Homeless people need more than housing – and universities can help

Becky Edwards introduces a bridging module at the University of Chichester that is enabling the homeless to engage in higher education.

The number of rough sleepers in England has more than doubled since 2010. Shelter estimates there are now 320,000 homeless people in the UK.

Those who are homeless are at greater risk of contracting Covid-19 due to poor physical and mental health, lack of facilities to ensure hygiene and limited capacity to isolate those who are temporarily housed in group hostels.

Despite legislation, including the Homeless Act 2002 and the Homelessness Reduction Act 2018, strategies to tackle the problem often appear to be ineffective. While there is an increasing understanding that the causes of homelessness are multiple, legislation focuses almost entirely on the provision of low-cost housing as a solution.

While projects like Housing First offer a more holistic approach to the problem, greater attention must be paid to a future beyond re-housing and re-habilitation. Rough sleepers have to navigate their way through a plethora of daily challenges – mental, physical and psychological. They are a vulnerable group, with complex needs exacerbated by barriers to basic services.

Those who have experienced homelessness have often not been privileged enough, lucky enough or supported enough to access a good education. Yet what is often unacknowledged in the potential re-shaping of lives after homelessness, is the high levels of skills, knowledge and intelligence needed to survive on the streets, proving that intelligence and education are not synonymous.

Pathways out of homelessness

Homelessness is known to have various causes both social – lack of affordable housing, unemployment and poverty, and personal – relationship breakdowns, poor mental health and problems with addiction.  One-size-fits-all strategies cannot provide effective solutions. While affordable housing, engagement with rehabilitation services and mental health support can provide short-term easing of the problems, parallel engagement in higher education has the potential to create long-term, permanent change and a different future.

The concept of home is not purely one of bricks and mortar but includes a sense of belonging and social acceptance. For those who have experienced homelessness, the transition back into a society can be difficult, physically and psychologically. Rehabilitation and waiting to be re-housed often means long, unstructured days leading to boredom and no sense of purpose. Engagement in short-term projects such as creative workshops can provide temporary diversions but does not create long-term change or social mobility. Our bespoke Bridging Module offers a different solution.

Creating a bridging course

The course grew from resilience sessions run as part of the university’s outreach and widening participation programme in collaboration with homelessness charities Stonepillow and Bognor Housing Trust.

Research by Crisis, Shelter and St Mungo’s suggests that those who have experienced homelessness are more likely than the general population to have disengaged with education. To help overcome barriers to learning, bespoke sessions are developed around the lived experience of participants, making links between their past and academic theories and concepts. The honest, insightful and witty discussions that this has engendered have been both educational and humbling for the lecturers who have taught on the module. Deputy vice chancellor, Mark Mason spent an evening with the group, commenting afterwards: “This just confirms my belief in the power of education to think the world and ourselves otherwise.”

Creating the course did force us to address some issues. After overcoming practical challenges such as how to register for a course without a fixed home address, module participants were also faced with the loss of benefits once in receipt of a student loan. Loss of housing benefit can lead to many initial problems and some students had to be supported with a hardship loan.

A student loan allows students to work during holidays, which is not possible on benefits. Living arrangements for the holidays are also a problem but the university is working with students individually, offering them the opportunity to stay in halls all year round – a practice already in place for students who are care leavers. Students on the module are also introduced to the student mental health support team UniMind to encourage engagement before starting courses and before crises occur.

Meet the students

Students who participated in the pilot bridging module last year include Saul. “Thrown out” of his home at 14, Saul led a life of crime and addiction until he engaged in Stonepillow’s rehabilitation service. He attended the resilience session and enrolled on the Bridging Module. Saul, who had been labelled as “thick” at school, started his degree in adventure education in September 2019.

“Coming to uni has helped my recovery and given me ambitions,” he says. “That’s a confidence booster. It’s made me realise that I can do something with my life.”

Student Lucy had also struggled with homelessness since she was 16 but started a degree in fine art in September 2019. She said of the Bridging Module: “It gave me the tools for saying I have meaning…I’m going to achieve things.”

While the project is small scale and localised, we hope that with the support of UPP Foundation the concept will gain momentum, helping people who have been living on the edge of society to regain the sense of belonging that is so integral to being human. Although the government’s current and necessary measures to minimise the spread of coronavirus are likely to delay elements of the project, the current students continue to be supported to complete the module virtually and apply for their university places. We aim to continue our work on the Bridging Course with new students as soon as it becomes safe to do so, in line with government guidance.

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