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Social capital and homelessness: Reflections on my PhD experience

By Nadia Ayed, PhD

Image is a drawing with the caption "“This piece was created by Joe (participant pseudonym) and his daughter after Joe was housed. They named it 'Paradise'. Whilst I attempt to do justice to the stories shared throughout my doctoral project, words remain imperfect.”:
"This piece was created by Joe (participant pseudonym) and his daughter after Joe was housed. They named it 'Paradise'. Whilst I attempt to do justice to the stories shared throughout my doctoral project, words remain imperfect"

As I drafted my PhD application I was convinced that promoting social capital among people experiencing homelessness and housing precarity was a missing piece of the puzzle, and a way forward. Social capital speaks to important features, relationships and resources embedded in environments and between individuals. Social capital interested me academically and professionally. I had delved into a large body of mental health research suggesting that social capital could buffer against severe levels of distress. At the time, I was also working in mental health services in East London and influenced by socially oriented approaches to care. I was convinced that if vulnerable people were better socially connected, their lives would be much improved. This is a widespread sentiment echoed across many homelessness services in the UK. It is particularly salient in the charity sector, which serves as one of the pillars to homelessness provisioning in London, wherein socially-oriented programmes, focusing on community enhancement and reintegration, are commonplace.

Four years later, I see that I was naive, ill-informed and unconsciously reproducing neoliberal rhetoric through my own research and thinking. Here is how I’ve arrived at this reflection:

My PhD explores homelessness and housing precarity in London through a social capital lens. I was interested in adopting it as a lens to try to understand people’s experiences whilst they were insecurely housed and/or experiencing homelessness. I wanted to discern what certain relationships (whether with people or with services) affords individuals in the context of homelessness.

It became evident early in my PhD project that in order for people to survive homelessness and housing precarity, many relied upon personal relationships (their social capital) to mitigate their adversity. This could be seen in leveraging accommodation opportunities, such as couch surfing at a friend’s place, asking for money and seeking emotional support. Critically, the need to leverage social capital occurred because of formalized pathways of care (such as support offered by state and local councils) failing to adequately provide support in a timely, attuned fashion.

This shift of responsibility away from formalized care towards communities and personal networks is at the heart of neoliberal ideology; particularly evident in policy approaches during the New Labour era in the UK. Under neoliberalism, top-down (i.e., state) support is framed as inherently problematic and resultantly, communities and individuals are deemed best to mitigate societal issues.

Yet, requiring communities, which have limited resources and decision-making power, to redress challenges such as homelessness, which are so structurally rooted, is not only inappropriate but ineffective.

Moreover, it is important to ask ourselves, what happens to those who do not have social relationships and communities to fall back on? A significant proportion of people I spoke with in my PhD research had strained, ambivalent, and at times, entirely estranged relationships with friends, family, service providers and acquaintances. This led to a plethora of complicated interpersonal dynamics. For example, many people found themselves in need of support and having to rely upon exploitative relationships where they felt extremely vulnerable and, at times, unsafe.

Interestingly, I also began to see that even for those who had seemingly sound, reliable, long-standing and requited relationships, reliance upon these social relationships was problematic. The uncertainty of homelessness and housing precarity can – and in many cases did - undermine people's ability to maintain close relationships. For example, participants commonly reported sharing already restrictive living spaces with friends, which caused significant interpersonal tensions, resulting in relationship breakdown. Further exacerbating interpersonal challenges was the shame people felt relating to their housing status. Herein, participants reported feeling unable or unwilling to ask for help due to embarrassment of their situation. I argue this speaks to an internalization of public discourse that blames individuals for their own housing precarity; the moralization of homelessness. As a result, asking for help to mitigate against the hardship of homelessness and housing precarity was not possible for many.

Put in terms of social capital, a paradox exists because in the context of homelessness, reliance upon social capital can corrode social capital, creating a vicious cycle where people can become even more vulnerable.

This led to a significant change in my thinking around the topic. Namely, rather than pondering (naively) how to better socially connect people, the question should be why are people currently not connected? Continually, data across my PhD suggests that housing insecurity and homelessness were underscoring such social challenges. Put differently, the mere experience of homelessness and housing precarity serves as a significant barrier to maintaining social relationships.

As a result of these findings, I argue that efforts made by homelessness services, including those provided by local councils, governments and charities, should initially be directed towards redressing one’s housing situation. Furthermore, in an acknowledgement that not all people will have social relationships to rely upon, there is an evident gap that formalized pathways of care need to fill by providing sufficient, secure, and sustainable homes. Having a home, as people define it themselves, is a right that, once granted and secured, can act as a foundation for people pursuing a life they wish to live in accordance to their own preferences, needs, and wishes.

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