Disrupting the complex relationships between violence, homelessness, and poverty in Australia requires policy intervention aimed at ending a culture of violence, Cameron Parsell and Suzanne Fitzpatrick write.
Violence is a phenomenon – an injustice – that pervades the lives of people who are homeless and insecurely housed. Both the experience and threat of violence is the primary cause of homelessness in Australia, and a very significant cause in the UK. Moreover, people who are homeless, and those not officially defined as homeless but who reside in marginal housing, are disproportionally exposed to violence. Although scholars, policymakers and those involved in service provision acknowledge the prevalence of violence in excluded people’s lives, the centrality of violence to homelessness is inadequately recognised and under-theorised.
Because of under-reporting and unevenness in who is surveilled and who is not, criminologists have long recognised that reliable knowledge on the prevalence of violence at the population level is difficult to glean. The data available, however, demonstrates the scale of the problem. Of the estimated 254,000 people who accessed specialist homelessness services in Australia in 2013-14, 84,774, or 33 per cent, were adults (the vast majority of whom are women) and children fleeing family and domestic violence.
Research, too, backs this up. A 2013 longitudinal study of 57 families in Victoria showed that violence, intimidation and threats were day-to-day realities for people in marginal housing, homeless accommodation and social housing. Our previous research from Australia and the UK, consistent with Guy Johnson and colleague’s earlier work, likewise shows the lives of people sleeping rough are characterised by violence, particularly among those using illicit substances.
Violence is a disabling force in the lives of people who are socially and economically marginalised, even when they are not homeless. A 2014 study for the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute showed that violence and fear of neighbours is the most significant push factor out of social housing in Australia. The role that violence plays in the lives of disadvantaged people who live in socially deprived neighbourhoods has been poignantly demonstrated by Tony Vinson and colleagues in their Dropping off the Edge report. In the most materially deprived suburbs in Australia, disproportionate rates of domestic violence, criminal offending and incarceration cannot be separated from unemployment, housing stress, low incomes, and poor educational outcomes.
Tony Vinson’s work helps us understand that violence is not only frequently experienced among economically and socially marginalised groups, such as people who are homeless and those residing in marginal housing, but also that the prevalence of violence is a social product mediated by disadvantage. William Julius Wilson’s brilliant work has shown how people’s behaviours are shaped by their environment – with these environments in turn structured through public policy decisions.
Violence can be a product of low collective efficacy, limited social controls, and a response to poverty and alienation. The sociological analysis of violence and its relationship to poverty is critical to understand homelessness and how policy ought to respond. The absence of affordable housing, together with the violence that women and children experience in marginal housing and homeless accommodation, are structural factors which help to explain why women endure violent relationships. An individual’s decision to not leave a violent environment is mediated by housing markets and public policy. Moreover, exposure to violence during childhood is a predictor of poor outcomes in adulthood, and children exposed to violence – and those perpetrating violence – are more likely to live in Australian suburbs that are structurally disadvantaged. There are complex feedback loops that perpetuate violence, homelessness, and poverty.
Rather than gloss over the actions of those who are perpetrators and victims of violence (sometimes they are the same people), understanding the socially mediated nature of their actions opens up myriad opportunities for public policy intervention. Some public policy change is straightforward. Rather than build more shelters and refuges to temporarily accommodate the victims of violence, for example, models that keep women and children safe in housing, and if necessary, remove the perpetrator, constitute a more just response.
More fundamentally, however, we need to reject the culture of violence. Removing the perpetrator of violence is more just than removing the survivors, but either way the response does little to disrupt a disturbing national culture. Most people who become homeless in Australia were forced into homelessness, not primarily because of unemployment, dependence or even an absence of affordable housing, but rather because they were subject to violence. Addressing our culture of violence will reduce homelessness and break a perpetuating cycle that places future generations at a structural and frightening disadvantage.