That homeless people need “more than a roof” is well known. They
are often vulnerable with complex, multiple needs. Their
backgrounds may include family breakdown, mental health problems,
drug and alcohol abuse, a history in care or time in prison.
Homelessness is often a secondary consequence of the interaction of
these multiple causes.
They are also often isolated, particularly if they have slept
rough, been in and out of hostels, or abandoned tenancies. Moving
around because you do not feel rooted anywhere or at the behest of
agencies switching you from hospital to hostel to detox makes
staying in touch with family and friends difficult, especially if
you became homeless through falling out with your family.
Some workers with homeless people regard families and friends as
destructive, believing it better that someone should be well
housed, but isolated, than be hanging around in bad company or
returning to conflict-ridden families.
Three organisations – Thames Reach Bondway, a supported housing
agency for older homeless people, Alone in London, which works with
young people in London, and St Basil’s, which works with young
homeless people in Birmingham – wanted to explore these
assumptions: have homeless people lost contact with family and
friends? Do they want to do anything about it? And what help do
they need? Social policy research company Lemos & Crane has
just published Dreams Deferred after carrying out a survey
of staff and service users over several months.1
The findings showed that some users conform to the stereotype of
having transient relationships and losing touch when they move on.
One young woman said: “Sometimes I like to make a fresh start but
I’m reluctant to make new friends in case I leave them behind.” For
others, being homeless is a source of empathy and friendship. A
staff participant said: “We discussed in detail getting to know
another tenant in the house. She said they clicked because the
woman was a street person like she was.” But others were reluctant
to be part of the homelessness scene. One said: “He does not
identify himself as homeless or a junkie, so he spends less time
with other residents.”
Perhaps more surprisingly, despite moves and disruptions, some
still placed great importance on old friends. One person told us
about friends he made at church many years ago, others still had
old family friends.
Family relationships were for some a source of pain and sadness.
One of the most poignant remarks was: “I try to blank them out, but
the fact that I can’t see them is always on my mind.” Another said:
“I haven’t seen them since 1999 following an argument…I am afraid
I may never see them again.”
But there were more positive stories too. Relationships with
grandparents and siblings were often less judgemental than troubled
relationships with parents. Some young homeless people saw their
grandmothers every week. One “felt unsure who he values” since his
grandmother died. One young man had a seven-year-old sister and
described her as “the only important person in my life”.
The histories and relationships of homeless people are as complex
and varied as everyone else’s. But they all felt they needed more
help in building and re-building friendships and family
relationships. Providing that help is often no one’s job. Support
staff in hostels and day centres tend to emphasise practical
support with benefits, training courses or permanent housing. Staff
often lacked confidence in their own skills to deal with deeper
feelings and therefore steered clear. To address this a tool kit
has been developed in the report to give a structured, safe way of
addressing emotional concerns about family and friends and making
plans for the future.
Referrals of homeless people to family mediation services are few.
Many services do not provide inter-generational mediation or, if
they do, commissioning arrangements and contracts prevent them
accepting referrals of homeless people. Befriending services are
even fewer. The report recommends the creation of a network of
family mediation, befriending, counselling and other person-centred
services to which homeless people could be referred.
Homeless people often struggle alone to stay in touch with those
they love and to find new people to like. Freud defined being
normal as the ability to work and to love. Fostering the ability to
love has escaped our attentions. And it is at least possible that
the ability to love yourself, to build your own confidence and
self-esteem depends in some measure on the ability to love others.
Some people need help with that.
Gerard Lemos is a partner at social policy researchers
Lemos & Crane.
1 Dreams Deferred is available at