The 2014 REF (Research Excellence Framework) is nearly upon us and like many in my position I am making sure my publications are ready for inspection. But while battling a round of corrections on a piece about young homeless people and the city, I am finding it hard to concentrate. David Cameron announced yesterday his plans to cut Housing Benefit for the under 25s. Responding to this potentially disastrous development seems more urgent than convincing Reviewer Two of the value of my argument.
In the face of this fast-shifting ground in my research area, the time-lag involved in academic social research becomes apparent. The research I conducted on young homeless people was between 2008-2010. Since then we've had a change of government and massive cuts to public spending. In the case of my research, one of the biggest changes has been the degree to which homeless services are being squeezed. Funding is harder to come by and the effect of the recession is increasing the number of those who are seeking help. The time delay is compounded by the fact that the academic journal system takes ages. And while I'm all for rigorous peer reviewing, the world doesn't wait while the reviews are coming in. So while I take a break from trying to convince Reviewer Two, lend me your ears.
The proposed changes to Housing Benefit for the under-25s are just part of the latest attack on the welfare state. It cannot be restated enough that Housing Benefit is claimed by a variety of people in different situations and is linked to low wages and high rents - as an excellent piece on the New Statesman blog has pointed out. In highlighting the impact on young homeless people here, I am picking out just one group of many that would be affected by Housing Benefit changes.
The young homeless people that I met during my research had left home for various reasons; a war in their country of origin, homophobic abuse, family problems. For whatever reason, most had left somewhere that they felt unsafe. For others, there was simply no room at home. There are already policies in place that make it difficult to find young people somewhere to stay. The Local Connection policy means that local authorities are only obliged to house those who can prove a longstanding connection to the area (unless they are defined as priority need, or can prove they are in danger - which is not always easy). This policy used to apply to allocation of social housing but has been extended to apply to hostels, who receive state funding via the local authority (through the 'Supporting People' framework). This model of provision, which relies on people staying put in the area that they are from, does not tally with the mobile lives of young homeless people.
If you are a young homeless person in London, it is near impossible to get access to hostel accommodation without being eligible for Housing Benefit. For those who have 'no recourse to public funds' there are few options.
For example, while working at the day centre I met a young woman who had entered the country legally on a spousal visa but who was being abused by her husband. As she was from outside the European Economic Area there was no statutory housing support for her. In such a position it is either stay on the street, or on friends' floors (if you are lucky enough to have friends) until you outstay your welcome. Unless the funding of hostels is radically altered - and I have not heard any government announcements about increasing funding for homeless services - removing the entitlement to Housing Benefit for the under-25s would massively increase this group who have no access to hostels. David Cameron stated in his speech that there would still be provision for 'those with a terrible and destructive home life' but we are left to wonder what that might look like.
It is highly unlikely that cutting off benefits would stop all desperate young people leaving intolerable domestic circumstances. In places like London, we could expect to see an increase in youth street homelessness. Meanwhile, those who do stay at home and are at risk from their own families or peers would be left stuck in an unsafe situation.
In the face of such badly thought out policy it can be difficult to see how research can make a difference. It could be argued that we are always a step behind - research takes place and then the world changes while we are writing it up. Secondly, no one is listening. But although there are changes, some of the core issues remain, in this case; the lack of affordable housing, the problems of those without a 'local connection', the survival tactics and strategies used by those who have no home, the role of organisations like hostels and day centres. And in order to make people listen we might need to think about communicating our research in different ways.
At the very least if we have a go then we know that we tried. As the debate over welfare reform continues, social researchers need to try and get their voices heard in places other than the high ranking journals, while keeping an ear close to the ground.