The reconnection of rough sleepers: a complicated ‘game of chicken’?

Dr Sarah Johnsen
Dr Sarah Johnsen

The reconnection of rough sleepers has become increasingly widespread in attempts to address street homelessness in England in recent years, especially since the nationwide roll-out of No Second Night Out. Research conducted by Prof Sarah Johnsen from I-SPHERE and Dr Anwen Jones from the University of York, recently published by Crisis, highlights a profound disconnect between recognised good practice and what often happens ‘on the ground’ during reconnection. Here, they reflect on the rhetorical, practical and ethical complexities of an approach that some stakeholders liken to a complicated ‘game of chicken’.

Reconnection is defined in national policy as ‘the process by which people sleeping rough, who have a connection to another area where they can access accommodation and/or social, family and support networks, are supported to return to this area in a planned way’ (Homeless Link, 2014, p.3).  In some parts of England, reconnections predominantly involve moves from one city or town to another within the UK; in others (most notably London), these are outnumbered by reconnections involving a move to a home country abroad (often, but not always, in central or eastern Europe).

Reconnection is argued by its supporters to offer a pragmatic means of intervening before rough sleepers become established in damaging street lifestyles.  It is also motivated by a belief that outcomes will be better if rough sleepers are supported to return to an area where they have pre-existing ‘social capital’.  Another key driving force relates to resource constraints, most notably prioritisation of the needs of ‘local’ rough sleepers in contexts where demand for homelessness services substantially outweighs supply.  Allied with this is a prerogative to make other local authorities take responsibility for ‘their own’ homeless people.

Drawing upon detailed case studies in four English local authorities and national key informant interviews, the study revealed that ‘reconnection’ is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of practices – some of which adhere closely to the principles of the definition above and recognised good practice principles – but many of which depart very significantly.  Some cases involve intensive support, wherein reconnection workers broker a positive response from authorities in rough sleepers’ ‘home’ areas – and sometimes even travel with them to facilitate the handover of care.  In others, however, rough sleepers are ‘diverted’ to an area where they may have no functional links, but where they will be offered emergency accommodation nevertheless.  In yet other cases, no attempt is made to assess needs or facilitate access to support; rather, the individuals affected are merely told that they should (or must) ‘go home’ and provided with a travel warrant to fund the journey.

Significantly, Communities and Local Government guidance on reconnections is not prescriptive regarding what ‘counts’ as a connection and acknowledges that reconnection would be inappropriate for some individuals.  The research indicates that in practice, however, connections are almost always assessed in terms of the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities ‘local connection’ criteria. In some places, a rough sleeper’s last place of settled residence (where they have lived for six out of the last 12 months or three out of the last five years) is regarded as ‘trumps’ and other criteria have little influence in determining where they are reconnected to.  In other areas, weighting is given to different forms of local connection (e.g. having adult family members living in the area).  This ‘legalistic’ interpretation, which is typically employed in a blanket fashion, represents a significant departure from the original intent of national reconnections policy.

A number of techniques are used to persuade rough sleepers to accept a reconnection offer: emphasising the discomfort and dangers associated with street lifestyles; emphasising the benefits of being close to family and friends; and denying those who refuse to comply access to temporary accommodation or other building based services (e.g. day centres).  Frontline practitioners typically confirm that while some rough sleepers willingly comply with a reconnection offer, they are outnumbered by those whom are resistant. In such cases, the process is often likened to a ‘game of chicken’ wherein – to caricature the process rather crudely – the reconnection officer says ‘go’ (offering support of varying types and intensity, or not, in the process), the rough sleeper says ‘no’ (perhaps raising a defiant finger in so doing), and a stalemate occurs.  In time, one or other party capitulates. Typically, the rough sleeper either complies with the reconnection offer, ‘disappears’ from service networks (to whence no-one apparently knows), or ‘digs their heels in’ and resolves to remain on the street.  In the latter scenario it is often the reconnecting agencies or authorities that concede and provide services because the rough sleeper’s health and wellbeing has begun to deteriorate.

Crucially, evidence on outcomes for rough sleepers remains extremely limited.  No national data exists, and very little (if any) information is recorded on the number of reconnections and/or outcomes at the local authority level.  The main exception is London where these are recorded on the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN).  Even here, however, data collected between April 2011 and December 2013 indicates that no outcomes were recorded for 89% of the rough sleepers reconnected from London to somewhere else within the UK 24 hours after reconnection, and this figure rose to 94% at three months after the event.

The case studies confirmed that very few reconnection cases are followed up, and reconnected individuals are very difficult to track down even when concerted efforts are made.  It has been said that the fact that very few reconnectees are recorded rough sleeping again in the place they were reconnected from is evidence that the approach ‘works’ by resolving episodes of rough sleeping.  Yet the uncomfortable fact is that in the vast majority of cases we simply do not know whether the individuals affected remain in the destination area, are adequately accommodated, and/or are engaging with services to meet any other needs.  Any assertions that reconnection either does or does not ‘work’ will remain tenuous until such time as the evidence base on outcomes is much stronger than it is at present.

That said, the study did conclude that there are things that can be done to increase the likelihood of positive outcomes for rough sleepers, albeit that such outcomes are by no means guaranteed.  These include, amongst others: ensuring that connections in recipient areas are meaningful; investing time in brokering support in recipient locations; and providing choice as regards how and where rough sleepers are reconnected.  Conversely it seems that reconnections are least likely to ‘work’ when: rough sleepers are resistant to the idea of returning; targeted individuals have a long history of homelessness; and/or insufficient support is provided before, during and/or after the move.

The research highlighted a number of practical and ethical quandaries, many of which derive from dissonances between the assumptions underpinning, rhetoric used to justify, and actual practice of reconnection.  Importantly, the assumption that rough sleepers necessarily have positive support networks to return to is somewhat erroneous, given that many have ‘burned bridges’ with family and friends and/or left in order to avoid the negative influences of peer networks.  Moreover, it is extremely difficult to assess the legitimacy and severity of risks in potential destination areas, especially where there is no ‘proof’ in the form of police records, as is all too often the case when individuals have fled an area because of drug debt for example.  Further to this, the rigid application of local connection criteria has meant that some homeless people, most notably those who have been living abroad for three or more years, are being denied essential accommodation and other support services.

Reconnection has the potential to lead to very positive outcomes in certain circumstances and the study highlighted evidence of this.  The current ‘rules’ and ‘means of play’ have however led to unintended consequences and generated a number of causalities.  These issues are concerning given that the strategy is now widely adopted as a means of  combatting street homelessness, but the evidence base on outcomes remains exceptionally weak.  The need to gather information on outcomes and call for more consistent application of widely agreed good practice principles is pressing, especially in the current era of austerity where many local authorities feel pressured to further ‘raise the drawbridges’ to protect constrained local resources.

To read the full research report click here.