Universities cause homelessness, ‘have duty to tackle it’

Universities have a “civic duty above and beyond their core objectives to relieve and prevent homelessness in the places in which they are anchored”, says the author of the new report titled, Could universities do more to end homelessness?

The discussion paper is published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) in partnership with the independent Centre for Homelessness Impact, where Greg Hurst, a former education and social affairs editor of The Times newspaper, is now head of communications and public affairs.

His report highlights data showing that the presence of a university within a community tends to make local housing costs more expensive and increases the level of homelessness, “in some cases, strikingly so” – with upward pressure on local housing costs as demand for housing from undergraduates, postgraduates and early career academics squeezes the supply of lower-cost flats and houses.

Time for universities to do more

Hurst argues it is time for universities to do more to track and prevent homelessness among both their students and the wider communities in which their campuses are situated, saying: “A continued policy focus on widening participation is broadening the composition of a university’s student body, with more students being admitted whose past experiences and circumstances mean they face a higher risk of homelessness.”

His paper said it is “striking” how little robust data exists on homelessness among current and former students, despite anecdotal evidence and some snapshot surveys suggesting universities have underestimated levels of ‘hidden homelessness’ such as ‘sofa surfing’ [sleeping on a friend’s sofa] among their students. (In any one night 71,400 homeless families and individuals across the UK are forced to sofa surf, according to a 2019 Crisis study.)

In the executive summary, Hurst writes: “Applications to local authorities for homelessness assistance per head are significantly higher in university towns and cities in England compared with areas without a university (1,428 per 100,000, compared with 1,007).

“Rates of households living in temporary accommodation are more than twice as high (475 per 100,000, compared with 218).

“The prevalence of rough sleeping is more than three times greater (13 per 100,000, compared with five). Similar patterns are found in Scotland and, to some degree, in Wales.”

Research and teaching need strengthening

However, despite the glaring statistics, research into effective ways to relieve and prevent homelessness is weak, particularly in the United Kingdom, and when it is done “it tends to be qualitative in nature rather than quantitative”, said Hurst.

Teaching about homelessness also needs strengthening, especially on courses where graduates are likely to engage with homelessness in a professional capacity, such as medicine, education and social work.

“Curriculum content should be accurate, reflect the current evidence base, and be candid about what we do not yet know. The language and images used when teaching about homelessness should be calibrated with care to avoid reinforcing stereotypes and dehumanising individuals impacted by homelessness,” argued Hurst.

Vice-chancellor was homeless and pregnant at 25

Writing the foreword to the report, Professor Mary Stuart, emeritus vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln in the UK and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University, Australia, recounted being homeless and pregnant with twins at the age of 25.

She was evicted with her partner while she was in hospital and, after “nights full of worry”, they eventually ended up in a hostel for homeless families before moving into a council house six weeks later.

The experience encouraged her and her partner to “get an education” as the best route “from being vulnerable in society, to contributing to society”. She studied with the Open University and her partner went to the local polytechnic.

“Both of us fell in love with our disciplines and that began a couple of fairly successful academic careers.”

Universities could join up with civic organisations

Stuart said she was sharing this personal story because she believes “there are things that universities could do to join up with other civic organisations to try to address the long-term, but sadly growing, problem of homelessness”.

She wrote: “Universities should explore their own position, not only in providing research on the issue or ensuring that relevant degree programmes teach their students about homelessness, but also by understanding the situation of their own student population.

“During my time as vice-chancellor at the University of Lincoln, we became aware through the work of our student services that ‘sofa surfing’ was a fact of life for some of our more vulnerable students.”

She said tackling homelessness with other local civic organisations should be part of a university’s civic mission.

The HEPI and Centre for Homelessness Impact report suggests the higher education sector could start by collecting ‘light-touch data’ on the housing status of their students, and even of former students, perhaps in partnership with their student unions.

If it proves unrealistic to add such a question to the already lengthy National Student Survey, or NSS, then Hurst suggests commissioning polling from a specialist market research organisation to collect snapshot national data on homelessness among students.

Help students with direct financial support

As for helping homeless students, Hurst said: “Some universities are very liberal in offering financial incentives to prospective students as inducements during their admissions process. It would be a much better, and more responsible, approach to direct financial support to current students who are unable to pay their rent or face other difficulties, particularly as the surge in inflation to beyond 9% in mid-2022 will squeeze more students’ capacity to pay higher food and energy costs.”

Looking ahead to the long summer vacation, he said: “A particular pinch-point occurs for students who are estranged from their families or for other reasons have nowhere to go” when they are obliged to leave halls of residence or private rented accommodation.

This was highlighted when UK university campuses closed in spring 2020 in response to the first COVID-19 lockdown, and the size of this group became apparent “when many universities found unexpected numbers of students who wanted to stay in halls of residence because they were unable to return home”.

Hurst urges universities and other student landlords to come to the rescue by providing unoccupied vacant rooms for those with nowhere to live.

Examples of good practice

Although critical of the lack of a joined-up strategic approach by the sector, Hurst does praise some positive examples of good practice, such as the University of Glasgow’s initiative seeking to engage its staff and students to tackle homelessness in the city.

This includes large-scale volunteering opportunities for students and staff in homelessness prevention activities and specialist support, such as giving free legal advice to tenants at risk of eviction.

The University of Roehampton organised a Homelessness Awareness Week on its campus in south-west London in March 2022 which included a seminar and roundtable discussion on the pedagogy of homelessness to explore how better to understand homelessness and consider ethnographic methods, ethics of research and experiential and social learning.

The University of Chichester has introduced a 12-week bridging course called ‘From Adversity to University’, with support from the UPP Foundation, which has no entry requirements and is delivered flexibly to fit around work or family commitments, with the aim of preparing people to apply for a degree course.

Course leaders have forged links with local homelessness charities and developed a photo ID card to register students with no identity documents or proof of address as well as providing laptops and wi-fi access and a hardship loan scheme to bridge any gap between losing benefits and receiving a student loan. They also let undergraduates live in student accommodation during university vacations if they have nowhere to live.

Hurst said there are “some brilliant academics and specialist centres in UK universities that are beacons of excellence in helping to understand the most effective ways to relieve and prevent homelessness”, such as Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, director of the Institute for Social Policy, Housing and Equalities Research at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, Dr Peter Mackie, Reader at Cardiff University, Wales, and Dr Kesia Reeve, at Sheffield Hallam University, whose interest and expertise is in women and homelessness.

“And yet, too often, these initiatives are led by individuals or teams in isolation, rather than as a cross-institution effort, as the University of Glasgow is developing, or sector-wide. If a significant number of universities were to rise to this challenge, the impact could be transformational,” said Hurst.

Addressing homelessness falls under UN Sustainable Development Goal 1 (SDG 1), ending poverty in all of its forms and SDG 10, and ending all forms of inequality. Addressing homelessness of students falls under SDG 4.3, ensuring equal access to affordable tertiary education, including university. If students can’t afford accommodation, they are not being given equal access.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. Follow @DelaCour_comms on twitter. Nic also blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.