Homeless Couples: is it time for a new approach?

Monday, 13 November 2017 - 3:44pm

Our work with frontline services reveals that there are significant barriers to supporting couples together.

Homeless couple

There are no official figures on the number of people experiencing homelessness who are part of a couple.

What do we know?

The word ‘couple’ itself is rarely used in literature on homelessness or clearly defined. Much of the literature and evidence that does exist is from small-scale academic studies, case studies from providers and anecdotal evidence gathered through speaking to services. What we do know from our 2013 SNAP survey is that less than 10% of services in England provided accommodation for couples (same-sex/heterosexual) and that only 1% of those accessing services were classified as a couple. However, we know that due to the lack of services available for couples, they do not routinely show up on surveys of frontline services.

What do we mean by ‘couple'?

There are many different types of ‘couple’ and what the nature of those relationships is, remains unknown to us with very little evidence and research gathered in this area. We know from talking to services that there are people who are in romantic relationships both same-sex and heterosexual, who either became homeless together or met whilst sleeping rough. We also know there are family members that are homeless together, friends that go everywhere together, we know that there are couples of convenience and we know that some relationships are abusive, exploitative or co-dependent.

Just what the makeup of ‘couple types’ is in any given area is unknown, so in addition to the lack of knowledge about homeless couples and their needs, there is very little information for services to draw on in order to develop adequate service responses that meet the needs of homeless couples in their area. What we do know from our work with frontline services, is that there are significant barriers to supporting couples together with many services working with each member of the couple on an individual basis, due to the service eligibility criteria or concerns about abuse.

Key barriers for both couples and service providers – an example

One of the very first people I met on the streets after starting work at Homeless Link was a young man called ‘John’ who at the time had been street homeless for six months. He was in a relationship and neither he nor his partner had not been able to access support as a couple, with services working with each of them on an individual basis. A year later, ‘John’ was still homeless and in deteriorating health. I asked him why he was having no luck in being housed. His response was, “because they won’t house us together and I know that if we agree to go in separately they’ll just sign us off as housed and stop helping us find a place together.” I could see his dilemma, but with his deteriorating health, I asked him if he would at least consider being housed, so that he could improve his health and wellbeing, but he wouldn’t. What I understood clearly from my interactions with ‘John’ was that his partner was important to him and he wouldn’t go anywhere without her. They were in a relationship and wanted that to be recognised by the services supporting them. Their bond and connection, just as for housed people in relationships, was entered into because of the benefits of experiencing life together rather than alone, of having someone to lean on and seek warmth from and for feeling that someone is always there for you. Is it any surprise that many homeless couples in this situation choose each other over the alternative of being housed separately? This often means they then disengage from services altogether.

However, services know that not all relationships are like this and supporting couples can be extremely challenging for many reasons including, structural barriers such as welfare reform, lack of accommodation options for couples, limited guidance on how best to support couples and in particular couples with complex needs, and couples where abuse or exploitation is either suspected or known.

Brighton Women’s Centre Couples First Project – call for evidence

In light of the challenges, the lack of knowledge about the nature and extent of homeless couples, as well as the lack of provision for couples, the Brighton Women’s Centre in partnership with Sussex local authorities funded by Commonweal Housing, commissioned Homeless Link to undertake a research project identifying the specific needs of couples living on the streets of Sussex looking at service provision and accommodation.

As part of this research, we will shortly be issuing a national call for evidence to gather both your practice responses to homeless couples as well as your intelligence on the ground of the needs and types of homeless couples you work with. It is vital given the lack of data available on homeless couples that we gather as many responses as possible on:

  • The type/nature of the relationship (romantic, family, friend)
  • The difficulties you have faced when working with homeless couples
  • The work you are doing to support homeless couples (same-sex and heterosexual)
  • Whether couples typically come to the street as a couple or whether they get together whilst living on the streets
  • The service responses you have developed
  • The different approaches you have taken to support homeless couples that have had positive outcomes (e.g. increasing healthy communication and conflict management techniques between the couple)
  • The needs of the couples you have worked with (domestic abuse, drugs, mental health etc.)
  • How you gather data on couples
  • Suggestions on what support/guidance would be helpful for organisations thinking of working with couples.

These responses will form part of our wider work on this project to develop a clearer picture of the needs of homeless couples, the service responses that could help them and guidance and support to the sector on working with couples with different needs.

Details of the call and dates:

Please click on the link to download and complete our call for evidence, and return your evidence by 19th January 2018 to research@homelesslink.org.uk. If you have any questions about the research, please contact Sarah Clement.

Couples First - call for evidence