On the move : a longitudinal study of pathways in and out of homelessness

Johnson, G 2006, On the move : a longitudinal study of pathways in and out of homelessness, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Global Studies, Social Science and Planning, RMIT University.


Document type: Thesis
Collection: Theses

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Title On the move : a longitudinal study of pathways in and out of homelessness
Author(s) Johnson, G
Year 2006
Abstract In Australia the homeless population has become more diverse over the last 20 years with more young people, women and families experiencing homelessness. It is also evident that there is considerable variation in the length of time people remain homeless. How these changes relate to movements into and out of the homeless population is not well understood. This research asks: 'Is there a connection between how people become homeless, how long they remain homeless and how they 'get out' of homelessness?'

A review of the literature identified two gaps directly relevant to the issue of movement in and out of homelessness. First, it is not well understood why people experience homelessness for different lengths of time when they face similar structural conditions. Second, the prevalence of substance use and mental illness reported in the homeless population has led some to conclude these factors cause homelessness. However, researchers have generally been unclear about whether such problems precede or are a consequence of homelessness.

In addition, research has generally presumed a relationship between the amount of time a person is homeless and patterns of behavioural and cognitive adaptation to a homeless way of life. Yet recent research suggests that people's biographies play a significant role in the duration of homelessness. How these different findings relate to each other remains unclear.

This thesis investigates these issues through a longitudinal study of homeless households. Data was gathered in two rounds of semi-structured interviews. In the first round 103 interviews were conducted. Approximately one year later 79 of these households were re-interviewed. The process of, and connections between becoming, being and exiting the homeless pathway are analysed using the 'pathways' concept. While on these pathways homeless people actively produce and reproduce social structures including both embracing and rejecting the stigma and subculture associated with homelessness. This complex world of homelessness is then analysed by extending the pathways concept by distinguishing five ideal type pathways based on the main reason for becoming homeless. They are a mental health pathway, a domestic violence pathway, a substance use pathway, a housing crisis pathway and a youth pathway.

The research indicates that people on each pathway respond to the experience of homelessness differently and this has implications for the amount of time they spend in the homeless population. People on the substance use and youth pathways commonly describe themselves as 'homeless', focus on the 'here and now', use the welfare service system, are very mobile, and over time, many start to sleep rough. Their embrace of the homeless subculture commonly 'locks' them into the homeless population for long periods of time. In contrast people on the domestic violence and housing crisis pathways generally do not identify themselves as homeless and resist involvement with other homeless people. These homeless careers tend to be shorter. Then there are those who enter homelessness on the mental health pathway. They were frequently exploited in the early stages of their homeless careers and most sought to avoid exploitation by isolating themselves which then increased their marginalisation. These were the longest homeless careers.

The use of the pathways concept also helps to understand how the circumstances of homeless people can change while they are homeless. The research found that some homeless people changed pathways. In particular the study found that two thirds of the people who reported substance use problems developed these problems after they became homeless. Most of these people entered the homeless population on the youth pathway. The research also found that three quarters of the people with mental health issues developed these issues after they became homeless, and that for some this was also connected to drug use.

Overcoming homelessness is never easy and individuals manage the process in different ways. Again the pathways concept proved useful to understanding how homeless people accomplished this. The findings show that people travelling the different pathways require different levels and types of assistance to resolve their homelessness. The research concludes that the process of re-integration can take a long time but, given the right social and economic support, every homeless career can end.
Degree Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Institution RMIT University
School, Department or Centre Global Studies, Social Science and Planning
Keyword(s) Homelessness -- Australia
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