Preventing homelessness

Homeless man
More proactive, targeted strategies for preventing homelessness are being implemented thanks to Heriot-Watt researchers. Their studies include the first robust statistical analysis of ‘hard-to-reach’ street homeless people in cities across the UK. In busting common myths about paths to the more extreme forms of homelessness, Heriot-Watt has profoundly changed official thinking. 

Homelessness has complex roots, from housing market problems to individual circumstances that increase vulnerability. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many strategies to tackle homelessness have been reactive rather than prevention based.

[The MEH study is] … utterly game changing…[it has] reversed the view – strongly held over decades by most in the field – that homelessness itself contributed to the other features of exclusion.

Julia Unwin, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Professor Hal Pawson's government-commissioned study Evaluating Homelessness Prevention set out a radically different approach to homelessness practice by local authorities, based on improving the options for people who seek help . Implementation of the study’s accompanying guide to good practice was followed by a steep decline in ‘statutory homelessness’ in England : three years after its publication, homelessness, as officially measured, had almost halved. This work has also informed homelessness prevention policies pursued by the Federal Governments of Australia and the US.

An emphasis on prevention features equally strongly in Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick’s ground-breaking work on Multiple Exclusion Homelessness (MEH). This term covers hard-to-reach single homeless people experiencing complex additional problems such as involvement in substance misuse, street-drinking and begging. A key member of the research team was Professor Glen Bramley, whose statistical expertise led to the identification of five distinct experiential clusters within the MEH population. The analysis showed that routes into MEH are remarkably consistent: substance misuse and mental health problems typically begin earlier than homelessness – not afterwards, as was commonly believed. Such insights provided the evidence for stressing why schools, drugs and alcohol services, and the criminal justice system, should play a central role in prevention strategies.

Government response has been swift, with Prof Fitzpatrick advising the Ministerial Working Group behind Making every contact count: a joint approach to preventing homelessness. As a result, Heriot-Watt’s MEH research was used to reshape the national strategic approach to homelessness in England. And it has subsequently influenced service providers and research users at local, national and international levels to consider how best to design tailored services for different at-risk groups.

Key information

Suzanne Fitzpatrick