We have completed several high profile research studies with older homeless people. The focus of this qualitative research was on older people’s experiences of homelessness, social isolation and loneliness, mental health and wellbeing.
Isolation and loneliness are common among older people who are homeless. Social isolation often precedes homelessness and homelessness may exacerbate and intensify isolation. Isolation and loneliness are also commonly experienced after people have been rehoused into permanent housing, and are sometimes linked to tenancy breakdown and repeated episodes of homelessness.
This qualitative study for Age UK, supported by Bridge House Estates, explored older people’s experiences of social isolation and pathways into loneliness. The research involved semi-structured interviews and small group discussions with 160 homeless and ex-homeless older people in London.
Many older homeless people encounter difficulties coping with the demands of day-to-day life when they move into an independent tenancy. They may have lost the necessary skills and confidence to build links with the community, access mainstream facilities and develop social networks. They often remain isolated after they move into permanent accommodation. Engagement in meaningful activities can help build the necessary skills and confidence to support people to resettle into independent or supported accommodation. Regular engagement in activity is believed to be vital for maintaining health and well-being in later life.
We conducted a qualitative study to examine the impact of a range of activities for older homeless people. Activities were delivered by two homeless organizations in East London – St Botolph’s Project and Spires Connect. Outcomes for homeless people were examined from a range of structured group activities including physical activity, social, leisure and educational activities. The fieldwork for the study took place over four years. A multi-method approach was taken to data collection, including structured questionnaires, semi-structured interviews with older people, interviews and group discussions with project workers, participant observation, and documentary sources. In total, 100 older people took part in the research.
It is widely acknowledged that meaningful occupation is crucial to the successful resettlement of homeless people, both to build skills and confidence and to combat the isolation and boredom that can cause people to return to the street. However, there have been few initiatives of this kind targeting older homeless people, or those not entering employment. Live Choices was an innovative ‘meaningful occupation’ service in East London for people aged 50 and over who had experienced homelessness or who were isolated. The project, delivered by St Botolph’s Project and ThamesReach Bondway, supported people who wished to engage in meaningful occupation and get involved in the local community. The project aimed to provide opportunities for social contact within the wider community and help older people to build confidence and skills.
We carried out an evaluation of the project for Age UK. The evaluation identified the effects of meaningful activity for homeless, former homeless and isolated older people. as well as the barriers to engaging in activities, and how these can be overcome. The Evaluation employed a range of methods, including semi-structured interviews and small-group discussions with older people, a structured questionnaire, informal discussions with project staff, and documentary sources.
We carried out a number of participatory action research projects in collaboration with five voluntary sector organisations working with older homeless people in London. In this work, we developed a user-focused approach to action research. which put homeless people in a central position in the research approach. The action research projects evaluated a number of pilot projects including an advice service, a life skill training project, a resettlement project, and a floating support service. The participating organizations were the Community Hack Centre, St Botolph’s Project, Bondway ThamesReach, and Providence Row Housing Association.
Willcock, K. (1999) Rhetoric into reality. London: Help the Aged. Reproduced as ‘Action research with homeless older people’ in: Royal College of Nursing, Research for Gerontological Nursing Study Guide, Section 7: Research Methodologies. London: Royal College of Nursing.
Willcock, K. (1999) Older Homeless People: An action research plan. Housing, Care and Support, 2(2), pp.25-28. doi: 10.1108/14608790199900018
There are no accurate figures on exactly how many older people are sleeping rough in Britain, but latest estimates are that in England alone around 600 over-50s are out on the streets each night.
This week, Help the Aged publishes the first results of its research into finding better ways of working with homeless elderly people. The charity is pioneering the use of “action research” as a means of assessing whether the projects it funds are really meeting clients’ needs. It involves giving users a central role in providing feedback about services, while ensuring that any problems they highlight lead to changes in practice.
Kim Willcock, who has been conducting the research over the past year funded by a £50,000 Princess Diana memorial fund grant, has focused on three London projects working with homeless people over 50. There are plans to extend the idea to similar schemes up and down the country as part of a six year research programme. “Action research is normally focused on practitioners but we’re keen to see things from the users’ point of view,” she explains. “We feel we’re breaking new ground because the homeless sector does not have a culture of involving users in developing services in the same way that, say, the disability or health sectors do.
“All too often, outcomes are monitored by the number of people using a service rather than what they actually think about it.”
The research covered projects involving people with a history of rough sleeping who also had alcohol problems and mental health difficulties. One of the schemes that took part was Providence Row housing association in Bethnal Green, east London, which runs a support scheme for ex-homeless people over 50 who have moved into their own flat.
Angela Wareham, the scheme’s resettlement manager, says the Help the Aged research has been very helpful. “We sit down once a month with Kim and look at the issues clients have raised. We act on that information then we get back together four to six weeks later and see if the changes we’ve made are making any difference.
“So often you have to work to outcomes and targets set by the funders, and these don’t always coincide with what the service users want. But with this new scheme we’ve been able to go to clients, hear their views and assure them that we plan to act on what they say.”
One of the findings of the research at Providence Row was that older homeless clients wanted more frequent contact, and so extra volunteers were recruited for a befriending scheme. “Official letters often trigger a problem,” Wareham says. “In fact, we found that some of our clients were burying the letters they received. They are a very independent group, but it emerged that they needed reassurance and support to keep panic at bay when the bills start dropping through the letterbox. Questionnaires are no good for finding out this sort of information – you need face-to-face interviews. Help the Aged are not the only ones doing this sort of work, but they are doing it better than anyone else at the moment.”
The research is part of the charity’s ongoing homeless campaign, launched in 1997 in recognition of the fact that older people are often overlooked when it comes to tackling homelessness.
Daniel Pearson, the charity’s special projects manager, says the organisation decided to take a new approach with its research to challenge a prevailing culture in which older homeless people’s views didn’t really count. “Instead of setting up a user group that meets every three months but doesn’t change anything, action research is about being proactive, really listening and resolving real life problems,” he says. “Acting on what users say can be difficult, which is why we’ve also come up with follow-up funding to meet the gaps they have highlighted.
“Older homeless people are not a very assertive group but they deserve to be taken seriously.”
Source: Guardian Society