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February 15, 2023

What works to address ethnic inequalities and homelessness?

Dr Lígia Teixeira

Many myths abound about homelessness. One of the most salient myths is that homelessness affects us all equally. It does not. That saying ‘we are all two pay cheques away from homelessness’ is simply wrong. The evidence tells us that risks of homelessness are skewed very heavily towards people who experience poverty and adversity, and subsequent trauma, especially in childhood.

Homelessness is therefore a manifestation of inequality: perhaps its most extreme form. This inequality is compounded by ethnic inequality in the United Kingdom. There is significant over-representation of people from ethnic minorities among people experiencing homelessness. Why is this? It is not ethnicity itself that drives the differences in homelessness but the way that different ethnic groups are positioned in society.

The picture is not uniform and varies by both geography and among people from different racial groups. Representation of Black people experiencing homelessness is three times higher than we should expect in the South West, Yorkshire and the Humber, North East and South East England given their population size. People of Mixed ethnicities in the Midlands and in London are significantly overrepresented among people impacted by homelessness. And the number of Caribbean or Black people affected by homelessness in Scotland is more than twice the proportion we might expect according to population size.

So what might work to address such stark inequalities? Regrettably, as in so many areas of homelessness, there is a data and evidence void in the UK on ethnicity and homelessness. There is a pressing need for robust evaluation of interventions to relieve and prevent homelessness among people from ethic minorities.

Evidence from other fields does, however, provide pointers to where we might start. Tackling poverty and underlying disadvantage is one of the most obvious, as is addressing racism and discrimination, focusing on systemic inequalities in housing provision and building trust between people from ethnic minorities who are affected by homelessness and providers of services. It is also important to develop culturally competent and locally specific services and to attend to the specificities of mental ill-health for ethnic minority groups. Lastly it is critical to improve the data infrastructure and evidence base on ethnicity and homelessness. Administrative datasets on homelessness in England and Wales should collect more granular detail on ethnicity, as is the case in Scotland, to enable comparison of outcomes for a wide range of ethnic groups to enable better planning of services.

Our policy paper on ethnic inequalities and homelessness makes an important contribution to the task. Only by generating better evidence can we deconstruct the myths that permeate homelessness. This matters because unless we understand the problem - clearly, accurately and dispassionately - we will be held back from identifying and building support for its solutions.

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