To tackle the homelessness crisis we need evidence-based solutions, not Dickensian punishments
The time is long overdue to scrap the Vagrancy Act, which history has shown to be harmful and ineffective, writes Professor Nicholas Crowson, Professor of Contemporary British History and Dr Jennifer Cumming, Reader in Sport and Exercise Psychology from the University of Birmingham.
However you define and measure it, homelessness is a persistent issue – and one we are especially aware of during the colder months as the rough sleeping figures are announced. Therefore, let us reflect on the challenges and resolve to do what we can to help the most vulnerable.
Homelessness has always been a feature of British society and, historically, the state presumed that the numbers were driven by personal inadequacy. The one-size-fits-all solution was to instil a work ethic in idle vagrants with hard labour at the workhouse casual ward, and to deter others through the punitive 1824 Vagrancy Act that criminalised the rough sleeper and beggar (and which, astoundingly, remains in force).
After 1948, casework with the homeless began to challenge the stereotype of personal failing and there was growing recognition of the mix of individual and structural factors that were to blame. Though this meant that many thought the Reception Centres (which had replaced the workhouse casual wards in 1948) were little more than holding pens for the mentally and physically unwell.
An influential 1966 report concluded the single homeless was male, over forty, and someone who had experienced relationship breakdowns, lost touch with family and suffered from intermittent employment. Whilst a Department of Environment report in 1981 concluded that the homeless suffered a fateful combination of disability, mental illness, unemployment and debt.
Today these ‘complex trauma’ (a combination of ill health, addictions and relationship breakdown) are recognised as disproportionately affecting the homeless. Being a rough sleeper halves your life expectancy. A woman today has a life expectancy of 81, but if she is either street homeless or in an emergency shelter then it plummets to 43. Official figures show 726 homeless people died in Britain during 2018.
What can we do to address these challenges? The introduction of psychologically-informed environments for hostel designs has helped. So too has an outreach approach that acknowledges the trauma experienced and offers personalised support. We need interventions that go beyond rendering the homeless “invisible” by warehousing them in hostels or temporary multi-occupation properties.
One example is My Strengths Training for Life™ (MST4Life™), a sport psychology intervention based on approaches more commonly used to help elite athletes succeed under pressure. The programme was co-developed by St Basils – a West Midlands housing service for young people who are homeless or at risk – and researchers from the University of Birmingham.
Rather than trying to fix problems or issues, MST4Life™ helps young people with complex and multiple support needs to discover their mental strengths. Over the course of 10 group sessions and a short outdoor adventure residential trip, they learn to apply their mental skills in situations that will test their resilience, such as mountain walking and raft building. Such empowering and affirming experiences bring long-term benefits to young people, who report higher levels of self-worth, wellbeing and resilience. They are often more physically active and have better mental health and, in some cases, have reduced substance abuse, self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
Over 600 young people have taken part in the MST4Life™ programme in the six years that it has been running. In that time, we found that participation increases the likelihood of young people leaving homelessness engaged in education, employment or training by 30 percentage points, over and above psychologically-informed support.
The programme learning outcomes have also contributed to a strengths-based mental skills toolkit, co-developed with St Basils, Youth Voice, Homeless Link and others. This can be used to inform commissioning and better enable services to embed evidence-based approaches in their one-to-one or group work and improve outcomes for their service-users with high and multiple support needs.
If we are to tackle the crisis of homelessness in modern Britain then we need evidence-based solutions like this. But the time is long overdue to scrap the Vagrancy Act, which history has shown to be harmful and ineffective. Let’s confine it to the history books.