Homelessness ‘only touched on’ by half of universities delivering social work courses, research finds

Almost four in five universities would like to do more teaching of homelessness, but struggle to for reasons including curriculum pressures and lack of specialist knowledge, says report

Black student in university library
Photo: Samuel B/Adobe Stock

Homelessness is only touched on as a topic by half of universities delivering social work courses, research has found.

While most higher education institutions would like to deliver more teaching of homelessness on their social work programmes, some reported struggling to do so for reasons including pressures on the curriculum.

At the same time, a majority reported offering placements in homelessness settings, but identified challenges in delivering them.

The findings come from a project examining if and how multiple exclusion homelessness is integrated into social work qualifying courses in England, which was led by the Health & Social Care Workforce Research Unit (HSCWRU) at King’s College London.

MEH refers to the intersection of homelessness – particularly street homelessness – with other forms of exclusion, such as substance use, mental illness, adverse childhood experiences and time spent in institutional care.

The study was a follow-up to a four-year project looking at safeguarding responses to self-neglect by people experiencing homelessness, which found among other things that social workers may be underprepared for working with people experiencing MEH, including because of limited teaching.

The research was based on responses to a call for evidence from representatives of 39 of the 81 social work education providers in England, and interviews with social work academics, homelessness organisations providing practice placements and students.

Homelessness ‘touched on’ in half of courses

The call for evidence found that:

  • Half of universities touched on homelessness within other topics in their social work programmes.
  • About a quarter taught a one-off lecture or seminar.
  • A further quarter provided more extensive coverage of homelessness in their curricula.

Whether the topic was directly taught or touched on, it featured most commonly in modules on law and/or policy, which was the case for 35% of respondents.

Case study on teaching about homelessness

One programme’s ‘law for social work’ module includes a live simulated case study, enacted by lecturers, about a woman who is homelessness and has care needs, whom both adult social care and housing services find ineligible for support. Students are encouraged to think about the legal limits on the support provided by councils, but also the ethical duties they have towards the woman and how they might respond, regardless of eligibility. It is also designed to provide students with an understanding of the complexity of homelessness, and its intersection with other forms of social exclusion.

Involvement of people with lived experience

Just over half of respondents reported some involvement of people with lived experience of homelessness in their courses, however, this often referred to being part of an expert by experience panel for the course.

It was rarer for people with lived experience to deliver talks, despite the value placed on this, as this was dependent on individual connections and availability.

Most respondents (78%) said they would like to offer more teaching on homelessness. The minority of this group who cited specific barriers pointed to pressures on the curriculum as the biggest obstacle, followed with a lack of staff expertise, specialist resources and lived experience input also mentioned.

A significant majority (85%) offered the possibility for placements in homelessness settings, whether occasionally or regularly, but stakeholder interviews identified barriers with delivering them.

Challenges delivering homelessness placements

These included courses being under pressure to provide statutory placements and students placing greater value on these because of their perceived advantage for future employment. Also, in some cases, larger universities secured all the placement opportunities in homelessness settings, while respondents also reported students having jobs that prevented them working the hours required by outreach services.

Students, academics and homelessness agencies alike described placements as “eye-opening” for those who went on them, both in terms of building their skills in relationship-based practice and advocacy and in challenging their biases and assumptions.

However, respondents expressed concern that prior classroom-based learning did not always sufficiently prepare students for these placements, both because of the unpredictability of the work and the need for a grounding in the subject matter.

Some students also reported feeling isolated because of the lack of social workers in the setting.

Homelessness seen as ‘niche’ topic

Research co-author Karl Mason, senior lecturer in social work and master’s course lead at Royal Holloway, University of London, said: “Those at highest risk of homelessness often have care and support needs related to mental or physical ill-health or substance use or are care leavers or migrants.

“As a result, social workers are highly likely to encounter and support people at risk of or experiencing homelessness. However, we found that this topic is still seen as niche in many institutions offering social work education”.

“Including homelessness in curricula can be integrative for students, helping them to see the links between a range of social work topics, from adult safeguarding and mental health to ecological theory and social policy.  It also offers the potential for students to identify and reflect on the values that prevail in society and our profession in relation to homelessness”.

The study, co-authored by HSCWRU research fellow Jess Harris, includes a number of resources that social work courses could potentially use as part of a homelessness curriculum.

Peer network for specialist practitioners

It follows a report last year, also written by Harris, that found specialist social workers were helping improve outcomes for homeless people but their role remained rare, isolated and usually temporarily funded.

HSCWRU has supported the establishment of a network for specialist homelessness social workers to provide them with peer support and the opportunity to share resources.

, ,

3 Responses to Homelessness ‘only touched on’ by half of universities delivering social work courses, research finds

  1. Tahin March 20, 2024 at 8:56 am #

    Lack of specialist knowledge? Really? There have been studies, research, reports, Parliamentary enquiries around housing and homelessness since Medieval times inthe UK. Rowntree Trust alone has produced detailed research into poverty and homelessness for decades. There is a reason why social work students consistently bemoan the inadequacy of their training and why most qualified social workers have no confidence in SWE having the competence to raise standards. Academics complaining about “lack of specialist knowledge” is akin to social work bureaucrats, titled more grandly as Leaders asking for further meetings and more reports. Waiting for a rainbow offen means standing in the rain without an umbrella.

  2. Lydia Z March 20, 2024 at 8:26 pm #

    As a first year student, we were told by the lecturer, after being given a scenario ,to discuss as a group, the issue of homeless and other issues being presented, eg domestic
    violence. It was made clear that the issue of homelessness was by the way. Our attention was to be drawn by risk of harm and not moved by homelessness. This and many other reasons are why I dropped of the course. I am sure those who started this noble profession would be disgusted at the direction social Work has taken. I also agree with the above comment pretending to care and look honestly into issues is actually a thing with the so called governing bodies.

  3. Brian March 21, 2024 at 10:27 am #

    Excellent points both and good to see the appearance of that Northumbrian “offen” in an august forum.