In this bi-weekly blog series, I explore recent research on homelessness, and what it means for the provision of services to prevent or end homelessness. Read the first blog here

Here are two refrains that should be familiar to anyone in the sector: PREVENTION and TRANSITIONS FROM SYSTEMS. Prevention is about ensuring the availability and stability of housing for those experiencing one or more vulnerabilities. Transitions between or out of systems are a particular point of vulnerability within our current systems.

So imagine now a country (Wales) that has engrained the right to housing into policy, ensuring prevention of homelessness by requiring that transitions out of corrections (ie. jail) be into housing? For most of us this seems like truly a dream come true. Here you have intelligent policy making, the right to housing enshrined in policy, and ‘turning off the tap’ of a common pathway to homelessness. So what could possibly go wrong?

In the cheekily titled article “Imaginary Homelessness Prevention with Prison Leavers in Wales”, authors Iolo Madoc-Jones, Anya Ahmed, Caroline Hughes, Sarah Dubberley, Caro Gorden, Karen Washington-Dyer, Kelly Lockwood and Mark Wilding explore differences between what is stated in policy and what is happening in practice. While the Wales (Housing) Act 2014 requires to secure accommodation for those leaving the corrections system, this continues to be a consistent pathway into homelessness.

Here’s why: In their own words, homelessness prevention for those leaving corrections was based on:

“imaginary prisons (that housing officers can penetrate); imaginary prisoners (who maintain contact with statutory agencies); imaginary communities (willing to receive prison leavers) and imaginary resources (accommodation which prison leavers can occupy).”

What is happening is that housing officers have little housing options for program participants, these participants often have little interest in engaging with these housing officers, and regardless of the work everyone does, these individuals face discriminatory landlords who deny housing applications. Faced with a crisis of being told to provide a service without adequate resources to do so, housing officers perpetuate a neo-liberal story of the root problem being flaws of program participants, individual flaws versus resource and system failures:

“where staff come to understand their activity lacks legitimacy they may engage in ‘backstage narrative legitimation work’. So, we found that staff frequently gave accounts of their actions that echo broader concerns with agency over structure and responsibility over rights.”

So herein lies the warning, policy alone does not correct decades of erosion of affordable housing, discriminatory landlord practices, and corrections systems that refuse access to community-based workers. In fact, declaring a right to housing without having housing stock available creates inevitable failures for those working in the system.

Now, this is not to malign the idea of a right to housing and policy that enshrines this right, but in the words of the authors:

“We propose that preventing homelessness amongst prison leavers may be achieved only as an adjunct to a less punitive approach to justice and homelessness; conferring the right to permanent stable accommodation onto all homeless peoples (without reference to priority need or intentionality) and a more radical programme of (social/affordable) housing building.”