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July 26, 2022

What can universities do to prevent homelessness?

What has homelessness got to do with universities? The responses to this question may range from a puzzled shrug to an emphatic ‘nothing’. Is not ending homelessness the responsibility of the state, some will ask? 

The prevalence of homelessness tends to be higher in university towns and cities, in some cases strikingly so. 

Applications to local authorities for homelessness assistance per head are significantly higher in university towns and cities in England compared with areas without a university (1,428 per 100,000, compared with 1,007). Rates of households living in temporary accommodation are more than twice as high (475 per 100,000, compared with 218). The prevalence of rough sleeping is more than three times greater (13 per 100,000, compared with 5). Similar patterns are found in Scotland and, to some degree, in Wales.

Our recent paper looks at homelessness trends in seven local authorities that have universities with traditional residential study models: Brighton and Hove, Cambridge, Kingston upon Thames, Manchester, Nottingham, Oxford and Reading. These trends can be compared with the pattern in seven of the largest towns in England without a university: Mansfield, Milton Keynes, Peterborough, Wakefield, Warrington, Wigan and Wirral.  Watch the video below to find out more about our latest paper on what universities can do to help end homelessness.

In the university towns and cities, there are consistently higher absolute numbers and rates of applications for homelessness assistance, rough sleeping, and households in temporary accommodation. There is a powerful case to be made that the goal of ending homelessness engages the fundamental objects of a university, as set out in its founding charter. These objects will invariably refer to the twin core endeavours of research and education.

Research evidence into the effectiveness of interventions to relieve and prevent homelessness is weak, particularly in the United Kingdom. Too few academics are engaged in research on homelessness and too few research institutes within universities specialise in homelessness, notwithstanding the excellent work of the small number that do so. When research is conducted in the UK on homelessness it tends to be qualitative in nature rather than quantitative. Of 562 causal studies published in the English language across the world into the impact of interventions on homelessness, just 56 were in the UK. There have been only five recent UK randomised controlled trials in homelessness. 

We need not just more research on homelessness but a greater variety, with more randomised controlled trials and other quantitative evaluations in addition to rigorous qualitative studies. And we need researchers from a greater variety of academic disciplines to bring their differing methodologies and insights into this often overlooked field. 

Beyond simply engaging with homelessness in the delivery of their founding objectives, however, universities have an opportunity – a civic duty, even – to use their power to relieve and prevent homelessness in the places in which they are anchored through their roles as dominant players in their communities and local economies.

The report draws together ten steps that universities can take to prevent and reduce homelessness:

  1. Invest in the expertise to conduct robust evaluations into the effectiveness of interventions to address homelessness across academic disciplines and methodologies, to address the weakness of the evidence base;
  2. Join the Homelessness Research Network and share research insights and opportunities;
  3. Review curriculum content across teaching subjects to ensure that homelessness is considered and discussed in an evidence-led way, with accurate and person-centred language and non-stereotyping images;
  4. Involve people with personal experience of homelessness in the development, review and delivery of curriculum materials and content;
  5. Develop evidence-based volunteering opportunities for staff and students to strengthen the prevention of homelessness;
  6. Ensure recruitment practices are inclusive for people impacted by adversity and consider evaluating experimental models of supported employment;
  7. Use property and estates to expand the supply of social housing and accommodation for people affected by homelessness, and test new approaches to supporting sustained tenancies;
  8. Ensure admission processes are open to potential applicants affected by homelessness, and support students with experience or at risk of homelessness;
  9.  Monitor students’ housing stability, collect data and conduct research into homelessness among students;
  10. Develop targeted support for students who experience homelessness, including direct financial support or subsidised or supported short-term tenancies in halls of residence or safe, affordable accommodation.

Furthermore, universities should be engaged in the issue of homelessness through their unique relationship with their student bodies. Students are less, not more, likely than people of their age in the general population to experience homelessness, which is closely associated with poverty and adversity in childhood. UK students should also have access to maintenance loans and other support. Nevertheless, with 2.7 million students in the United Kingdom, a drop-out rate of 5.3 per cent and a continued policy focus to widen participation by bringing more people from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education, many universities could and should ask themselves if they are doing enough to prevent homelessness amongst their current and recent students.

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