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THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

The politics of homelessness research
RATIONALE AND PURPOSE
 Motivated by curiosity about whether the increasing
attention and commitment of funds has made a
difference to homelessness OR to people
experiencing homelessness
 Assumptions:
- homelessness research takes place in a political
context
- there are inherent tensions in this context for
funders and researchers
 Purpose of this paper is to address 2 central
questions:
- how does the political/policy agenda influence the
research agenda (and vice versa)?
- how does existing research contribute to how we
understand and respond to homelessness?
WHAT CONTEXTUAL FACTORS INFLUENCE
HOMELESSNESS RESEARCH?
 Research is a political activity
 In 2012, the Australian political context is shaped by
trends characteristic of post industrialised countries
including neo liberalism; economic rationalism;
competition policy; and risk identification and
management
 Public profile of homelessness (particularly public
space dwelling) has been raised through state,
territory and national government commitments
 Limited sources of funding for research
 Pressure on researchers to ‘publish or perish’




HOW/DOES THE POLITICAL/POLICY AGENDA
INFLUENCE THE RESEARCH AGENDA (AND VICE
VERSA)?
 Tenders and applications for research funds are
determined at least in part on the basis of ‘fit’
between the political/policy agenda and the
proposal
 Researchers gain recognition as ‘experts’ whose
views are sought
 Social issues are picked up by the media – which
raises political and public (including researchers’)
awareness
 Peak bodies and community based services
commission research to raise awareness, highlight
service gaps; and in lobbying government



HOW/DOES EXISTING RESEARCH CONTRIBUTE TO
HOW WE UNDERSTAND AND RESPOND TO
HOMELESSNESS?
 Conceptual work, for example Chamberlain and
MacKenzie’s definition of homelessness,
Robinson’s work re the meaning of homelessness
 Work that challenges existing beliefs and
stereotypes (for example Johnson & Chamberlain)
 Work that focuses on existing administrative
arrangements and identifying ways of changing
‘how business is done’
 Work that quantifies the scope of the problem
 Publication and dissemination of research findings
 Publications, media releases


TENSIONS FOR RESEARCHERS AND FUNDERS
 Goal of ‘ending homelessness’ is the ultimate goal
– but impossible when the focus is solely on
housing/homelessness
 Need for evidence based policy Vs need for timely
research
 Appetite for a single model Vs individual solutions
 Expectations about outcomes of research and
initiatives
 Pressure to deliver
 Conceptual Vs ‘administrative’ research
 Focus on structures Vs individual characteristics
 More emphasis on collaboration in an increasingly
competitive environment
 Type of research – qualitative or quantitative

HAS HOMELESSNESS RESEARCH BECOME
MORE POLITICISED?
 There has been ‘a loose consensus’ about a
culturally relative and inclusive definition of
homelessness – homelessness was a relatively
uncontested concept
 ABS review of definition and methodology for
counting homelessness represents a break from
this consensus and signals a deeper contest over
control of the agenda
 Public, political commitments to achieve specified
outcomes mean government is exposed
 Commitment of significant funding means that
governments must be accountable to the electorate
 Now both a high visibility political and a policy issue

IMPACTS OF POLITICISATION OF
HOMELESSNESS ON RESEARCH
 Commitment of funds and resources
 National Homelessness Research Agenda
established
 Influences the direction of research undertaken
 Constraint or channelling of research interests
 Increased competition for funding
 Concerns about independence and rigour of
research
 Grant capture

THE SHARED GOAL?
 Politicians, policy makers and researchers share
similar goals: ending homelessness and improving
the lives of people who experience homelessness
 To do this, we need to broaden our understanding
of homelessness research (for example, by looking
more closely at some of the structural issues linked
with homelessness)
 We need to bring to centre stage as research
partners those with lived experience and knowledge
 We need research that looks at the processes of
inclusion and exclusion, and how policy maintains
or challenges social exclusion
THE FINAL WORD

‘…it is important that future research in this area
should be vigilant over the need to identify the
complex patterns to the processes involved in the
social construction of homelessness’
Keith Jacobs, Jim Kemeny and Tony Manzi (1999) ‘The Struggle to define homelessness’ in Homelessness:
Public Policies and Private Troubles. London, Cassell

‘The homeless being from whom I now avert my eyes
as I pass by…is a human being, and hence myself,
and yourself in another guise. For this uneasiness, I
have been blaming them. But now I am grateful to
them for what they have given me: their existence
has brought home who we are’
Robert Ginsberg (1999) ‘Meditations on homelessness and being at home: in the form of a dialogue’ in The
Ethics of Homelessness. Amsterdam, Rodopi