Addressing homelessness in social work education

Carolin HessCarolin Hess is a PhD student in the NIHR Policy Research Unit in Health and Social Care Workforce who has been awarded Doctoral funding from the NIHR School for Social Care Research. She reports from a recent webinar, the latest in the Unit’s Homelessness series. (920 words)

The webinar, attended by over 200 people, presented emerging findings from an innovative study ‘Addressing Homelessness in Social Work Education’, conducted by Jess Harris and Karl Mason and funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) School for Social Care Research (SSCR).

The study delved deeper into an aspect of a previous study on Safeguarding responses to homelessness and self-neglect, which examined why social workers, including those in safeguarding roles, may be inadequately prepared for working with people experiencing homelessness. The study is also connected to a previous webinar on a study on the ‘Homelessness Social Worker Role’ which explored the experiences and support needs of specialist homelessness social workers, as well as the systemic barriers they face. This earlier webinar revealed that many social workers reported limited exposure to homelessness-related topics during their qualifying courses and uncertainty about their role in this area.

Karl shared findings derived from their call for evidence from education providers regarding the inclusion of homelessness in the social work curriculum, and insights obtained through interviews with students, course leads and placement providers. While homelessness historically has been considered a less prominent aspect of social worker’s role outside of specialist services, recent factors like austerity measures, a housing crisis and lack of specialist provision has contributed to a broader range of care and support needs among people who are experiencing homelessness.

While a key message of the presentation was that homelessness should no longer be viewed as ‘niche’, the findings revealed that it still receives limited coverage in social work education, mostly due to an already packed curriculum, lack of teaching expertise or materials, and barriers to offering placements in homelessness organisations. While the presentation provided examples of good practice, it also highlighted that many students feel ill-informed about homelessness-related definitions, legislation, and felt an expectation of completing statutory rather than non-statutory placements to meet the profession’s expectations and their own career options.

Given the prevalence of housing insecurity in various social work specialisms such as child and family welfare, disability, and mental health, there is a pressing need to integrate homelessness topics into the social work curriculum. This sentiment was echoed by the interviewed students, who hoped that social work education would incorporate a wider field of practice into their curriculum. Students who completed a placement in the homelessness sector reported positive experiences and that, while sometimes stressful and challenging, the experience helped them to recognise biases and assumptions, learn about complex policies and gain insights into the difficulties faced by people experiencing homelessness and co-morbidities.

Invited discussants shared their responses to the emerging findings. Steph Grant, a Traumatic Brain Injury Survivor leading a research group on brain injury and homelessness, highlighted the impact of early brain injuries on the multiple exclusions and co-morbidities, and the need for students to look beyond “why people are on the streets”. Harrshita Murarka, a newly qualified social worker, who completed her second placement in a homelessness setting, emphasised that it had deepened her understanding of homelessness and housing policies, which she continues to apply in her current role within children’s services. Ruth Allen, BASW, Rebecca Mulvaney, Social Work England, and Lyn Romeo, Chief Social Worker for Adults, all encouraged education providers to consider how they prepare future social work practitioners on this subject. They hoped that social work education could raise awareness of working with people facing multiple disadvantages and needs, and challenge the political context they are operating in, while acknowledging the limits of an already busy curriculum.

In the wider discussion that followed, participants shared their own experiences and reflections on the topic. They recognised a diversity of care needs among people who are homeless, many of whom have brain injuries, mental health problems, adverse childhood experiences and other forms of trauma. Many of these underlying conditions and experiences are not immediately apparent (‘hidden’) and are sometimes misinterpreted and dismissed as ‘lifestyle choices’. This may result in people experiencing multiple exclusion homelessness being overlooked in safeguarding assessments and risk management meetings. The consensus was that social work education can serve as an important platform to start the conversation and address some of the complexities of the current system. Widening the availability of student placements in homelessness settings has the potential to enable and sensitise students to become more aware of the various intersecting factors that people face and may equip them to provide more effective and coordinated support.

In times of limited public resources, it becomes more crucial for health, social care, housing and third sector service providers to work together and improve wrap-around support for people who are most excluded. The pandemic and current political developments have driven organisations to establish stronger connections and work together in providing support. This partnership-focused approach will be the central topic in the upcoming webinar investigating the wrap-around response to support individuals facing severe and multiple disadvantage in Nottingham.

Further discussions of strengthening the role of adult social care for people experiencing homelessness are already underway, with resources recently shared that aim to support Directors of Adult Social Services and their teams. Discussants also suggested a proposal for a homelessness Special Interest Group in social work.

As discussed in the previous webinar, social workers working in specialised homelessness roles frequently report feeling isolated, with a lack of peer support. To address this, Ellie Atkins, supported by HSCWRU, is in the process of establishing a “movement for change and peer support” and the first meeting of a national peer Network for social workers specialising in homelessness is scheduled for 4 October 2023. Please contact Ellie Atkins ( for details.

Carolin Hess is a PhD student at the NIHR Policy Research Unit in Health and Social Care Workforce, King’s College London.

Project page for this study.

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