Knowing the full story about homelessness - Ewan Aitken

As human beings, we are more likely to give to a charity, support a cause or lend a hand to a neighbour if we know the full story.
There are strong links between poverty and children not being able to engage in educationThere are strong links between poverty and children not being able to engage in education
There are strong links between poverty and children not being able to engage in education

We need to understand why a situation has turned out the way it has to be able to identify with the reasons behind a person’s choices. We are naturally disposed to find comfort and understanding in a beginning, a middle and an end.

I was reminded of that this month, when reading the Scottish Government’s school attendance and absentee statistics, which found that 31 per cent of students were “persistently absent” from classes.

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There are many ways to look at this figure, which is a shocking one. To truly understand what is causing Scotland’s children and young people to skip school, we have to look closer at the environments they are being born into and how the beginnings of their lives are having a knock-on effect on the next chapter.

The same month, the Scottish Government report on poverty and income inequality was published, finding that 24 per cent of children were living in relative poverty after housing costs in 2020-23. In real terms, this is thousands of children living on the breadline, their families only just being able to cover the basics and no more. This may mean that they are living without adequate nutrition or a feeling of safety within their home, that is so important for children.

It has long been established that this kind of socioeconomic inequality has a negative effect on school attendance. In Sarah Johnsen and Janice Blenkinsopp’s Hard Edges report, which studied the lives of women who had experienced multiple disadvantage, disruptive behaviour at school and problematic use of alcohol was often evident by age 13. Examining these three reports side by side, it is easy to see the pattern – when so many children in Scotland are being born into poverty, we cannot be surprised that a similar number are not engaging in education.

So how does this end? Leading researchers, Susanne Fitzpatrick and Glen Bramley, have demonstrated that child poverty is the most powerful predictor of homelessness in young adulthood. The same cohort of children being born into poverty, are leaving school without a good education and ending up without a home.

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These statistics tell a story, not about the failure of an individual, but about the high probability of poor outcomes when people are born with the odds stacked against them. To disrupt this narrative arc, we must join the dots between environments and behaviours and take preventative action.

In my role as the chief executive of a homelessness prevention charity, I meet service users who are at every stage of this journey. We work with families living in temporary accommodation without adequate facilities to make a meal, young people disengaging with school and adults building up their lives after a period of homelessness.

These interventions help support people into a life that they have agency over. We all have the ability to write our own story, but it requires support and understanding from our wider community, about where we are coming from and where we want to go next.

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians