By Dr Susie Burke MAPS, Senior Researcher, Public Interest, APS National Office

As part of its commitment to contributing to matters of social and community concern, the APS hosted a highly successful Roundtable on Homelessness on 20 July 2009. The Roundtable aimed to foster shared perspectives on this major social issue and enhance psychology's capacity to contribute to the response. Two international experts were sponsored to present at the Roundtable, which was attended by approximately 30 psychologists and other key stakeholders in the homelessness field. Professor MaryBeth Shinn from the Department of Human and Organizational Development, Vanderbilt University, USA, and Associate Professor Darrin Hodgetts from the Department of Psychology at the University of Waikato, NZ, presented their research findings and led discussions around homelessness prevention and service provision to the homeless. The event followed up an APS submission to the Australian Government's White Paper on homelessness in 2008.

The Roundtable underscored the enormity and complexity of the task of addressing homelessness, as well as providing a greater appreciation of the range of services, programs and research efforts currently being undertaken around Australia. Three main topics were explored on the day: pathways to homelessness; impacts of homelessness (who is most affected, and how); and pathways to housing (what works and what doesn't). In a similar manner to the Racism Roundtable held in Perth a month earlier, this one-day event was structured around a number of ‘catalytic' presentations followed by small group discussions. Participants were invited to share insights on these issues, as well as consider what they might say if they had three minutes with ‘the decision makers'. The following is a summary of some of the knowledge gleaned from the event.

Facts about homelessness

It was sobering to learn that the Australian Government White Paper's estimate of homelessness in Australia of 105,000 people on any given night is likely to be a gross underestimate. Homelessness is a key determinant of health and associated with many poor health outcomes, including the alarming statistics that the homeless are 34 times more likely to suicide, 25 times more likely to die, and 150 times more likely to die a violent death, than the general population.

Pathways to homelessness

The key pathways that were identified included poverty, the experience of homelessness as a child, family history of homelessness, social exclusion (e.g., racial discrimination), individual factors like substance use, transitions (e.g., from jail and inpatient psychiatric services, birth of first child, retirement), and structural issues (e.g., insufficient housing stock).

Solutions to homelessness

For most families, the availability of subsidised housing is highly successful in stabilising the family unit and improving quality of life. Other solutions include the promotion of racial and linguistic heterogeneity, fostering the belief that ‘poverty is society's fault', critical time interventions (e.g., support at transitions times), recognition and respect for the homeless as members of society, sustained involvement, recognition of the importance of civic places to providing safety, comfort and connection to homeless people, and collaborative work between organisations.

The Roundtable was thought provoking and much collective wisdom was gleaned from the day, including the need to clearly articulate the role of psychology and psychological expertise in the area of homelessness. It was noted that the role of the psychologist in this area is not as visible as some other professions. However, psychology does have much to offer, not just around the provision of psychological services for homeless people, but also in program design and evaluation, building on existing research to increase the understanding of precursors to homelessness and its course, and influencing attitudes towards homelessness. There is a real need for psychology researchers and practitioners to form collaborative partnerships with other disciplines and agencies working in the field in responding to this pressing social issue.

Submission to the Inquiry into Homelessness Legislation

One of the outcomes of the Roundtable for the APS was a submission made a few weeks later to the Inquiry into Homelessness Legislation held by the Senate Standing Committee on Family, Community, Housing and Youth. The APS submission focused on homelessness from a psychological perspective, identifying specific vulnerable groups with complex needs who are particularly impacted upon by homelessness. A set of guiding principles based on psychological research and practice were articulated that should underpin the provision of services to homeless persons and groups, as follows.

  • Adequate and safe housing is the foundation for individual and community wellbeing.
  • Homelessness is caused by poverty and measures to address the causes of poverty must be part of any efforts to reduce and eliminate homelessness.
  • Flexible approaches are necessary - there is no ‘one size fits all' model.
  • Intensive and holistic support is required for those in complex situations.
  • People are more vulnerable and likely to experience homelessness when they are going through a transition in their life, so support at these points is essential.
  • Prevention of homelessness is fundamental.
  • Homelessness is about exclusion - policy and service responses need to involve homeless people in solutions and processes.
  • A local focus is important - prevention and housing initiatives should consider local factors contributing to homelessness.
  • A long-term commitment to responding to homelessness is needed.

InPsych October 2009