Social and economic conditions contributing to homelessness in Cheshire explored.

Posted on 7th September 2017

The social and economic conditions which contribute to homelessness have been explored in a new study by the University of Chester.

Dr Mzwandile Mabhala
Dr Mzwandile Mabhala

Researchers Dr Mzwandile Mabhala, Asmait Yohannes and Mariska Griffith from the Department of Public Health in the Faculty of Health and Social Care at the University carried out 26 semi-structured interviews with homeless people in three centres for the homeless in Cheshire. Their findings have been reported in the International Journal for Equity in Health https://equityhealthj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12939-017-0646-3 

It is increasingly acknowledged that homelessness is a more complex social and public health phenomenon than the absence of a place to live. This view shows a shift, from the definition of homelessness in terms of the absence of permanent accommodation and the solutions of permanent housing, to understanding the social context of homelessness and the social interventions to prevent it. 

The study aimed to examine the stories of homeless people to gain understanding of the social condition under which homelessness occurs, to propose a theoretical explanation. Despite the evidence of the association between homelessness and social factors, there is very little research that examines the wider social context within which homelessness occurs from the perspective of homeless people themselves. 

Visiting homeless centres in Crewe and Chester - Chester being a relatively affluent city in Cheshire, the researchers interviewed volunteers, who fulfilled suitability criteria, to take part in the study. During this time, the principal investigator learned that the majority of the homeless people interviewed in Chester were not local. They said they had come to Chester because there was no provision for homeless people in their former towns.

The analysis revealed that being homeless is a process characterised by a progressive waning in resilience and capacity to cope with life challenges created by a series of adverse life events. 

The report reveals that homeless people describe the immediate behavioural causes of homelessness. However, the analysis also revealed the social and economic background where homelessness occurred. The participants described social conditions in which they were raised and referred to behavioural issues (such as drug or alcohol problems or being in trouble with the authorities) which led to them becoming homeless. They believe their social condition affected their life chances; these conditions were responsible for their low quality of social connections, poor education attainment, insecure employment and other reduced life opportunities available to them.

The final stage in becoming homeless is the complete collapse of relationships with those close to them. The researchers found problems with alcohol or drugs and being in trouble with people in authorities often caused the breakdown of these relationships. 

Dr Mzwandile Mabhala said: “Our experiences showed that homeless people readily express the view that behavioural lifestyle factors, such as substance abuse and engaging in criminal activities, are the causes of becoming homeless. However, when we spent time talking about their lives within the context of homeless people, we began to uncover incidents in their lives that appeared to have weakened their capacity to constructively engage in relationships, engage with social institutions and maturely deal with the demands of society.” 

Several participants stated that childhood experiences and damage that occurred to them as children had major influences on their ability to negotiate their way through the education system, gain and sustain employment, make appropriate choices of social networks and form and maintain healthy relationships as adults. 

Most participants identified drugs or alcohol and crime as the cause of their relationship breakdown. However, when listening to their full stories the researchers often found that alcohol ‘appears to be a manifestation of other issues including financial insecurities and insecure attachment’. 

Although the participants claimed drinking alcohol was not a problem until their employment circumstances changed, the researchers gained ‘a sense that alcohol was partly responsible for creating conditions that resulted in the loss of their jobs’.

All the participants explained that they drank alcohol to cope with multiple health (mental health) and social challenges. 

When discussing the issue of being in trouble with the authorities, all expressed the belief that had their schooling experience been more supportive, their lives would have been different. Most participants who described poor education experiences came from institutions such as foster care, children’s homes and special schools for maladjusted children. They made a ‘clear connection between their experiences of poor education characterised by defiance of authorities and poor life outcomes as manifested through homelessness’. 

Dr Mabhala added: “From the public health intervention point of view, understanding the conditions within which homelessness occurs is essential, as it will encourage policymakers and providers of services for homeless people to devote equal attention to tackling the fundamental determinants of homelessness as is granted in dealing with behavioural causes.”