‘Deserving or undeserving of support? — Being psychologically informed in our response to homelessness’

06.05.2022: As I write this week’s PIE blog as the lead for Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE), at the national youth homeless charity — Centrepoint I am on the train travelling to Manchester again to offer support to our amazing ‘frontline’ teams in this region. As the countryside rolls past, I have been reflecting on how I am feeling travelling away from my home to support those who are helping those young people without a home. Of course, my journey is safe; I am not fleeing a war zone, and although it is another very early start (!), the journey is comfortable and familiar to me. I have been thinking this morning on what it might feel like to make a long journey to a new home, when perhaps that journey is unfamiliar and fought with danger as many Ukrainian families are currently doing. All of us cannot help but see the horrific scenes of the war unfolding in Eastern Europe, and the displacement of an entire nation of people. However, I have also been proud to see how many British people have opened their homes to those Ukrainian families fleeing the war to safety in the UK. Despite the well-documented challenges of the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ visa system (c.f. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-60840808), many thousands have been able to leave the war zone and start a new life all around our country, with many more expected over the coming weeks and months.

It has been interesting to discuss these current affairs within some reflective practice spaces over the past week, particularly within one of our services that supports unaccompanied minors from a diverse range of countries (e.g. Eretria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Iran). However, as rightly noted by some of the staff in this service, it has been interesting to reflect on the prioritisation of Ukrainians, and the different rights that they have on entry to the UK, compared to refugees fleeing war zones in other regions of the world. For example, many of the homeless young people in this service may have had extremely difficult journeys to the UK via people smugglers and not free train travel across the EU. Many have been held in less than ideal immigration conditions on entry to the UK, are not being sponsored by British people to live within our communities, are not allowed to work when they arrive and/or are not immediately granted ‘leave to remain’. In fact, this latter visa permission from the UK Home Office sometimes takes many months or even years to obtain after arrival, causing further trauma, anxiety and distress. So why is there this difference? Why are UK families not offering (or being supported financially by the UK government) to offer their homes to these refugees?

We were discussing in the reflective practice session the many reasons for the seeming disparity between how refugees fleeing different war zones may be treated. Of course, perhaps the most obvious difference may be something about the proximity of the conflict to us in the UK. A war in a distant African country does not get the same level of news coverage as a war on the edge of Europe. Arguably, there may also be an element of racism at play here — is it an uncomfortable truth that we are more likely to want to help those that ‘look like us’ (i.e. white)? Is there also something about how the media are portraying refugees from different conflict zones in the world? Are young men seen as economic migrants rather than unaccompanied young people fleeing a war zone? What impact do the constant 24/7 media images of women and children fleeing Ukraine having upon our conscience, compared to the lack of any images of refugee camps full of women and children in other countries (e.g. Jordon, Turkey)? Is there therefore something more personal about the situation in Ukraine than in other countries, which is something that I was rightly challenged to reflect upon this week as I prepare to host a Ukrainian family known to us in our home?

When reflecting further about this, and how this may relate to the broader issue of homelessness, I was reminded of the concept of the ‘deserving versus the underserving poor’, which originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whilst strictly not a psychology concept, more a sociology or social policy idea in relation to whom is eligible for support from the welfare state (Beito, 2011) and aligned with more right wing political thinking, this concept relates to the implicit assumption that there are some people who are more deserving of our help than others. Specifically, the difference as noted by Bridges (2017; p.1049) is that “unlike the undeserving poor, the deserving poor are those who cannot be blamed for their poverty; their impoverishment is not due to individual behaviour or character flaws, but rather due to structural or macro forces well outside of an individuals’ control”. This is a concept that also highlights the structural racism inherent in the wider system — “Alarm bells should ring because, throughout history, the categories of the deserving and undeserving poor have been racialized — and, frequently, racist. To be precise, it has been difficult for people of colour — black people, particularly — to access the ranks of the deserving poor” (Bridges, 2017; p.1049–1050).

Whilst not explicitly stated, the implicit social representations of the ‘undeserving poor’ include the mythological personifications of ‘parasites’, ‘scroungers’ and the ‘welfare queen’ (Romano, 2017). This cultural representation is often stereotyped and promoted by the media (c.f. study on the press by Tikelkova, 2015) or by dominant political voices, who view the underserving poor as ‘fleckless’, ‘anti-social’ and wanting ‘something for nothing’. Moreover, the roots of ‘deservedness’ within public policy have been argued to stem from elements such as ‘idleness, deviance and a lack of discipline (Romano, 2017). As early as 1547, English statute ordered that idle able-bodied homeless people would be labelled as ‘vagabonds’ and branded with a hot iron with a ‘V’ on their chest so as to make the mark on the idler ‘a perpetual mark during his life’ (Romano, 2017)! If this sounds horrific to us in modern day society, arguably we may still stigmatise those who are homeless or live below the poverty line in other ways (e.g. media representations and use of language, requirement to attend certain meetings or face financial sanctions, use of food banks etc.). All of this can create the notion of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ within our society, or those that deserve to be helped versus those who do not. However, who decides this?

Specifically with regard to the issue of homelessness, it can be argued that this is the most visible manifestation of poverty and need in our modern society. A home is a basic human need, and therefore to be sleeping rough on our streets, can result in judgement from those around you. When we see a young homeless person on the street, if we are honest what is our first reaction to this? Why do we think they are there? Do we wonder what they have done to find themselves in that situation (or in the terminology of the homeless sector — do we think they have made themselves ‘intentionally homeless)? If we see them drinking alcohol or using drugs, do we assume this substance use is the cause of their homelessness (rather than perhaps the consequence or a coping strategy)? Perhaps when a homeless person asks us for money, we hesitate because the media often tells us that this person will just spend it on drugs and alcohol? Do we look at that homeless person and make a judgement about their situation; that they are perhaps more or less deserving of our help than another individual?

Even for homeless charities like Centrepoint, who support a wide range of homeless young people across the UK, whom do we choose to promote our fundraising activities — those that appear to be more deserving of support or help than others? Do we present a realistic impression of a typical homeless young person in the UK, and if not why not? Are our solutions to the issue of youth homelessness broad enough to address the wide variety of needs that a young person who is homeless in the UK today may have? Moreover, for those that are responsible for commissioning homeless services — how do we decide what services we should offer and to whom? What care pathways might result in homeless people being excluded from accessing because they are not engaging in a manner that suggests that they ‘deserve’ help? Those that do assessments to allow access to support in this area, how do we determine who can access a homeless service (and thus is ‘worthy’ of our help)? Do we go ‘above and beyond’ for all the homeless young people within our services, or just those we believe ‘deserve’ it because they may appear grateful, willing to engage or do not display challenging behaviours?

If we do make such judgements, psychologists would argue that we are not alone. There are many unconscious (and conscious) biases at play here. As humans, we are designed to judge the world around us because this allows us to simplify, come to quick conclusions and react to the vast amount of stimuli that we are experiencing as we navigate a complex world. Of course, part of being psychologically informed in our practice within the homeless sector is to be aware of this, and to reflect on how our judgements are influenced by our past experiences, the information we are exposed to (e.g. the media), and our cultural beliefs about the wider world. As a result of being aware of these, we can challenge the narrative that those who are homeless ‘deserve it’ in some way. For example, we know at Centrepoint, that a significant proportion of homeless young people are in this position because of relationship breakdown and family dysfunction, and many are social care leavers (Centrepoint, 2019), circumstances beyond their control. The loss of stable employment or physical / emotional or sexual abuse are also significant contributors to being homeless.

It is important that we understand this wider context of homelessness, and can use our experiences of this working in the sector to challenge the dominant external social narratives. No one deserves to be homeless, and even those young people who may present as challenging or struggling to engage with our offer of help are just as deserving of our support. PIE approaches (e.g. Keats et al, 2012; Westminster, 2015, Levy & Johnson, 2018) note that it can be difficult to engage and work with this population because of their past attachment or relationship breakdowns, and previous traumatic experiences and the time needed to build trusting and collaborative therapeutic relationships. Arguably, these experiences make a homeless population more deserving of our time and effort, not less even when they may initially reject us or things are difficult. However, in a non-PIE these challenging behaviours are often used an excuse for rejection or eviction rather than understanding and the excess pressure to engage, even if well meaning, can be overwhelming and counterproductive.

Moreover, when we are devising, developing and running services or interventions within the homeless sector, if we are to be psychologically informed we need to reflect carefully on whom we grant access. Are our assessment processes psychologically informed, equitable and fair? Can we make decisions that are not based on ‘who deserves’ help? Do not all homeless young people deserve access to our services regardless of the reasons for their homelessness or the challenges that they may present with? Alternatively, if we cannot offer help right now (as our services are genuinely not right for that person — rather than just difficult for us), how can we ensure that they are redirected to assistance that is more appropriate?

Within a psychologically informed approach, being aware of our unconscious biases and beliefs, and what influences them is critical. This is arguably why reflective practice is so important as a safe space to discuss these thoughts and feelings openly. We all have them, as we are human, although the key in a PIE is to ensure that they are processed safely, so that they do not reveal themselves in our professional behaviours and that our offer (i.e. support, housing, employment, training, education or health) to all homeless young people is equitable and separated from any views about who may deserve what and when. All homeless young people are deserving of our psychologically informed support, whatever their circumstances in the same way that all refugees are deserving of an opportunity to flee war and begin a new safe life. Thankfully in the UK, we are in a position to help should we choose to do so, and whether that is within our supported accommodation services, our independent living schemes or within our policy work to #EndYouthHomelessness, all homeless young people can get that brighter future that they deserve…

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Consultant Clinical & Forensic Psychologist & Centrepoint Psychologically Informed Environment (PIE) Lead @orange_madbird

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Dr Helen Miles

Dr Helen Miles

Consultant Clinical & Forensic Psychologist & Centrepoint Psychologically Informed Environment (PIE) Lead @orange_madbird

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