Universities cause homelessness, ‘have duty to tackle it’

Universities have a “civic duty above and beyond their core objectives to relieve and prevent homelessness in the places in which they are anchored”, says the author of the new report titled, Could universities do more to end homelessness?

The discussion paper is published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) in partnership with the independent Centre for Homelessness Impact, where Greg Hurst, a former education and social affairs editor of The Times newspaper, is now head of communications and public affairs.

His report highlights data showing that the presence of a university within a community tends to make local housing costs more expensive and increases the level of homelessness, “in some cases, strikingly so” – with upward pressure on local housing costs as demand for housing from undergraduates, postgraduates and early career academics squeezes the supply of lower-cost flats and houses.

Time for universities to do more

Hurst argues it is time for universities to do more to track and prevent homelessness among both their students and the wider communities in which their campuses are situated, saying: “A continued policy focus on widening participation is broadening the composition of a university’s student body, with more students being admitted whose past experiences and circumstances mean they face a higher risk of homelessness.”

His paper said it is “striking” how little robust data exists on homelessness among current and former students, despite anecdotal evidence and some snapshot surveys suggesting universities have underestimated levels of ‘hidden homelessness’ such as ‘sofa surfing’ [sleeping on a friend’s sofa] among their students. (In any one night 71,400 homeless families and individuals across the UK are forced to sofa surf, according to a 2019 Crisis study.)

In the executive summary, Hurst writes: “Applications to local authorities for homelessness assistance per head are significantly higher in university towns and cities in England compared with areas without a university (1,428 per 100,000, compared with 1,007).

“Rates of households living in temporary accommodation are more than twice as high (475 per 100,000, compared with 218).

“The prevalence of rough sleeping is more than three times greater (13 per 100,000, compared with five). Similar patterns are found in Scotland and, to some degree, in Wales.”

Research and teaching need strengthening

However, despite the glaring statistics, research into effective ways to relieve and prevent homelessness is weak, particularly in the United Kingdom, and when it is done “it tends to be qualitative in nature rather than quantitative”, said Hurst.

Teaching about homelessness also needs strengthening, especially on courses where graduates are likely to engage with homelessness in a professional capacity, such as medicine, education and social work.

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