Is homelessness such a fairly random event that it could happen to anyone, as it is often claimed?
In an attempt to avoid the ‘othering’ of those suffering acute forms of disadvantage, such as poverty or homelessness, it is sometimes argued that homelessness ‘can happen to anyone’.
Concerned politicians, charities, academics and others suggest ‘homelessness results from many different causes’ and ‘homelessness is hugely complex’.
Well-intentioned as they are, such statements create the perception that homelessness is a fairly random event, its causes largely unfathomable, and attempts at prediction are doomed to failure. But is the risk of homelessness really so widely distributed across the population as to justify the common media refrain that we are ‘all only two pay cheques away from homelessness’? These ‘inclusive’ type narratives distract from deeper structural and systemic causes that are identifiable, and preventable, if the political will be found?
A paper published in Housing Studies demolishes the ‘two paycheques’ myth through careful analysis of three major surveys that ask about past experience of homelessness.
Homelessness: who is most at risk?
The authors demonstrate that poverty, particularly childhood poverty, is by far most powerful predictor of homelessness in young adulthood. Health and support needs, such as serious drug use, also contribute to homelessness risks, but their explanatory power is less than that of poverty.
The fact is that for some systematically disadvantaged groups, the probability of homelessness is so very high that it comes close to constituting a ‘norm’.
Conversely, for other sections of the population, the probability of falling into homelessness is slight in the extreme because they are cushioned by many protective factors.
The idea, then, that ‘we are all only two pay cheques away from homelessness’ is a seriously misleading statement. Myths like these become dangerous when they are repeated so often that those who ought to, and need to, know better start to believe them. How many times have we heard senior figures from government and the community sector restate the ‘it could happen to any of us’ line. This has to be called out for the gobbledygook it is, so that we can move on to design the sort of effective, long-term preventative interventions in homelessness that recognise its predictable yet far from inevitable nature.
Are we really ready to concede that social justice, or even simple compassion, no longer has any purchase in the public conscience? Moreover, it strikes me as a very odd corner for those of a progressive bent to deny the existence of structural inequalities, which is exactly what the ‘two paycheques’ argument does.
This is not a valid claim, and repeating it distracts us from focusing on causes that may be identifiable, and possibly preventable.
So let’s leave it behind. Let’s be honest that homelessness probably won’t happen to you. But you should care about it anyway. Because it’s happening to an increasing number of your fellow citizens. And it’s miserable, unfair, and preventable.