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Julia Olisa, Chair and Co-founder Literacy100 discusses the low levels of literacy amongst adults experiencing homelessness, and explains how support can be improved:

For those of us who work or volunteer in the adult homelessness sector, it is not unusual to witness people’s struggles to read official documents, fill in forms or find suitable employment. But adults who cannot read or write are disadvantaged in more ways than we might at first imagine.

Let’s not take for granted our own capacity to shop for groceries, use public transport or navigate the medical system. We write birthday cards without a second thought, and effortlessly browse the internet for work or leisure. How diminished would your life be without these skills?

In 2006 I met a gentleman who had spent eleven years sleeping rough in central London. He traced a chain of events and circumstances going back to childhood, amongst which multiple foster homes, frequent changes of school and unaddressed dyslexia all had an overwhelming impact on his adult life. One root cause of his loss of home, employment and close relationships stood out: poor literacy.

Moved by the injustices inherent in this man’s experiences, I volunteered to become a literacy tutor at the adult homelessness charity Thames Reach, where I could use my skills as a dyslexia specialist. Since then, numerous clients have told me frankly shocking stories about the ways in which they were let down during their formative years. Instead of positive experiences of development and learning, theirs were frightening, confusing and profoundly negative.

My research for Thames Reach in 2006, supported by similar evidence from St Mungo’s in 2014, suggest that at least 50% of adults affected by homelessness have inadequate reading and writing abilities for daily life. It is unlikely that this percentage has improved in subsequent years, particularly given significant funding cuts to adult and further education since 2010, accompanied by a decline in participation.

Amongst people who have housing and literacy needs, we might identify three groups: those who decide to enrol with a literacy provider and do well; those who join a programme but drop out; and others who avoid tackling their skills needs. My concern is for the second and third of these groups, which in all likelihood represent adults with significant apprehensions about re-engagement with education.

I know from experience that when a man or woman walks into their first literacy lesson in ‘fight or flight’ mode, the model of provision has to be essentially learner-centred. Histories of often compound trauma need to be sensitively addressed by the nature of both tutor-client relationships and methods of teaching. The number of adults with experience of homelessness who would benefit from this approach is not insignificant, but availability is regrettably too scarce.

To explore solutions to this problem, in 2019 I co-founded the charity Literacy100. This September 2023, we are launching ‘Empowerment Through Literacy: A Charter for Adults with Experience of Homelessness’ (see links below). Contributors to its accompanying report are professionals from organisations involved in homelessness; adult education provision; dyslexia; research; libraries; technology; local government; and reading/literacy charities. They have explored the contributions that can be made by each of these sectors, and by partnerships within or between them. Achievable changes are recommended to improve the identification and responses to the literacy needs of potential literacy learners with psychological vulnerabilities.

A greater challenge will be to bring local and national government on board to allocate funding where this will make a substantive difference, particularly when it is needed to develop staff training. The campaign continues.

Please read our report and charter and share them with your colleagues and wider network. Our combined determination to address the literacy needs of people affected by homelessness will deliver life-changing benefits, most obviously independence. It will open doors to further learning, to wider choices for employment, to greater social and political participation, and to the sheer pleasure of reading. In other words, they will be able to join our club.

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Jo Prestidge

Head of National Practice Development

Jo is Head of National Practice Development at Homeless Link.