‘Homelessness is NOT a lifestyle choice’ — A psychologically informed (PIE) response to ‘that comment’*.
24.11.2023: As I sit down to write this PIE blog, as the Head of Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE) at the national youth homeless charity — Centrepoint, I have confession to make. It has been a bit longer than usual since the last PIE blog, due to a bit of annual leave and a busy work period on my part but also because I have started writing this particular blog several times, and then stopped. Why this writers block? Well, this has been because I wanted to write a psychologically informed response to the recent highlighting of homelessness in the news and every time I sat down to write, I was just too angry! I am sure most readers of this PIE blog will be aware of that controversial comment and recent news attention that I am referring to, from the now ex-Home Secretary; Suella Braverman MP that “homelessness is a lifestyle choice” (c.f. https://twitter.com/SuellaBraverman/status/1720730450556006714). This comment related to new UK Government proposals to criminalise the use of tents by homeless people forced to ‘sleep rough’ on the streets, tents which are often provided by charities in the homeless sector as a temporary solution to protect those individuals from the inclement British weather and other risks (c.f. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2023/nov/04/suella-braverman-says-rough-sleeping-is-lifestyle-choice).
Consequently, I needed to take some time to reflect further on what would be a psychologically informed response to ‘that comment’, and as per a PIE, to also co-produce any response with my wider colleagues in the PIE Team* who in our team meetings were also similarly angry. I thought I should probably try and be less ‘angry’ before I could write something helpful (and that wouldn’t get me fired!), however I am still angry and I can avoid writing this PIE blog no longer! Of course, Centrepoint along with other key charities in the homeless sector have already written a brief but important and timely response (see here: https://centrepoint.org.uk/news/open-letter-home-secretary-suella-braverman-government-proposals-criminalise-use-tents-people?utm_medium=organic&utm_source=twitter&utm_campaign=AlwaysOn2023).
This outlines why such a policy would of course present a risk to life and/or further marginalise and leave open to other risks an already vulnerable population. It also rightly counters the dangerous narrative that homelessness is a choice that people take to suit a ‘lifestyle’, noting that there are a myriad of complex reasons why an individual may end up rough sleeping on the streets. For example; past trauma, relationship breakdown, cost of living crises, mental health and substance use, failures in statutory systems such as health and social care, immigration and criminal justice etc. The response also importantly calls for a joined up sector wide approach to tackle homelessness utilising evidence based models such as ‘Housing First’ and changes to welfare that can prevent future homelessness. This response briefly focusing the media attention on the original comment to the real issues of homelessness front and centre of the national news. However, with a change of Home Secretary in the past fortnight and different international news issues in the spotlight, homelessness has once again perhaps become less of a focus.
So how do we respond to ‘that comment’ in a psychologically informed manner? On reflection, I think perhaps being angry about it is being PIE! Anger is a very misunderstood emotion, it is often considered unhelpful or something to be removed or quashed immediately. Psychologists however know that anger is a normal human emotion, and it is only a behavioural response to that anger, such as aggression, that can be unhelpful. Anger often originates when we feel a sense of ‘injustice’ or ‘unfairness’ or if we feel ‘wronged’ in some way, and can actually be a powerfully motivating emotion if we can channel the energy from that anger appropriately into being a force for positive change. For those of us that work in the homeless sector, the original comment also felt unjustly stigmatising or blaming of those who often through no fault of their own (as is often the case for the homeless young people supported by Centrepoint) have found themselves without a ‘home’. Many of my colleagues in the organisation and within the PIE team were angry that such a complex issue that often originates within the wider societal system was being simply being located within the homeless individual (or those organisations that are trying to support them).
Moreover, having the response of anger to the comment is also indicative of our empathy and compassion towards those in less fortunate circumstances to ourselves. If we did not care, it would not bother us. Perhaps the combination of that initial angry response with the underlying understanding of why that comment was so wrong, might actually help us to act differently in the future by helping someone we see homeless (see here: https://twitter.com/centrepointuk/status/1725197041012179135) and/or joining fundraising activities to support charities such as Centrepoint working to #EndYouthHomelessness. For example, this week the PIE team returned for the second year to support Centrepoint’s SLEEPOUT Event (c.f. https://sleepout.centrepoint.org.uk/ and see previous PIE Blog here: https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/sleep-out-string-and-a-strong-coffee-psychologically-informed-fundraising-73cbe50d5cd7), and readers of this blog can support the Centrepoint Christmas Appeal here: https://centrepoint.org.uk/christmas.
I was also reflecting this month that perhaps by giving homeless people tents to sleep in, charities not only gave them some protection when sleeping on the streets, but also perhaps have inadvertently forced the issue of homelessness into the wider psyche of the general population (and the government). After all, is it not much harder to walk by or ‘not see’ a brightly coloured tent on the street than a person hidden in blankets in a doorway? Whilst the media attention on the original comment has died down somewhat since as the media circus moves on, the problem of homelessness has not gone away. The cold weather is coming, and sleeping on the streets especially for young people, is even more dangerous than ever.
It is therefore important that the issue of homelessness remains newsworthy, especially as Centrepoint’s recently published databank report on youth homelessness notes that this is a problem that is getting worse rather than better (c.f. https://centrepoint.org.uk/sites/default/files/2023-10/Centrepoint%20-%20Youth%20Homelessness%20Databank%202023%20Summary.pdf). Last year, approximately 136,000 young people aged 16–25 years approached their local councils for support with housing, an increase of 15,000 from around 121,000 in 2021. Centrepoint data also notes that this increase is nationwide and of even more concern, is unfortunately coupled with a decrease in support being offered. Homelessness is therefore a complex national issue requiring joined up system wide solutions and government initiatives and funding, rather than the perhaps easier soundbite blaming of homeless individuals for their assumed ‘lifestyle choice’ when it anything but that. Of course, psychologists recognise that it is often more comfortable for all of us, individuals and government alike, to avoid looking at ourselves and our responsibilities as a society if we simply project the blame onto often already marginalised others.
Homelessness is a ‘symptom’ of deeper and wider issues not actually the cause. Whilst seeing tents on our UK high streets might look unsightly as you walk past, it is not going to encourage more people to want to sleep on the streets, especially in an UK winter! Very few individuals have such an ‘unhoused’ mind (Brown, 2019) that this is a preferable option to a warm, safe and comfortable home. Instead, a tent might be the only option for that individuals at that point, and may be the only thing that can keep them alive or safe that night. These tents can act as a ‘stepping stone’ back into more appropriate accommodation whilst outreach homeless teams build those critical PIE relationships with them to support them to get any underlying issues addressed and enable their reintegration back into wider society.
Consequently, criminalising what is arguably a ‘harm minimisation’ approach to the risks associated with street homelessness is concerning, and will only force those driven into rough sleeping further away from wider society and support offers, storing up even more problems for the future. It is the very opposite of a psychologically informed or PIE approach to homelessness, and I think on reflection that is what made me so angry when I first heard it. I am still angry, but am now using this anger to drive my motivation for further PIE change in the sector as PIE is clearly needed even more now than ever and we need to reflect on how we can be more PIE moving forward, not less if we want to address the issue of homelessness in the longer term.
Finally, I would also like to highlight that over the last few weeks, I have also learnt that some ongoing anger about the injustice of homelessness and ‘that comment’ is probably helpful (especially to remain motivated if you work in this sector). We can #EndYouthHomelessness and we can hold onto hope and advocate for positive change by channelling our normal anger response to the current situation into motivation for change and action. My team and I have probably been more active than ever before in our conversations in and outside of work about the real issues underpinning homelessness (not it being a ‘lifestyle choice’), have engaged in social media campaigns, and as Hara and Leah reflect below, have even attended specific activism events. It is important that we do not allow ‘that comment’ to become the only narrative around homelessness and its causes heard by the general population. It is even more important that continue to listen to the voices of those with lived experience (e.g. see a spoken word poem by Centrepoint residents here: https://twitter.com/centrepointuk/status/1711649012728689027).
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“We cannot allow our streets to be taken over by rows of tents occupied by people, many of them from abroad, living on the streets as a lifestyle choice” said Suella Braverman MP a week before over ten tents belonging to homeless people were destroyed in bin lorries. In our Centrepoint PIE, we emphasize the significance of physical environment as a home, not just a shelter. As was reported by a rough sleeper who attended the recent Streets Kitchen event in a north London borough, living in his tent was protective to his safety, mental health, and feelings of dignity as it provided a place that was dry and warm where he could store his belongings and have privacy.
Yet, this sense of security is shattered repeatedly. Rough sleepers often face forced dispersion by authorities; sometimes violently reporting “it is far from the first time that they have witnessed something like this”. Further accounts at this event surfaced of council actions such as pouring water on sleeping individuals or removing tents without offering alternative accommodations, leaving vulnerable individuals exposed and unsupported. A young woman reported her friend having had her tent removed in September and having had no support by the council to find an alternative accommodation.
The destruction of tents has severe consequences for rough sleepers. It results in the loss of their material possessions and completely shatters their sense of safety and privacy. Some rough sleepers reported actually feel safer sleeping in tents on the streets due to lower crime rates compared to some hostels. However, when their tents are destroyed, they face the difficult decision of sleeping unprotected on the streets during the harsh winter months or attempting to secure a bed in a hostel. Unfortunately, as a member of the council confirmed at this event, the process of being allocated a bed space can take several months, leaving them exposed to dangerous situations and other risks such as crime in the meantime.
The repeated displacement and labelling of rough sleeping as ‘anti-social behaviour’ or a ‘lifestyle choice’ only contributes further to the marginalization of these individuals who often face danger and who are victims of circumstances beyond their control. In the current environment, many systemic challenges like the lack of affordable housing, mental health issues, poverty, and limited support systems play the most significant role and need addressing at a societal level.
Fighting against the criminalization of rough sleeping and challenging the misconception that it is ‘anti-social behavior’ requires community involvement and activism. Events like the one organized by Streets Kitchen that I attended provided an opportunity for individuals to come together, brainstorm solutions, and listen to the voices of those who have lost their tents. By working collectively, we can foster understanding, compassion, and take effective action to support rough sleepers and address the root causes of homelessness.
The issue of tent destruction and rough sleeping cannot be ignored! It is essential to recognize the importance of providing a safe and dignified environment for rough sleepers, as their tents often serve as their only sanctuary. Tent destruction not only results in the loss of material possessions but also compromises safety and privacy. Addressing homelessness requires compassionate and supportive approaches, focusing on assistance and empowerment rather than punitive measures. By actively engaging in community involvement and activism, we can challenge the misconceptions surrounding rough sleeping and work towards a society that provides adequate support and opportunities and where everyone has a safe and dignified place to call home.
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As I write this piece reflecting on the Street Kitchen event I attended in North London recently, I have been thinking about what it is that makes these homeless adults different from the homeless young people we support. I recently had a conversation with a homeless individual, an ‘on and off rough sleeper’ near where I live. As we chatted, I told him I am working at Centrepoint now, and he said he thinks Centrepoint is great, but his only criticism is that they have a cut off age of 25 years. He asked me a difficult question, why do we stop being deserving of help once we are older than this? Of course, he isn’t, I believe that everyone is deserving of help, and I also believe that young homeless people should have separate accommodations, but this question challenged me to reflect more on what happens to the adult homeless population and to think about the dehumanisation that they experience.
Many of us know that those that sleep on the street can often be subjected to horrific abuse and violence. I remember the story of a homeless war veteran who told me he had had his head “bashed in” with a metal bar whilst he slept. However, what about when abuse comes from organisations that should be protecting and supporting their constituents — housed and unhoused? What about when members of the council are reportedly pouring buckets of cold water on a person’s head at 2am, whilst they try to sleep on a bench in a park (another rough sleepers report from this event). Or what about when they take away the tent or the one space they have to call home, the one place that feels safe?
“In tents it is safe and warm”; these were the words of a rough sleeper at an emergency meeting following the council’s ‘eviction’ of people sleeping in tents outside the local hospital. He explained that in temporary accommodation or hostels it can be scary — there can be people engaging in crime or violence, and that they are often not places that people can feel safe. He reminded the room, which included representatives and leads from the local council that “just cos we are homeless, we still got dignity. We are all human.”
There is a lot to consider when responding to ‘that comment’, but I wanted to focus my reflections on the local Council’s role. Harris & Fiske (2011) defined dehumanized perception as ‘the failure to perceive another as a human being with an actual mind and emotional experiences’. Rather than perceiving them as people, they are perceived as objects or animals associated with disgust. I wonder whether the actions following that hospital dispersal order, were a result of dehumanising of the people who slept in those tents, and called those tents their homes. The Council reminded those in attendance of failures by central government to provide sufficient funding, which is arguably one issue. However, statements such as ‘homelessness is a lifestyle choice’ are not only incredibly offensive, short-sighted, cruel and inflammatory rhetoric but are also situated within a wider context of government policy that continues to create a hostile environment regarding some of the most vulnerable in society (e.g. welfare claimants, refugees and asylum seekers). It is therefore important to reflect on the extent to which this rhetoric may have influenced the actions of this local council as an institution in permitting actions that punish individuals.
At this recent event, it was also reported that this was not the first time that the council has taken away and destroyed tents but it was the first time that it was captured on CCTV cameras. In a well-known psychological study (Bandura, 1975) participants were told they would work with students from another college on a group task. In one condition, they overheard an assistant calling the other students “animals” and in another condition, calling them “nice.” It was reported that students were more likely to deliver what they believed were increased levels of electric shocks to the other students if they had heard them called “animals”. In another psychology study, Zimbardo (1969) demonstrated that people’s aggression could increase if they believe themselves to be anonymous. In other words, it can be too easy to dehumanise another person and act aggressively towards them if we have been told negative things about them and we believe that our actions are unlikely to have consequences, as we are anonymous or not held accountable.
During the meeting, the local Council reminded attendees of much of their positive initiatives and work they had undertaken to address homelessness in the borough as well as committing to supporting those rough sleepers that spoke up at the event in the future. The psychology studies above, help us to try to understand (not excuse) the actions of those council workers, which may not have been the result of individual prejudice but of systemic dehumanising. I wondered whether in meeting those homelessness individuals in person, hearing their stories and the response by the community to this as well as seeing the video footage, the council were pushed to remember that the homeless individuals, whilst being homeless are still human.
Unfortunately, there is still a wider dehumanising narrative around homelessness still prevalent in society, such as the presence of hostile anti-homelessness architecture (c.f. https://interestingengineering.com/culture/15-examples-of-anti-homeless-hostile-architecture-that-you-probably-never-noticed-before). Suella Braverman’s bid to crackdown on charities supporting rough sleepers with tents may have now been scrapped but the recent King’s Speech still featured new measures to crackdown on ‘nuisance rough sleeping’ (c.f. https://www.bigissue.com/news/housing/rough-sleepers-suella-braverman-vagrancy-act-criminal-justice-bill/). There is still a problematic discourse regarding homelessness as an individual problem, which shifts the responsibility away from considering the housing crisis, inadequate hostel provision, and the punitive benefits system, to people who are just trying to find some warmth and some safety. I am grateful to be a part of Centrepoint in supporting the provision of Psychologically Informed Environments, through warm and safe supported accommodation services, and I hope that the work we are doing can continue to challenge the narrative about homeless people and their humanity…
*with thanks to the whole PIE Team, Centrepoint on their thoughts on this topic as well as to Hara Sakellariadi (Assistant Psychologist) and Dr Leah Francis (Clinical Psychologist) respectively for their written reflections.