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November 29, 2022

The philosophy of using evidence to end homelessness

Dr Lígia Teixeira

Our CEO, Dr Ligia Teixeira, spoke at a graduation ceremony at the University of Glasgow and explained her commitment to empirical evidence to end homelessness. This is the speech she gave:

It’s a pleasure and an honour to be at this graduation ceremony at the University of Glasgow. I want to explain why Scotland and Glasgow, and this university, in particular, have been so central to my life, to my work, and to my philosophy. But, before I do so, I’m going to transport you back into the past; to the distant past, in fact, to ancient Greece, and to the cradle of philosophy.

Philosophy was born in Ionia between 600 and 400 BC in what is now western Turkey. Our image of the ancient philosopher is perhaps something like Rodin’s “The Thinker”. Of a man sat on a rock contemplating the universe.

That image has a long history. A story from Plato illustrates it. It is about Thales of Miletus, considered the very first Greek philosopher. Walking along, gazing up at the stars one day, he fell into a well. Rescued by an old woman, she scolded him: O Thales, why are you looking up at the heavens, can’t you see what’s at your feet?

It’s a good story, but I think it’s professional jealousy on Plato’s part. There is another story about Thales, told by Aristotle, that I think is more accurate. Asked to prove the use of philosophy, he predicted there would be a big olive harvest - and in the winter, paid deposits for the use of all the olive-presses in the city. When the harvest came round, there was huge demand for the presses. Thales rented them out and made a fortune.

Which is a good story to remember if there are any philosophy graduates here tonight. Because the first Greek philosophers were immensely practical people. They were not cloistered in ivory towers or lavish courts. They were the sons of sailors, farmers, weavers. And they used their wisdom to improve their societies.

Growing up in Portugal, Greek philosophy was my first obsession. I must admit, that did make me a bit strange. I’m not going to tell you I had a picture of Wittgenstein pinned up on my bedroom wall. But it wasn’t that far off.

I grew up in north-eastern Portugal, in a place called Mirandela. It is in the countryside and one of the poorest places in Europe. My family was not desperately poor, but desperate poverty was a close neighbour.

It was not a happy childhood. From the age of five, I took comfort reading in the local library. And when I was eleven, I learned philosophy at school. For someone of my background, it was remarkable that philosophy was taught at all.

Looking back, it changed my life. My godmother changed my life too. She was not a philosophy teacher, but she was very wise. And like those early Greek philosophers, she was immensely practical.

She lived in the little village of Ervedosa, where I felt safe. She was the village social worker in all but name. She went door to door, checking on old people, young mothers, and children.

I will never forget that image I have of her: The black headscarf on her head, the wicker basket under her arm. I helped her buy groceries, feed animals in the fields, and water vegetables and flowers.

And like the water to those flowers, those experiences gave me life. I realised that helping others - lightening their burden - could lighten my own. And from then on, I knew my purpose in the world was to help others.

I studied hard at school, which gave me opportunities my parents didn’t have. I wanted to make a big impact on the world, so I chose to study politics. And that was what first brought me to Scotland: to the University of Aberdeen.

Arriving in Aberdeen from Portugal was a bit of a culture shock, I must admit. But over time, I began to notice the similarities, rather than the differences. When I was young, I used to sing fado, the traditional music of Portugal. And, in the folk music of Scotland, I could hear the same beauty and sadness.

 

Lightening the burden of others  

Both Portugal and Scotland share a border with a much bigger neighbour, of course.

And our cultures have had a big influence on the history of the world.

I am thinking here of the Scottish Enlightenment. Beginning in the 18th century, Scotland was a “hotbed of genius”. The coffee houses and salons of Edinburgh and Glasgow buzzed with debate. So too did its great universities, like Glasgow, St. Andrews and Edinburgh.

Voltaire, in his emphatic style, said we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation. Scots were among the world’s great artists, philosophers, mathematicians. Together they were a movement that radically altered the course of human history.

They did not only think for themselves. They looked, enquired and experimented for themselves.

Adam Smith, a student and lecturer at this university, is perhaps the best known. He is remembered today chiefly as the mastermind of free market economics, the writer of Wealth of Nations and the man who coined “the invisible hand”.

But I think he is misunderstood. His earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is a better guide to his thinking. Published in 1759, it is about moral behaviour. Contrary to the stereotype, Smith did not believe humans to be innately selfish. Nor did he believe, like many of his contemporaries, morality came straight from God.

 Instead, morality, he writes, derives from “sympathy”: our ability to see ourselves in another person’s shoes. This, he argues, is the way we learn to tell the difference between right and wrong. It is the way we build relationships with one another. And it is the substance of what we might call “emotional intelligence”. Discovering the writing of Smith was an Enlightenment of my own.

 

The evaluation gap: finding out what works

Finishing my studies at LSE I went straight into academia. I taught students and I wrote academic papers. But still there was a sense that my purpose in life was unfulfilled.  

Each day, as I went to work or left, I noticed the homelessness around the university. I had, of course, come across poverty before. But to see people on the street in a wealthy city like London was horrific. Over time, I got to know these people by name, and to learn their stories.

I volunteered with local homelessness relief. I wanted to put my philosophy, my politics, into practice. And so, I changed my career, joining the homelessness charity, Crisis. It was my legacy to make evidence central to what the charity does.

That was important to me. I could use my training as a political theorist and my logical mind, to make a difference to people’s lives. During my time there, I increased the budget for research, which improved services and changed the lives of people affected by homelessness.

But after seven years, I had to ask: what else could be done? Billions of pounds had been invested in different waves of policy reform. The situation had improved since the 1960, when homelessness entered the public consciousness as a problem, but decades on, we had to accept reality: too many people remain without a home in the 21st century.

 Some of these people are sleeping rough on our streets. But there are many more in overcrowded housing, shelters, and hostels. This is a hidden, no less tragic, part of the problem. While our best programmes do make a difference, they do not make enough of a difference.

 We do not know enough about what works. And, with the coming storm of high inflation and high energy prices, worse may be yet to come.

That’s why, in 2018, with the support of Crisis and Humphrey Battcock’s investment, I founded my own charity: the Centre for Homelessness Impact. Its purpose is to create a society where homelessness is prevented. And, where it does occur, to ensure it is rare, brief and doesn’t reoccur.

To do so, we ensure the best evidence is at the fingertips of policymakers. That they can make best use of their limited resources. That they can question received wisdom and act on the best knowledge. It recognises that there is a limit to what we can understand  through abstract reasoning and information gathering alone; that we need to test things empirically to find out what works.

These principles are the philosophical underpinnings of the “what works” movement. Which since the 1990s has influenced many fields around the world. My charity was the first to apply this method to homelessness.

And what better place to first test the new initiative than in Glasgow, one of the great cities of the Scottish Enlightenment where, in partnership with the Glasgow Homelessness Network, I tested the feasibility of a “what works” centre to make a difference on homelessness across Scotland, a country that is a leading light in its response to the problem and which, through groundbreaking legislation, has taken great strides to solve it.

 It is now a decade since a right to housing, for everyone deemed homeless, was introduced in Scotland. Glasgow University, too, has made commitments based on its civic strategy, an effort which draws on academic expertise and the ingenuity of individuals, along with the university’s relationship with local government and with the financial resources the university has committed to the problem.

Since my charity was launched, we have made a difference, together. In the past year over 28,000 homelessness cases have been closed in Scotland, which is an increase of 5% on the year before, while across Scotland and the rest of the country local authorities are prioritising evidence in their strategies.

During the pandemic, governments treated rough sleeping as a public health issue. Barriers that prevent people getting help, like eligibility criteria, were scrapped. And governments committed extra resources to the problem.

For a time, the most extreme form of homelessness was virtually ended in Scotland, though homelessness has increased, once again, towards pre-2019 levels. 

We should take comfort from our response during the pandemic. It shows that with the right mindset, leadership and evidence we can end homelessness for good.

 

Learning by asking the hard questions

 In October, I returned home to see my family in Portugal. I reflected on the choices that brought me here. The little girl who helped her godmother in Ervedosa. To the woman who stands before you today. It occurred to me that life is a journey of philosophical inquiry.

We are all born in ignorance and we learn by asking questions. Slowly, but surely, we strive towards the light. Going out and doing things for ourselves, we find our purpose.

So, I want each of you to go out into the world in search of yours. Experiment. Ask questions. Challenge received wisdom. Be restless in your pursuit of knowledge. And crucially, stay true to the evidence. That is the legacy of the Scottish Enlightenment. That is the way we make a difference to society. And, in time, that is how we create enlightenments of our own.

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