Why don’t the homeless just go home?

According to figures from the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) and released by the UK’s Department for Communities and Local Government, 6437 people were seen rough sleeping in the UK between 2012 and 2013. And when I say ‘seen’, I mean literally that these people were spotted bedded down or about to bed down – i.e. with a sleeping bag next to them. (Rough sleeping is just one form of homelessness and one indicator of social vulnerability. This figure should not be confused with the rough sleeper estimate provided by local authorities. Equally the number of the hidden homeless – such as sofa surfers or squatters – is much harder to determine.)

Details of these people were recorded, showing that 53% were not from the UK – while 39% were from the EU. However, media coverage of homelessness issues is almost always framed in a national context rather than presented as a cross-border phenomenon. The impact of the 2008 financial crisis is still biting for the poorest in Europe, with homelessness numbers in Greece consistently making the headlines and similar surges in southern European countries such as Italy and Spain.

What is this project about?

For four years I worked as a journalist for the UK’s Big Issue, a magazine sold by people in difficulty who urgently need a way to earn money. I interviewed a whole community of people across the UK with some experience of homelessness, ranging from teenagers to a lady in her early eighties. We talked about their lives up to that point and their plans for the future. Often told to me quite cheerily, the stories I heard were fascinating and harrowing. Many deserved far more than the 450 words they were given.

Most people I spoke to rarely dwelt on their experiences of homelessness. To them, their precarious housing situation was only one part of a life already spent on the margins of society in some respect. Common experiences included having left prison or the army, grown up in the care system or moved to an unfamiliar country, to name but a few. Listening to these stories, I realised I was interested in learning first-hand why people found themselves in trouble, rather than relying on sleeping-bag counts or case studies produced with a particular agenda (whether political or charitable) in mind.

That’s why I’ve termed this blog ‘marginal’ issues; I’m interested in documenting life on the fringes of society rather than the experience of homelessness alone.

So, over the coming months I’ll be travelling across Europe to find out why some people find themselves on the streets and what support is available for them. The UK has developed comprehensive data collection systems, but this is by no means standard practice among its European neighbours. There is also no overall EU homelessness strategy, despite the fact that various bodies including the European Parliament have reportedly asked for it. I’ll be looking at what approaches (if any) appear to be working.