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The role of temporary accommodation in the perpetuation of chronic homelessness

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Lynne McMordie, I-SPHERE intern

The existence of a sub-group within the Northern Ireland homeless population whose experience is marked by cyclical TA placements, episodes of rough sleeping and other forms of homelessness, has long been recognised.  This has led to increasing concerns regarding the efficacy of traditional models of TA in the resolution of homelessness for those with more complex needs. Yet my new research report ‘Chronic Homelessness and Temporary Accommodation‘ reveals that those experiencing multiple exclusion continue to cycle through traditional hostel and shelter accommodation, with access to self-contained accommodation or alternative models of provision (such as Housing First or housing-led services) very rare.

The report takes an in-depth look at the experiences of eight males[i] with a history of repeat homelessness and serial temporary accommodation placements and reveals that most had experienced multiple instances of actual harm and loss within the hostel setting, including violence, intimidation, theft and exploitation.  Crucially, service users also described hostel accommodation as holding a constant risk of potential harm, with this risk being inextricably linked to the congregate nature of such services:

I don’t like being around too many other people. That cracks me up. I can’t do it.  I’m just so conscious.  I’m self-conscious.  Everything is wrecked.  Confidence gone . . . If I squat nobody knows.  Nobody sees me.  I feel safer squatting

(Service User, 28, Sleeping Rough).

The research found that service users – unable to fully eliminate the potential of harm but requiring shelter – adopted new or increased existing coping strategies in order to mitigate against the stressful impact of congregate living.  These strategies tended to fall within three broad categories: covert behaviours, muting behaviours and avoidance behaviours.

In adopting covert behaviours service users described hiding or disguising actions which were contrary to accommodation rules.  This was particularly true where service users sought to manage substance dependency within hostels which prohibit substance use on premises. Here, service users viewed covert behaviours as the only way of avoiding exclusion or eviction: ‘You’re not supposed to drink, but you can,’ one service user explained, ‘you can get away with it if you’re sly’ (Service User, 41, Social Housing).

Service users also described engaging in muting behaviours, intended to sublimate the negative impacts of congregate living.  This was particularly true where they perceived the risks of hostel living as necessitating a constant and heightened state of vigilance.  Here, risk of harm or loss was often seen as inevitable or unavoidable, with substance use acting to ease the associated symptoms of psychological distress:

To be truthful, most of the hostels I was in . . . you’ve always been wanting to get wasted off your head, because you don’t like it. You don’t feel settled, so you try and blank things out, you know

(Service User, 34, Hostel Accommodation).

Third, service users described avoidance behaviours whereby they refused or abandoned placements.  This was particularly true where the risks associated with sleeping rough were seen to actually be lower than that of living in hostel accommodation.  Here, the more closely circumstances of placement echoed those of earlier adversity – particularly traumatic experiences in childhood and early adolescence – the greater the likelihood that risk would be deemed intolerable:

When I found out where I was and what’s around me, I was in it for a week, had to get out of there . . . what happened in my family, around me, affected me big time . . . I couldn’t have stayed there, rather the streets

(Service User, 40, Hostel Accommodation).

The research explores in detail the internal and external factors which give rise to these coping strategies and the ways in which temporary accommodation services often necessitate and inadvertently enable their use. It looks at the way in which coping strategies offer short-term benefits – particularly in respect to relieving or avoiding immediate distress or harm – but prove ineffective and, in fact, counterproductive in the longer term, ultimately leading to abandonment of, or eviction from, TA.

Such ‘failed’ TA placement most often leads to episodes of acute homelessness (such as rough sleeping and squatting) which, in turn, give rise to a deterioration in physical and mental health, increased contact with the criminal justice system and significant experiences of victimisation and self-harm.  As such, each ‘failure’ to sustain TA exacerbates the circumstances associated with that failure in the first instance, compounding existing trauma and amplifying the need for the continued adoption of coping strategies, thus effectively creating a self-perpetuating cycle of repeat placement breakdown.

In stark contrast, available evidence is clear that solutions to chronic homelessness are achievable, particularly where provision is offered in the form of Housing First and housing-led accommodation models.  In revealing the role of TA in the development and perpetuation of chronic homelessness, it is hoped that strategic approaches to service provision in Northern Ireland – and beyond – can begin to offer more appropriate and effective interventions for those with more complex needs and, perhaps most importantly, to prevent the occurrence of chronic homelessness in the first place.

Lynne McMordie was the first intern appointed under the I-SPHERE / Oak Foundation Internship Programme. She has worked in the homeless sector in Northern Ireland since 2003 and is due to commence a PhD with the I-SPHERE team at Heriot-Watt University, on the design, use, and impacts of temporary and supported accommodation models for homeless households in the United Kingdom. You can read her research on TA and chronic homelessness in Belfast in full Chronic Homelessness Draft v2.0.

[i] Interviews were also completed with eleven voluntary and statutory sector key informants.

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