Shedding light on homelessness

Bruno de Oliveira writes.

In 2018, figures from the Office for National Statistics showed an estimated 726 deaths of homeless people in England and Wales, 22 per cent more deaths than in 2017 and the largest year-to-year increase in estimated deaths since the time series began in 2013. Speaking to my local newspaper The Argus, Dr Tim Worthley, a medical doctor from the Brighton Homeless Healthcare centre, said: ‘It’s a tragedy really that we have people dying on our streets. Unseen people, slipping away. It’s looking like homelessness is only going to get worse over the next few years and because of that, due to cuts, there will be more deaths too. It’s the perfect storm and there’s this horrible sense of inevitability about it all.’

Participants in my photo elicitation research around homelessness noted an ‘experience of fear and despair, and where do you go on from there? Something has to be done; it should not get to that stage. If it carries on like that in another five years, we will see thousands of people like that image, in despair due to governments.’ Others described their angst towards the government and its systems: ‘There are so many homeless people. I know two people who died. I was scared, you know, government don’t care.’

Homelessness is an issue that predates austerity and welfare reforms, but homelessness in the UK has soared by 65 per cent since 2010 when implementation of austerity-driven policies began. More than 300,000 people in Britain are officially recorded as homeless or living in inadequate homes. So what are we, as psychologists, to do? We are political beings, living through myriad political decisions impacting people’s wellbeing. Hearing first-hand the fear and despair, as well as having experienced homelessness, reminds me of Paulo Freire’s quote: ‘Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral’.

My preoccupation is that austerity has become a default for policymaking as we come out of the pandemic. We must move forward with the conversation about how institutional practices can be a form of structural violence, impacting people’s well-being. As a community and social psychologist, I feel that we must use our research tools not just to investigate and shed light on the experiences of people, but to critically engage with the world we live in.

Dr Bruno de Oliveira
Solent University

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