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Theories for the Causes of Homelessness

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 4113 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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When discussing homelessness, it is important to classify the subject matter.  The common perception of a homeless person is of an individual sleeping rough in a city centre.  This is the most extreme representation of homelessness but is not the only form homelessness takes.  Shelter state “the definition of homelessness means not having a home.  You are homeless if you are have nowhere to stay and are living on the streets, but you can be homeless even if you have a roof over your head” (Shelter, 2018). 

This report will examine three of the different explanations of homelessness and explore the supporting evidence and critiques.   

Homelessness as a consequence of the actions of the individual 

It has been a long-held stance of governments to absolve responsibility for homelessness and instead cite the failings of the individual (Humphreys, 1999: 167 cited in Harding & Irving: 2014).  Pre-industrial society settlements were parochial, with people having no reason or means to leave their own village. A consequence was anyone travelling between settlements without cause was treated with suspicion.  Legislation criminalised vagrants and vagabonds, substantiating the suspicion of wanderers.  The 1824 Vagrancy Act still sits on statute in England and its perceived draconian measures are still enforced in the present day (Zagoria: 2018). 

The theory that the individual and their behaviour is the root cause of their homeless still pervades today.  Parsell & Parsell (2012) discuss rational choice and deviant choice as the precursors to homelessness. 

“As a positive state, homelessness is depicted as the conscious choice of the individual who has abandoned the superficiality of long term work” (Ward, 1979 cited in Parsell & Parsell: 2012).   

Rubington & Weinberg (2011, p.143-144) describe deviant behaviour as the cause of social problems.  Inappropriate socialisation is allowed to happen due to restricted opportunities to learn conventional behaviour and increased exposure to deviant ways.  This in turn leads to the development and sustainment of illegitimate social worlds. 

Murray (1990) argues beyond rational choice, theorising an underclass exists with different values and social norms to conventional society.  “Britain has a growing population of working-aged, healthy people who live in a different world from other Britons, who are now raising their children to live in it, and whose values are now contaminating the life of entire neighbourhoods” (Murray: 1990, p.26).  Murray identified three trends that cited an increased growth of the perceived underclass 

  •       The increase in births to never married mothers 
  •       An increase in violent crime 
  •       Widespread unemployment in health, working age people 

Murray (1990, p.2) cites data differentials between local authorities in England and their levels of illegitimacy, with affluent areas populated by professional or high skilled workers having a lower rate of illegitimate births compared to areas populated by unskilled workers.  Murray uses the example of Wokingham having an illegitimacy ratio of 9 per 100 births in 1987 in comparison to Nottingham having an illegitimacy ratio of 40 per 100 births, also in 1987. 

Violent crime increased exponentially in the twenty years prior to Murray’s work.  In 1970 41,088 violent crimes were recorded in the UK.  This rose to 184,655 in 1990 (A summary of recorded crime data, 2012). 

At the same time as the rise in violent crime, unemployment also rose.  In 1974 the unemployment rate in the UK stood at 3.7%.  In just ten years this increase more than threefold to 11.8% in 1984 (Office for National Statistics, 2018) 

Murray’s theory does not reference homelessness directly, but the argument is that this perceived underclass is more at risk of homelessness due to their poor socialisation, greater numbers and increased reliance on the state. 

The perceived thought that it is the individual at fault for their homelessness is theorised rather than demonstrated by quantitative data.  Murray cites three factors that demonstrate a rise of a perceived underclass but does not offer reasoned explanations.  Brown, J.C (1990 p63-64)) refutes Murray’s argument around illegitimacy arguing that single mothers do not spend long periods on benefits as they marry or remarry, bringing a father in to the household.  Murray also focuses on anecdotal ‘stories’ rather than any substantial evidence.  The views put forward by Murray are at odds with modern society as demonstrated by his statement that “Illegitimacy produces an underclass for one compelling practical reason having nothing to do with morality or the sanctity of marriage.  Namely: communities need families.  Communities need fathers” (Murray, 1990, p.29). 

Homelessness as a consequence of the structure of society  

The counter argument is that the structure of society is the cause of homelessness and that the individual is unable to counter these heavily embedded factors.  “Causes advanced by structural researchers are; trends in unemployment and poverty, the housing market, the economy generally and sometimes large-scale social policies” (Main, 1998, p.42). 

In 1966 the BBC broadcast Cathy Come Home, a landmark drama on the plight of a young family initially broken up by unemployment and subsequently made homeless.  “The profound and long-lasting impact of Cathy Come Home on the British social psyche is remarkable.  Even all these years later, it remains a key reference point for UK professionals working in the field, including those (the great majority) who were too young to have seen the initial transmission” (Fitzpatrick & Pawson, 2016). 

Shelter was set up a matter of days after the broadcast of Cathy Come Home and Crisis was set up the following year in 1967. 

If the political right lay causation at the foot of the individual, then the counter is the political left seeking to identify the structure of the state as the factor at play for homelessness.  “Those who rule in capitalist society – with the assistance of the state – not only accumulate capital at the expense of those who work but impose their ideology as well” (Quinney, 2011, p.248).   

Three specific structural explanations exist in relation to homelessness, all related to the availability of housing. 

  •       The supply of available housing 
  •       The quality and desirability of available housing 
  •       The affordability of housing  

Shelter (2018) estimate 1.8 million households are on waiting lists for social housing in England.  The number of households waiting has increased, as has the length of time they have been waiting for housing. 

The Right to Buy scheme was introduced as part of the 1980 Housing Act.  This legislation permitted council housing tenants to purchase their home from the local authority.  During the second reading of the bill, the then Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine described the implementation of the Right to Buy “to give people what they want, and, secondly, to reverse the trend of ever-increasing dominance of the State over the life of the individual” (Hansard: 1980).  2,505,314 properties were sold through the Right to Buy Scheme between 1980 and 2007.  Over 200,000 properties were sold in 1982 alone and more than 150,00 per year between 1988-1990 (Wilcox 1999 cited King, 1990, p.67). 

Whilst over 2.5m council properties were sold between 1980-2007, only 439,190 properties were built by local authorities in in the same period (MHCLG, 2018).  These figures show a reduction of over 2 million council properties available to rent from 1980 to 2007. 

A consequence of the Right to Buy was that by the end of the 1990s the remaining social housing stock was the lower demand, lower quality stock that people either did not want to or could not afford to buy.  This led to a change in the desirability of social housing.  The Blair government acknowledged this and rather than invest money in building new homes, they launched the Decent Homes Programme.  “The Programme was introduced in 2000 against a large backlog of repairs in local authority housing, estimated at £19 billion in 1997. At the start of the Programme it was acknowledged that, in addition to the backlog, homes would also become non-decent as the Programme progressed. As at April 2001, there were 1.6 million ‘non-decent’ homes in the social sector, 39 per cent of all social housing” (National Audit Office, 2010).  A figure of just under two in five social housing properties being acknowledged as “non-decent” supported the perceived undesirability of social housing at the time.

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Affordability of housing is the factor that garners the most coverage in the mainstream media.  Rises in house prices are regularly reported and tales of young people being trapped in rented accommodation are commonplace.  In 1997, on average, full-time workers could expect to pay 4.6 times their annual workplace-based earnings on purchasing their first home.  In 2018 this figure stood at 9.7 times their annual earnings (Office for National Statistics, 2018).  This ratio takes in to account rises in average wages and clearly demonstrates the increasing difficulty people face entering home ownership. 

The main structural factors are supported by empirical evidence but cannot be taken in isolation when measuring their impact on homelessness. 

Third sector organisations such as Crisis and Shelter cite recent structural changes as having led to a substantial increase in homelessness.  The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition and the subsequent Conservative governments introduced wide ranging changes to the benefit and welfare system.  The introduction of Universal Credit, a cap on the maximum income obtainable on benefits, a reduction and subsequent freeze of Local Housing Allowance and the introduction of a reduction in state funded housing costs for properties deemed to be under-occupied (colloquially known as the Bedroom Tax) are all measures that have been shown to have a direct impact on homelessness.  The National Audit Office (2017) published a report on homelessness citing the impact of the changes.  The key facts showed: 

  •       a 60% increase in households in temporary accommodation since March 2011 
  •       105,240 households threatened with homelessness and helped to remain in their own home by local authorities during 2016-17 (increase of 63% since 2009-10) 
  •       21,950 households placed in temporary accommodation outside the local authority that recorded them as homeless at March 2017 (increase of 248% since March 2011) 
  •       4,134 rough sleepers counted and estimated on a single night in autumn 2016 (increase of 134% since autumn 2010) 

The data shows a rise in all recorded statistics that correlate with the timescales of the changes implemented by government since 2010.  

The New Orthodoxy 

The historical explanations of individual or structural factors were challenged for not considering the impact of non-housing related issues experienced by homeless people, especially related to mental health, drugs and alcohol (Pleace, 1998 cited in Fitzpatrick, 2005).  Pleace (2000) suggested that the additional factors linked to both the individual and the structure of society must be considered, giving rise to the new orthodoxy.  The key assertions of this new orthodoxy are described by Fitzpatrick (2005) as: 

  •       Structural factors creating conditions in which homelessness will occur; and 
  •       People with personal problems are more vulnerable to these adverse social and economic trends than others; therefore 
  •       The high concentration of people with personal problems in the homeless population can be explained by their susceptibility to macro-structural forces, rather than necessitating an individual explanation of homelessness. 

It is suggested that the new orthodoxy sees labour markets, housing markets, welfare systems, health and social housing systems combine with individual needs, characteristics and experiences to cause homelessness (Caton, 1990; Pleace, 2000 cited in Pleace, 2016).  “In the new orthodoxy, three factors worked in combination.  These were personal capacity, access to informal support and access to formal support (Peace, 2016, p.21). 

It is logical that individual explanations, when experienced through the prism of structural factors will result in a concentration of people within the homeless population. 

Pleace (2016) states that three support systems keep homelessness at bay.  If one of personal capacity, informal support or formal support is removed then the risk of homeless increases slightly.  If two of these systems are removed then the increase is more substantial, but if all three fail then homelessness is virtually inevitable. 

Critics of the new orthodoxy argue that it is merely a theory with no grounding in research.  Despite its limitations, Murray provided supporting evidence to back up the causation factors of the growth of the underclass.  Somerville (2013) cites Fitzpatrick’s (2005) criticism of the interpretation of causation simply due to a high level of correlation between certain factors and homelessness. 

“There is also a significant volume of quite weak research on single homelessness.  For example, some studies are based on fairly superficial information gathered through questionnaires from relatively small numbers of people” (Fitzpatrick et al, 2000, p.46).  Fitzpatrick goes on to argue that policy makers should be influenced by research-based material to form evidence-based policy.  Much of the research can be classified as ethnographic, gathering information in small scale studies through observation.  It has its uses in gathering local data and identifying concerns and potential patterns to resolve problems at a local level, but its value on a macro level can be questioned. 


The explanation that the behaviour of the individual is one that is theorised in Murray (1990) and Parsell and Parsell (2012).  Whilst Murray provides factors that he believes gives rise to an underclass, it describes a societal change rather than a causation of homelessness.  Parsell & Parsell (2012) carried out ethnological research and cite direct quotations from nine participants discussing homelessness as a choice.  The participants all discuss personal choice of deviant lifestyle relating to substance misuse and do not blame the state, society or others for their plight.  “I fell in to this situation.  It was my own choice to do it” (Research participant six in Parsell & Parsell, 2012).  “It’s my own fault.  When I got out of jail I stuffed up big time.  I made the choices to end up homeless” (Research participant seven in Parsell & Parsell, 2012).

The evidence that structural factors impact on homelessness is, in contrast, extensive.  The volume of data available on macro structural change is vast and freely available.  Research conducted by the National Audit Office, The Office for National Statistics and the Homelessness Monitor to name three illustrate the negative impact of measures taken by government since 2010.  This research, in combination with available data on the reduction of social housing and the increased unaffordability of owner occupation support the argument that structural factors contribute to homelessness.  A headline figure of a 169% increase in rough sleeping since 2010 illustrates starkly the result of the structural changes (MHCLG, 2018)

Published on a yearly basis, the Homeless Monitor is a longitudinal study of homelessness as a result of economic and policy development in the UK.  The study is commissioned by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.  “It considers both the consequences of the post-2007 economic and housing market recession, and the subsequent recovery, and also the impact of policy changes” (Fitzpatrick et al: 2018, p.ii). 

The Homeless Monitor supports aspects of the new orthodoxy, citing that no one factor can be considered the cause of homelessness.  “Theoretical, historical and international perspectives indicate that the causation of homelessness is complex, with no single ‘trigger’ that is either ‘necessary’ or ‘sufficient’ for it to occur. Individual, interpersonal and structural factors all play a role – and interact with each other – and the balance of causes differs over time, across countries, and between demographic groups “ (Fitzpatrick et al, 2018, p.2).  

Whilst supporting the aspects of the new orthodoxy, the Homeless Monitor relies heavily on structural data, as is its aim of assessing the impact of policy change, and draws less on the experiences of the individual prior to homelessness, focussing instead on their experiences of homeless and the perceived structural causation.



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