Changing our thinking on homelessness

18 September 2018

When asked for one piece of advice for tackling the challenge of homelessness, UQ’s Cameron Parsell replied with a simple, powerful message: “provide more housing.”

This response highlights the key underlying theme of Associate Professor Parsell’s book ‘The Homeless Person in Contemporary Society’ – that to be homeless is to live with an absence of housing but a proliferation of services.

Hosted by The University of Queensland’s Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR) and the School of Social Science, his book was launched at the Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Fortitude Valley last week, and brought together researchers and representatives of government, non-government and community groups in the field of homelessness.

Rector of the Holy Trinity Anglican Church Reverend Dr Steven Ogden said the book highlighted the need to change the discourse about homelessness.

“We need to change the thinking and the way we treat homeless people,” he said.

ISSR Director Professor Mark Western said while there is already a plethora of research, reports and analyses intended to tell us about homelessness, Dr Parsell talked and listened to homeless people and used these conversations to show them in a way that goes beyond being homeless.

“Cameron’s critique is that our response to treating homelessness is treating the symptom, not the cause, and the cause is affordable housing,” Professor Western said.

A Life Course Centre Associate Investigator and recent recipient of an ARC Future Fellowship, Dr Parsell described ‘The Homeless Person in Contemporary Society’ as “learning from the first-hand experiences of homeless people to try and better understand the issue from their perspective and challenge our pre-existing beliefs.”

“We see the day-to-day of the homeless and assume we know the essence of them as people,” Dr Parsell said.

“Homelessness casts a shadow over them and an elaborate services system only perpetuates this, in the absence of housing.

“This results in the differences of homeless people being ratified and confirmed by society, which ‘normalises’ their poverty.”

Dr Parsell said this socially-mediated behaviour contrasts with how people are viewed when they move off the streets into housing.

“They haven’t changed as people, but their access to resources change, and how we see them changes.”

Through his conversations with the homeless, Dr Parsell said that when people live on the street and rely on charities on a day-to-day basis, they are unable to exert control over their life.

“They appreciate the people they see and services they receive, but at the crux of their experience is a lack of control and autonomy.

“While many social services are doing the best they can in the circumstances, their capacity to disrupt homelessness is limited by the paucity of affordable housing,” he said.