Understanding Alcohol and Homelessness

Tuesday, 7 May 2019 - 3:06pm

For many people experiencing homelessness, alcohol can become a coping mechanism. Matthew Kidd from Creative Inclusion and members of Greater Manchester's co-production panel explain how we can best support the needs of people who are homeless and drinking at hazardous levels.

As individuals with lived experience of homelessness, mental health and alcohol misuse, Creative Inclusion asked Neil, Paddy and Danielle (members of Greater Manchester’s co-production panel) for their thoughts on:

  • The needs of people who are homeless and drinking at hazardous levels
  • The best ways to engage and support
  • Their key messages about what helped them to progress and move-on after receiving support from homelessness services

The needs of people who are homeless and drinking at hazardous levels

When people use high levels of alcohol they are often trying to find a way of coping with difficult things that have happened to them. There isn’t enough understanding of this and they can often be labelled as chaotic, non-compliant and challenging.

 “It was the only thing that could make things bearable. I didn’t like the things I was doing when I was drinking, but I didn’t have any other coping mechanism” (Danielle)

“When things got really bad with my mental health, I needed something which could help me block it out” (Paddy)

When professionals have judged people’s behaviour as irresponsible when they have been former tenants, it can often be extremely difficult to get suitably re-housed. The reality can be that people may be living in accommodation which wasn’t suitable given their level of need. Making assessments about someone’s level of ‘housing readiness’, rather than understanding their unique requirements, can result in people losing faith in homelessness services. This can result in people ending up in emergency accommodation, such as night-shelters or risks people getting stuck in dangerous situations, such as rough sleeping, living with abusive partners or sofa-surfing with strangers.

People are unable to address unresolved trauma or develop new coping mechanisms when living in unstable and unsafe environments, and as a result their alcohol use often increases and their levels of need get higher.

Engaging and supporting people

Experts by experience such as Neil, Danielle and Paddy offer living proof that those who’ve experienced homelessness, whilst drinking alcohol at levels hazardous to health, can make progress when suitably housed and supported in a person-centred way.  

According to the Greater Manchester co-production panel, the important thing is being housed somewhere where you will receive practical and emotional support from empathetic staff who you can trust. Central to this trust is being able to open-up about your circumstances without fear of losing your accommodation.

Maintaining trust and consistency helps people take greater control of their lives over time. Unless  someone feels secure psychologically, they will find it difficult to address any unresolved trauma, “we’ve been let down before from so many services” says Danielle.

It is important for people that there is no expectation that they should quickly ‘graduate’ from the service and people fear that services will cut-off support when people need it most. Conditionality and unrealistic support plans have resulted in people losing their accommodation in the past with many individuals becoming anxious when assessments and paperwork aren’t introduced or explained properly. It’s important to support people in a way which helps them talk honestly about what is important to them and any further support they might need.

Move-on support

Homelessness services can create a safe space for people to socialise and learn new skills and this is welcomed by the co-production panel. They were, however, keen to state that there will always be a power imbalance between accommodation providers and residents. In homelessness accommodation services, which operate on a high or some tolerance ethos towards alcohol, then engaging in these activities mean people will spend more time with others who are still drinking.

The panel talked about the importance of being introduced to new support networks and needing other places to go and things to do. Without this people felt they could fall back in to drinking heavily, even at times where they were starting to feel motivated. People are always going to have bad days and without an alternative support network they may lead to people reverting back to their old coping strategy. Neil said professional support will always be time limited and needs to be supplemented with peer support:

“I had to find people in the community that understood more, that could support me more, offer more time and who aren’t in positions of power over me”

The guidance and the case studies about working with alcohol use in homelessness accommodation give practical examples of how providers have been able to provide the type of support articulated by Neil, Paddy and Danielle.

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For more information and advice on how to engage and support individuals who are drinking at harmful levels, visit our guidance page: https://www.homeless.org.uk/alcohol-use-in-homelessness-services

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Matthew Kidd

Director of Creative Inclusion

Matthew Kidd is Director of Creative Inclusion, an organisation which finds creative ways to meaningfully include people in decisions which affect them.