Johannes Lenhard calls for nuance in our understanding of homeless people.

I return regularly to where I first started speaking to people experiencing homelessness, in the heart of East London, Shoreditch High Street. Ten years ago, having just moved to London, I lived in East London and Shoreditch High Street, which was at the beginning of its rapid gentrification. It still looked and felt differently back then – there weren’t as many polished shopfronts, hotels and people in designer clothes. 

The petrol station was still there. That is where I met Patrick, just in front of the Tesco, still the only supermarket on the street, and even now a major spot for people who are homeless and who beg. Patrick was in his mid-twenties when I met him in 2012. Already back then, he looked tired, constantly stressed and unhealthy. But he had his girlfriend, Jessie, with him.  

The daughter they had together was taken from them just before I met them in Shoreditch. Their situation was not conducive to having a child with them – sleeping rough, no work, making money solely from begging. The first summer I spent trying to understand what was going on in Shoreditch, right there neighbouring the City of London, I focused on the begging encounter, how giving from passers-by to people begging can create relationships. I concluded how begging wasn’t all about money and saw the potential it had to make people on the streets feel more human, more integrated. 

Begging wasn’t all about money, but had the potential to make people on the streets feel more human, more integrated, more seen.

I returned to the same group around Patrick and Jessie in 2013, for yet another postgraduate research project. Only then did I figure out how naïve I had been the year before – and how Patrick and his friends were trying to protect their identities and their lives. He didn’t feel comfortable and safe to tell me about his much more complex life circumstances during our first summer together; he projected an image that was acceptable to the general public: to earn income from begging and to avoid confrontation. 

We spent a lot of time together that second summer during which I was trying to understand the kinds of relationships which people on the streets have with each other. While talking to Patrick and his friends I was slowly understanding a key feature of what was going on in their lives. One afternoon, after spending many hours with Patrick again, he sat down with me in front of the makeshift shelter opposite the petrol station in the middle of Shoreditch High; he looked at me and almost cried. He said, “Look, I am Christian, and I can’t lie to you anymore. I don’t work, I haven’t had an apartment in a long time and I shoot up heroin every day. I only sit around begging because I need money to score [buy drugs].” 

Beyond numbers

We know a lot about homelessness – and every year the team behind Homeless Monitor in the UK do a tremendous job of updating our knowledge of how homelessness is developing. We know who is homeless, we know where there are homeless people, we know a lot about why these people are homeless and what issues they are struggling with. We record which policies have an effect and the nature of their impact, and we are trying to adapt our policy-response to crises like Covid-19 based on such evidence. 

This is much better than in Germany where there still isn’t an official “homeless count” (Berlin just did its first in 2020). But what the statistics miss is what I myself didn’t understand at the beginning of my ten-years of research into people experiencing homelessness: nuance, complexity and any understanding of the critical “people on the edge” –  the statistical outliers. Not taking the time to talk with people repeatedly, over months or even years, risks missing what really got them into the situation and what they are really struggling with every day. You end up with some statistical tags, perhaps, but not the complex picture which is what we need to know in order to be able to help. 

When it came to really understanding the lives of the people I encountered in London and Paris, I was often surprised I hadn’t realised some of the big defining factors that revealed themselves over time much earlier; I was surprised I hadn’t even really thought about Patrick lying to me for one whole summer. It took me hours spent with Patrick – over months – to understand very crucial pieces of his life and experience and for him to open up to me: where he slept, that he used drugs; that he hadn’t had a job in years and how that was all connected to his past; how he grew up, and wasn’t able to go to school. I would have missed how Patrick himself made sense of it all now. And why he was unwilling to engage with support services and the council (he told me of his early childhood memories of his parents’ trouble with those same “helpers”). 

We need more evidence that is based on spending time with people, listening and building relationships without the need to convert everything into numbers, pie charts and graphs.

Doing a quick interview with him or, even worse, simply counting him (recording his hospital or GP visits and criminal offences, for instance) would miss all of that. We need more evidence that is based on spending time with people, listening and building relationships without the need to convert everything into numbers, pie charts and graphs. 

I understand that – for economists and policymakers alike, who have formed a simplistic union over recent decades – it isn’t easy to see how to make sense of this kind of holistic data and how it can be scaled to be used legitimately to influence policy-making.

The answer is simple – but still time-consuming, expensive, and doesn’t shy away from policymaking or combining different kinds of data in the same research, study or observation. Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Evicted is a beautiful example of how long-term ethnography (he slept in a trailer park for months) is embedded in quantitative and statistical research (based on court documents of evictions). The result is the most sophisticated understanding of how – in the US – evictions work and, in turn, what we need to do to prevent them. 

Enriching a study like the UK’s Homeless Monitor with actual on-the-ground and in-depth, long-term interview data, ethnography and participant observations would bring us much closer to this nuanced understanding of how homelessness works – and how people experiencing homelessness cope. 

Killing with kindness

There are many examples of simplistic approaches leading to the misunderstanding of homelessness. 

According to the online publication, Open Democracy, statistical evidence-based policy-making underlies the dangerous, so-called  Killing with Kindness campaigns that have been underway in the UK since 2003. The campaigns advocate for the public to donate to homeless charities but warn against giving money directly to people begging, on the grounds that it only ever feeds a drug addiction. 

Naturally the short-term impact of giving money to a person begging on the street isn’t readily measurable unlike giving to a homeless charity. But promoting giving via charitable bodies over cash-in-hand donations misses the people most in need and outside of government and charitable support – the people at the very edge who don’t engage with institutions. What is it that those people need? Instead of running campaigns that divert money away from them, we should try and understand better what their specific challenges are – and design specific solutions which also reach them. Safe injection facilities – debated and continuously prevented in the UK for years – would be a good, evidence-backed starting point to tackle one of the most dangerously impactful issues many of the people I met on the streets of Paris, London and, more recently, Cambridge struggle with: substance use.   

We need to listen as closely as possible to more people at the very margins. People experiencing homelessness are just a starting point. I understand that it is simply not feasible for every charitable body to operate on the level of complex, qualitative observations. But I am advocating bringing together the established statistics and the from-the-street analyses to understand inequality generally and homelessness specifically. 

Johannes Lenhard

Johannes is the Centre Coordinator of the Max Planck Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change at the University of Cambridge. He studied at Zeppelin University, London School of …

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