The winner of the 2018 Valerie Karn Early Career Researcher prize, Hannah Browne-Gott from Cardiff University, shares her research which formed the basis of her winning paper.
In housing policy and practice we often call for rights-based approaches. However, we often fail to consider the day-to-day, often mundane, practices that are necessary to support a rights-based system; how these rights are delivered and by whom, the very nature of the bureaucratic system. This has significant consequences for access to rights and should be foremost in our minds when we consider people’s experiences in rights based welfare systems.
In 2014 the Welsh Government created a ground-breaking new set of rights which gave citizens access to homelessness prevention assistance. The new homelessness system in Wales is unlike the previous homelessness system, where only those in priority need – families and those perceived as vulnerable, held statutory rights. This new set of rights aims to grant homelessness assistance beyond the groups traditionally supported. In my research I have focused on the relatively new rights to homelessness assistance in Wales. However, the lessons from this research are much broader, particularly considering the many similarities between the Welsh homelessness system and prevention rights recently put into place in England.
My research therefore questions whether there is a paradox of bureaucracy, whereby positive impacts on the rights of homeless citizens must inevitably be accompanied by the common pitfalls of bureaucracy.
This research draws on analysis of administrative homelessness data relating to more than 22,000 households, and secondary analysis of 52 interview transcripts from people moving through the homelessness system and four in depth interviews with key informants from the Welsh Government, Third Sector, and Local Authority Staff.
Homelessness administrative data findings: successes and challenges
It is clear from administrative data analysis that the new rights to homelessness prevention are largely effective in preventing homelessness in Wales. In data for 2016/17, 66% of homelessness cases were successfully prevented and 41% were successfully relieved. Many of these would not have received statutory support under the previous homelessness system.
The mundane power of paperwork: a missed opportunity to empower
However, this research looked beyond the headline figures to consider the sizeable new bureaucracy created to underpin these new rights. In this research we found that one of the biggest challenges for people navigating the homelessness system was the paperwork required. Systems based on law and rights are inevitably heavily reliant on paperwork, although the creation of new homelessness rights in Wales has multiplied significantly the amount of paperwork and the extent of bureaucratic systems. Key informants stated that this was an unforeseen consequence of the creation of the new rights to prevention.
Moreover, participants who had been through the homelessness system found the language used throughout their cases problematic. Many of the homeless participants did not fully understand the rights they were granted and in part this was attributed to the impregnable legal bureaucratic language. The wording used in official documentation was a key tension drawn out of this research, as legal language and paperwork are necessary for a system of rights. Without the legal systems in place many of those who had their homelessness prevented would not have received support. As Mackie et al. (2017) note, the new rights created in Wales are largely effective. Nevertheless, a paradox emerges as these very systems can be highly exclusionary.
This research also found that people felt helpless as they moved through the homelessness system. In part this was due to their lack of ability to comprehend the homelessness process and partly due to a lack of contact from the local authority . People felt less able to take control of their situation as they were unaware of how the system worked and what the obscure technical language meant for them. Participants felt as though they had no control over their own housing situation, that it was taken out of their hands. This was often attributed to a lack of contact from their case worker.
Far from a bureaucracy: on the importance of street-level bureaucrats
However, these feelings of helplessness and exclusion were easily mitigated, for some interviewees, by reports of excellent key working. The impact of a personal key worker who updated people on their homelessness case on a regular basis made a large difference. Respondents stated that when they were talked through the paperwork associated with their homelessness case this allowed them to engage with the process. This research suggests that frontline workers are fundamental actors in their abilities to negotiate the complex bureaucracy created by the new homelessness system in Wales.
The Welsh homelessness system is underpinned by a strong bureaucracy and this research has drawn out the benefits and pitfalls of this. Overall, the practices seemed to safeguard the rights of homelessness applicants. However, this research calls for greater attention to the very practices created by a rights based homelessness system, particularly when considering the bureaucratic systems and use of language that are integral to rights based homelessness system.
 StatsWales (2018) Homelessness statistic. Available at: https://statswales.gov.wales/Catalogue/Housing/Homelessness [Accessed: 11 September 2018]
 Mackie, P. K., Thomas, I. and Bibbings, J (2017) ‘Homelessness prevention: reflecting on a year of pioneering Welsh legislation in practice’, European Journal of Homelessness, 11:1, 81-107.