why it has not been possible to adopt wholesale the FEANTSA ‘ETHOS’ approach, or any others from comparative contexts. It is also significant, when comparing definitions across Europe and beyond, that the hostel and supported accommodation system in Great Britain is very well developed and frequently used.
Reflecting the reality of life for homeless people
Definitions of ‘homelessness ended’ cannot be an academic exercise. They must reflect the views and experiences of people with lived experience of the issue, and even the views of people who may not consider themselves homeless. For example, people living in overcrowded accommodation may not consider themselves homeless or that their homelessness is ‘ended’ when living somewhere less crowded.
This is why we undertook an extensive consultation, during spring 2017, with people who have experienced homelessness.
Recognising the political audience
To build consensus around a goal of ending homelessness among decision makers, we must understand the parameters of a definition for ending homelessness and how this will influence their decisions.
Some politicians may not subscribe to a definition that fails to include an end to wide, structural causes of homelessness such as low wages, unemployment, or lack of affordable house building. Other politicians may only subscribe to a goal of ending homelessness if the definition is restricted to a discreet cohort that offers a shorter-term prospect of success.
To take account of this delicate balance we have gathered informed opinion from a cross-party expert advisory board of politicians and decision makers who have led political change on homelessness in England, Scotland and Wales.
This process inevitably involves pragmatic compromise, but the decision-maker audience must be taken into account if political and government ownership of the goal to end homelessness is the aim.
Framing the issue of homelessness
Chapter 4 ‘Public attitudes and homelessness’ is dedicated to the issue of public understanding and responses to the issue of homelessness. It has been informed by a ground-breaking study from the FrameWorks Institute. The study looks at how the general public understands and responds to the way homelessness is framed by advocates such as ourselves and by wider media coverage.
The FrameWorks study also reveals a set of problems in the way advocates for tackling homelessness talk about the issue. These have been instructive in forming the definition of homelessness ended. Of particular concern is that general public cynicism about the aim of ending homelessness is driven by descriptions of how large, wide-ranging and complicated the problem is.
Of further concern is the public perception of who the homeless population is, and why they became so. The study revealed a strong view among the public that homeless people are primarily rough sleeping, older white men, and that their homelessness is caused by bad life choices and addictions.
Analysis reveals that this factually incorrect perception of homelessness is actually driven or reinforced by the messages, imagery and descriptions used by the homelessness sector.
So it is important that the definition and how it is communicated inspire the general public to support ending homelessness. This means striving for a definition that does not engender fatalism and cynicism about homelessness. It also means avoiding a simplistic or narrow presentation of the problem that could reinforce incorrect stereotypes.
The definition of homelessness ended is in many ways a choice made about the scale of ambition we are seeking. Within homelessness academia there is a debate about how best to define this ambition, and indeed what the terminology represents. The common discussion is whether to aim for ‘functional zero’ or ‘absolute zero’?
Functional zero usually refers to ending or reducing the most acute forms of homelessness. The original version of functional zero in the US was described as:
“At any point in time, the number of Veterans experiencing sheltered and unsheltered homelessness will be no greater than the current monthly housing placement rate for Veterans experiencing homelessness.”
This restricts the definition of ending homelessness to a situation where numbers of ‘sheltered and unsheltered’ people are not going up.
The functional zero concept has since developed to one where rough sleeping and long-term homelessness has been addressed. An often-cited example is the Canadian city of Medicine Hat, which declared in 2015 that it had ended homelessness.
What this actually meant was that nobody was sleeping rough and that the time people spent in night shelters was going down. It did not mean that other forms of homelessness were addressed, and crucially, was not about reducing the flow of people onto the streets or into night shelters.
In Great Britain the nearest to functional zero would be the success of the Rough Sleepers Initiative in reducing the number of people sleeping rough by two-thirds.
Most recently, the concept of functional zero has been developed further to include the idea that demand for homelessness services should be reduced. This is either by providing rapid rehousing to existing homeless people, or by identifying people at acute risk and preventing their homelessness.
Absolute zero refers to a utopian end to homelessness where everybody has access to housing and support and nobody is even at risk of homelessness.
This implies the kind of wider structural and societal shifts that are usually outside the scope of homelessness policy, but it is nevertheless useful to consider the broad areas involved. The evidence for housing and welfare policy affecting homelessness is well made across the UK. So in considering the definition of homelessness ended, it is necessary to at least include areas of wider structural change also needed to achieve absolute zero.
In a British context, the concepts of functional and absolute zero seem inadequate – one is too narrow and the other unrealistic. Housing sector experts consulted on our definition of homeless ended emphasised that the first goal must be to halt the recent rise in homelessness, projected to continue if policies remain unchanged.
It has been useful to use the strengths from both approaches and to see functional zero as a staging post of progress towards absolute zero. Our definition aspires to an end to different forms of homelessness, but it also assumes it is reasonable to aspire to breakthrough success in different forms of homeless prevention. We can have this confidence because we know there are effective and evidence-based approaches available to tackle each element of homelessness identified.
The definition does, however, stop short of defining an end to homelessness in its broadest possible sense. For example, it does not address problems such as sub-standard accommodation or over-crowding. These issues are clearly important, but would make the strategies to achieve the aim more complex. Through the consultation they have emerged as being outside the priorities for defining homelessness as 'ended'.
The following table gives further details about what is meant by each individual element, and the considerations made during the consultation process that fed into into it.
1. Ending Rough Sleeping
Explanation: As stated, this represents an absolute end to rough sleeping.
Consideration: This moves on from the No Second Night Out approach where people get help once they have been verified as rough sleepers. It aims for a complete and total end to the most dangerous form of homelessness.
2. No one forced to live in transient or dangerous accommodation such as tents, squats and nonresidential buildings
Explanation: This refers to people who are living in vulnerable housing situations outside of the homelessness system. This includes people squatting, living in cars, tents and non-residential buildings. It also includes the ‘sofa surfing’ group.
Consideration: This is about the group of people outside the homelessness system, but not recognised as rough sleeping; their only choice is to live in this situation. Transient also refers to people forced to live in other people’s accommodation – otherwise known as ‘sofa surfing’.
3. No one living in emergency accommodation, such as shelters and hostels, without a plan for rapid rehousing into affordable, secure and decent accommodation
Explanation: ‘Shelters and hostels’ refer to those which are specifically homelessness provision.
Other forms of emergency accommodation include bed and breakfasts, nightly paid temporary accommodation and other forms of short-term housing. It does not refer to the wider group of people in general, temporary accommodation such as statutory homeless people placed in social housing on a short-term basis.
The ‘plan’ refers to real and urgent move-on arrangements from these forms of emergency accommodation, and nobody whose plan for moving on cannot be delivered.
‘Affordable, secure and decent’ refers to the range of elements that will make for a successful move-on from emergency accommodation.
Consideration: There will always be a need for emergency accommodation such as hostels and night shelters. But this element of the definition implies a reduced demand for them over time, matched by an increase in permanent housing approaches to address homelessness.
It has been difficult to define the concept of successful and rapid move-on. This reflects the problem that there are many people with move-on plans in place who nevertheless remain in emergency accommodation because of other factors.
It is not possible to define exactly the length of time to which ‘rapid’ rehousing refers. This depends on what is appropriate for different people and cohorts of homelessness. It should, however, directly include statutory limits for households in bed and breakfast accommodation, and other such regulations.
4. No one homeless as a result of leaving a state institution such as prison or the care system
Explanation: This refers to successful homeless prevention for people who have been the responsibility of the state. This includes previously looked-after children and people who have been released from prison. It should include other groups too – the armed forces, people who have been in NHS care, people who have been the responsibility of the asylum and immigration system.
Consideration: It is important to note that this is about the transition from state institutions and not about all those who have ever been in care, prison, etc. That transition is the opportunity for successful prevention.
It is also important that those who fall within definition 4 could also fall within definition 5. This is because there is over-representation of people who are homeless as a result of leaving care, prison etc. This group should be pulled out separately from the wider ‘at immediate risk’ groups.
5. Everyone at immediate risk of homelessness gets the help that prevents it happening
Explanation: This is restricted to those who are at most acute risk, and require a homelessness prevention intervention.
Consideration: It is not possible to define every situation where someone might be at immediate risk. But there are reasonable tests of risk that are developed and used, not least in the legal prevention duties for Wales and England. This has a time limit restriction of ‘within 56 days’. This element of the definition assumes that the 56-day standard is adopted across Great Britain.