The role of qualitative research in homelessness prevention
When exploring issues relating to rough sleeping and single homelessness in London, data from CHAIN and Housing Options services should be analysed, whenever possible, to make best use of existing evidence and provide quantitative background information. This data has limitations, however, especially when exploring groups who are often hidden, such as people who are unlikely to make a homelessness application.
Some projects working on homelessness prevention seek to gain more insight into the experiences of people who have become homeless through qualitative research. The findings of such research can be used to help teams identify and reach people who are at risk of homelessness.
Back in 2015, the No First Night Out (NFNO) tri-borough project in Tower Hamlets, Hackney and the City of London wanted to take an evidence-based approach to designing their innovative approach to preventing rough sleeping. Mixed-methods research played a significant role in the development of the pilot service. I worked with colleagues Lisa Reed and Jessica Satchell to deliver the ‘Interim NFNO research’.
At the heart of the initial research project were qualitative interviews with 34 ‘new rough sleepers’, which means people who had been contacted sleeping rough for the first time by outreach teams. (It is important to note, however, that many of these people had slept rough on previous nights without being found by outreach teams.) The research looked at people who would be potential customers of an NFNO service – that is, people with a local connection to one of the boroughs in the tri-borough partnership.
In the NFNO research we were able to create a very robust sampling approach: interviewing nearly all the new rough sleepers contacted by outreach teams in a 10-week period who had a local connection to the three boroughs. Using CHAIN enabled this tight approach to targeting interviewees. I checked a live report set up by the CHAIN team first thing each morning to see if there were potential interviewees identified the night before. We received excellent support from the staff in the No Second Night Out (NSNO) assessment hubs run by St Mungo’s and outreach workers from Thames Reach and St Mungo’s, which enabled us to access interviewees.
Most people we approached agreed to take part and the interviews collected in-depth information about the hours, weeks and months before people were found sleeping rough, as well as background information relating to their situation. At this stage in their journey many were distressed and/or very sleep deprived, and confused about what would happen to them next. The interviews had to be flexible and relaxed, and tailored to the needs of the interviewee.
The findings can be found in the research report here:
So, what did qualitative interviews with clients bring to the development of the NFNO project?
- The interviews meant that the project was shaped on the self-reported experiences and views of people who had recently found themselves rough sleeping. Their lived experience was at the heart of developing the new service.
- They brought new insight to challenge and refine our understanding of data – for example, being asked to leave family and friends is not always hugely meaningful in a prevention context. It can be the final trigger for rough sleeping, while it is actually earlier contributing factors that tell us about critical points when efforts to prevent rough sleeping could have been made (e.g. the series of rent increases before someone ended up staying with their friends).
- They provide evidence (albeit not statistically robust) to kick start the process of identifying at-risk groups and where they may be located, and therefore targeting resources and foreseeing challenges in service delivery. A local picture of how people interact with their environment, statutory services and advice and voluntary sector services helps to shape the work of prevention staff. This then develops over time as the project gains its own body of evidence through practice.
- The model/typology developed to describe new rough sleepers helped to communicate to a wide range of partners the different at-risk groups that the project was seeking to identify, encouraging staff in services to consider, for example, social networks and resilience.
Evaluation reports about the pilot project can be found on the NFNO website: http://www.nfno.org.uk/reports-briefings
I have recently been undertaking qualitative work with homeless households in outer East London and hope to post public facing findings report soon.