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Poverty causes homelessness

March 19th 2018

Bad weather has brought the plight of rough sleepers into the spotlight. Victoria Winckler finds evidence that the root cause is poverty.

The recent bad weather has focused attention once again on the growing numbers of rough sleepers in Wales’ towns and cities.  Huddled in doorways, under bridges and in tents, the questions of how they have coped with the cold and why some have refused a hostel bed briefly occupied media headlines.

The coverage has reinforced the idea that homelessness is linked with – if not caused by – the behaviour of individuals. Addiction, alcoholism, mental illness – all are given as reasons why people end up on the streets.

But one cause is far more significant than individuals’ problems – poverty.

A detailed analysis by Suzanne Fitzpatrick and Glen Bramley finds overwhelming evidence that poverty is central to the generation of homelessness. In particular, they find that the experience of poverty in childhood is a powerful predictor of homelessness as an adult.

So what about the alcoholics then?

Fitzpatrick and Bramley did find that having health or support needs and behavioural issues do significantly contribute to the risk of homelessness in adulthood. But – crucially – they have less of an impact than child poverty.

Their study also found that some things have a protective effect against homelessness. Having a comfortably off childhood is one, but so too are having social networks which can help.

Check out these illustrations

The impact is illustrated starkly by ‘vignettes’ created by the authors:

  • A white male who had a relatively affluent childhood in the rural south of England, an unproblematic school career, went to university and graduated at 21, who was living with his parents at age 26, with no partner relationship and no children has a  predicted probability of homelessness by age 30 of 0.6%.
  • A mixed ethnicity female, who experienced poverty as a child, was brought up by a lone parent, left school or college at 16, had spells of unemployment, and was living as a renter with no partner but with her own children at age 26 has a predicted probability of homelessness by age 30 of 71.2%.

There can be no clearer demonstration of the long-lasting and extreme consequences of child poverty than this.

And hardly surprisingly in the face of such powerful evidence, the authors conclude that if governments – including the Welsh Government – want to reduce homelessness, ‘addressing child poverty ought to be an overriding policy priority’.

At a time when child poverty is forecast to rocket to nearly 40% by 2021, we can expect many more rough sleepers on our streets in the future.

Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation.

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