The Role of Work in Journeys Out of Homelessness

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy. Click here to access the article.

Paid work has long been emphasised by governments as a route out of homelessness, even when combined with problems like substance misuse, criminality or mental ill health. This study examined whether work really serves to accelerate routes out of homelessness and unravelled tensions in moving towards work when pursuing resettlement and other goals at the same time. Thirty single people with complex needs and current or recent experience of homelessness were interviewed, with 22 interviewed a second time, to explore changing motivations and perceptions of housing, work, relationships and hopes for the future. Participants’ evolving narratives were charted along four pathways of housing, employability, relationships and aspirations, to produce an ‘integrated pathway’ to explore how factors interrelated in the pursuit of resettlement and to understand how structural and personal barriers were negotiated.

Housing

Progress along the housing pathway was gauged in terms of advancement towards a sense of permanence and feeling settled, but permanent housing was not always a sign of resettlement. Hostels were a ‘home’ for some, while for others living in their own tenancies felt unsafe or unsettled. Their ideal outcomes of resettlement were a sense of belonging, safety and a space to recover. Individuals’ progress towards resettlement was partly influenced by how they came to be homeless and their experiences of homelessness. Of the 22 participants interviewed a second time, nine made progress along the resettlement pathway, and only one regressed.

Employability

Participants progressed towards employability when they showed signs of becoming more work focused. We found that, on the one hand, progress towards resettlement is essential in pursuing work, but, on the other hand, work-related activities may play a part in sealing the benefits of resettlement and making them permanent. Participants had a positive view of work and wanted to work in the future. However, many had limited experience of work or had been unemployed for many years. The majority faced structural and personal barriers to work-related activities that rendered the pursuit of employability unlikely to be effective at least until other resettlement goals were achieved. Most participants were instead preoccupied with issues of housing and other priorities and felt they had too much to cope with to look for paid work.

Relationships

Resettlement was facilitated for those with supportive relationships, while those with difficult personal relationships encountered barriers, implying a connection between disruptive relationships and limited progress towards resettlement. However, the connection between personal relationships and resettlement was also mediated by other issues and aspirations. Twelve reported having no-one who offered them significant support, and most had few supportive relationships, with many describing abusive relationships with family, partners or friends. Of those interviewed again, seven identified someone from whom they received sustained support. Many spoke of the importance of their support workers, with five identifying their support worker as the most supportive person in their life. Eight participants who originally had no support had made progress in building relationships.

Aspirations

When asked about what they wanted in the future, participants prioritised supportive relationships, safe homes, better health, well-being and happiness, and even meaningful employment. Their attitudes towards these aspirations varied from feeling stuck in their current circumstances at one end to complete self-reliance at the other end, with various degrees of self-belief in between. Initially, twelve participants were hopeful about their future due to engaging with support and addressing drug and mental health problems. Nine others were accepting help, but aspirations were uncertain and experiences of homelessness (and services) negatively affected hopes that their situations would improve. Experiences affected aspirations but did not always condition them. Despite barriers to resettlement, most people felt hopeful. Those who felt stuck had the least hope for the future, but even small progressive steps were important. Therefore, aspirations were important in resettlement in changing how people viewed themselves and their circumstances.

Integrated pathways

To understand how the four factors relate in driving progress towards resettlement, an integrated pathways distinguished stages by the degree of control over circumstances, the measure of success in achieving self-identified goals, and the support of significant others in participants’ lives. The driving force is a desire for belonging and self-worth and the overcoming of obstacles to their realisation. Work only becomes meaningful when it can find a place within these longings and not conflict with them.

The pursuit of employment among homeless people needs to take account of progress in resettlement and the place of work in their aspirations. Looking across pathways the picture showed that four participants felt their situations had worsened or not progressed. For six others small changes moved them closer to resettlement, especially in holding positive aspirations. Whilst employability did not change, there were other aspects which had slowly improved including tackling debts, developing skills, improving living conditions or making plans to live closer to support networks.

Bigger changes for eight people included securing housing, improved support and recovery from health issues. Whilst there were small steps in developing employability, what appeared more important was a sense of home and supportive relationships. Four people sustained previous progress towards resettlement including maintaining homes, feeling supported, volunteering or working and feeling hopeful. But for those facing the greatest obstacles, managing or overcoming those obstacles was the primary motivating force. For those who had secured independent accommodation, found new relationships or restored lost ones, or were managing mental health or substance misuse problems, the pursuit of employability became a key part of a more holistic recovery of identity and self-worth.


About the authors

Jenny McNeill is a Research Associate at the University of Sheffield.

Graham Bowpitt is an Associate Professor at Nottingham Trent University.

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