By Gerry Skelton

It has been a personal and professional contention for most of my social work career (as practitioner and lecturer) that homelessness has been something of a taboo in social work education, training and practice.

Homelessness is an increasing problem, with an average of 18-19.000 households presenting as homeless annually in Northern Ireland and almost doubling in this millennium. So much of what causes or results from homelessness is obviously rooted in what is surely the general reason d’être of social work and what it seeks to alleviate. This includes interpersonal violence, abuse, relationship breakdown, mental illness, self-harm, addiction and leaving care. Unfortunately more often than not, any focus on homelessness is generally subsumed in academia within the broader theme of addictions and criminal justice; further exacerbating the inevitable labelisation and stereotyping associated with homelessness.

This flies in the face of the International Federation’s definition of social work, particularly its emphasis on the symbiotic relationship between a person and their environment, and the profession’s commitment to social justice and human rights. The spectre of homelessness blights many lives in Northern Ireland, yet its conceptualisation is often framed in terms of being fundamentally a housing issue. In partial mitigation, this may well have been reinforced by the NI Housing Order which gave a statutory responsibility to the NIHE for homelessness: “We took over responsibility for dealing with homelessness in 1989”. This has been paralleled with two other significant developments – an increased emphasis in social work on individualism rather than Communitarianism, with a marked dilution of community work; and corresponding growth in homeless providers and housing associations in NI with a transferring of ‘ownership’ in terms of intervention.

Indeed, there appears to be a limited appreciation among social work policy-makers, commissioners, regulators, managers, academics and practitioners that homelessness is a reality for many service users and spans the age range.

In order to highlight the importance of homelessness as a core social work theme, task and concern, I established the annual Homelessness Awareness Panel (HAP) Event to coincide with Homeless Awareness Week in Northern Ireland, with 4 overarching assumptions for review:

  1. Homelessness is not taken seriously by the social work profession.
  2. Social work has a lot to offer homelessness.
  3. The social work, housing / homelessness sector is a competitive rather than cooperative environment.
  4. Homelessness is not inevitable and can be eradicated, especially for certain ‘vulnerable groups’.

The purpose of the HAP was:

  1. To champion the theme of ‘Giving homelessness a home’ in social work education, training and practice;
  2. To inculcate homelessness as a fundamental concern for social workers;
  3. To challenge and eradicate the taboo of homelessness;
  4. To provoke social work, housing and homeless organisations, agencies, groups and practitioners to cooperate in a meaningful and purposeful manner;
  5. To highlight, promote and endorse good practice examples;
  6. To touch the heads, hearts and spirits of the invited audience and encourage them to tackle homelessness;
  7. To provide a platform for those who have been or remain homeless: and have their voice meaningfully heard and validated;
  8. To challenge service users to become more active in assuming responsibility to help themselves (and others) towards a better way;
  9. To remind us all that we must ‘Never lose the Care in the Caring services’.

Several key themes emerged from this initiative and associated practice implications:

  1. Reclaiming homelessness as a legitimate social work concern;
  2. Grounding social work teaching;
  3. Meaningful service user (and, where appropriate, Carer) involvement;
  4. Social responsibility.

Ten years of running the Homelessness Awareness Panel has made it clear that homelessness is an increasing problem in Northern Ireland, in line with the picture in the rest of the UK. The nature of homelessness is ever-changing, and we all need to play our part in meaningfully seeking to end, prevent or at least reduce homelessness.

This is an extract from Gerry Skelton’s research piece – ‘A Decade of Homelessness Awareness Panel’ which will be available in full in the Simon Community NI Knowledge Hub soon.

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