What does it mean to be “at-risk” of homelessness?

By guest blogger Deb Batterham, Researcher, Launch Housing

Preventing homelessness is a key part of homelessness policy in the developed world. Prevention efforts aim to target interventions to those ‘at risk’ to prevent their future homelessness and reduce overall homelessness rates. But despite the importance of prevention, we don’t really have a clear definition of ‘at-risk of homelessness.’

My recent journal article, “Defining “At-risk of Homelessness”: Re-connecting Causes, Mechanisms and Risk,” proposes such a definition, and in doing so it reconnects homelessness risk to the broader causes of homelessness.

The article focuses on:

  1. Explaining the type of causality involved in homelessness.
  2. Developing a deeper understanding of the complex causes of homelessness
  3. Reconnecting homelessness risk to the broader causes of homelessness

After moving through each of these steps, including reviewing the homelessness literature in Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom and Ireland, I argued that the following five factors are commonly involved in bringing about homelessness:

  1. Low income and/or income instability*
  2. Experiencing discrimination
  3. The need for support to access or maintain a living situation
  4. Limited social capital and supports
  5. Housing market tightness

These categorised causes don’t act in isolation to produce homelessness. Instead, it’s often the intersection of several of these factors which leads to homelessness.
For example, it’s not just a separation from a partner (reduced social capital and supports) that leads to homelessness but also a concurrent drop in income and difficulty accessing the private rental market.

Equally, it’s not just having a mental health issue (which may mean the need for support to access or maintain a living situation) that causes homelessness, it could also involve having low income, and a lack of family or other social supports (limited social capital and supports). Because of this, the threshold for being considered ‘at-risk of homelessness’ has been set at two or more of these five factors.

That is, someone should be considered at risk of homelessness if they are experiencing two or more of the five factors outlined above.

Future Research

So what’s so exciting about a definition? It can be used to define the characteristics and geography of a population who should be considered at-risk of homelessness. Using longitudinal data we could examine how risk turns into homelessness and which of these risk factors is most important. This will help us understand better what causes homelessness. Work is currently underway applying and testing this definition and early results are promising.

Prevention Initiatives

Defining homelessness risk by clearly connecting it to the causes of homelessness provides a clear way forward for prevention initiatives. Prevention should aim to tackle the five risk factors listed above, by addressing low or unstable low income for example, or enhancing and expanding services for those who may need support to access or maintain a living situation (those with a disability, long-term physical health conditions, mental health issues or problematic substance use).

Broader Policy Connections

Prevention policy could also aim to address the origins of these risk factors in the broader causes of homelessness. For example, through industrial-relations policy, the social safety net, the provision of health services and the effects of social stratification and inequality more broadly. This provides a sound rationale to link homelessness policy with broader policy areas such as health and social security and to broader campaigns to tackle poverty and inequality.

This blog piece is a summary of a journal article that was published in December 2017. Read the full article, including information on the re-categorised causes, what they include and how they affect homelessness.

*More information read blog from Launch Housing ‘Link Between Poverty and Homelessness’

If you experience problems obtaining a copy of this paper please email Deb .

Homelessness Five Factors Research