Reducing heat and shedding light in debates about homelessness and ‘social control’

In this blog, Sarah Johnsen, Suzanne Fitzpatrick and Beth Watts provide a framework offering potential to bring greater clarity and calm to extremely sensitive debates surrounding the use of ‘social control’ in responses to homelessness.

Dr Sarah Johnsen
Prof. Sarah Johnsen

Bournemouth’s response to street homelessness has made national headlines. Again. In 2015 the Council was castigated for playing Alvin and the Chipmunks music loudly overnight to deter rough sleepers from bedding down in the coach station. Last week it was branded ‘inhumane’ after retro-fitting metal bars on public benches to prevent homeless people lying on them.  More than 17,000 people have signed a petition calling for their removal. Similar reactions have been elicited elsewhere, where so-called ‘anti-homeless spikes’ have been installed to stop homeless people bedding down in city centre locations.

In many urban centres, in England much more so than elsewhere in the UK, so-called ‘hostile architecture’ has been accompanied by the use of legal measures that can result in fines or imprisonment. Key examples used to combat rough sleeping, begging and/or street drinking include, amongst others: arrests under the Vagrancy Act 1824, Criminal Behaviour Orders (or their predecessor the Anti-Social Behaviour Order), Designated Public Places Orders, Dispersal Orders, and Public Spaces Protection Orders.

Prof. Suzanne Fitzpatrick

All such interventions have caused controversy, and debate about their ethical legitimacy or otherwise is often very heated given the vulnerability of the individuals affected and strength of feeling on different sides of the table. Such debates are echoed in most countries of the Global North, with the use of enforcement measures elsewhere courting severe criticism from international campaigning bodies such as FEANTSA (Europe) and the National Law Centre on Homelessness and Poverty (United States), for example.

Many of the key terms employed  in these international debates – such as ‘criminalisation’, ‘penalisation’, ‘coercion’ and ‘control’ – are imprecisely defined and often used interchangeably to refer to a broad range of activities and policies, with the result that the specific character of the relevant incentives, sanctions or other techniques are rarely fully, or fairly, elucidated. Furthermore, the partisan style of discourse typically employed, with its abundant pejorative overtones, makes it difficult to critically assess the aims, impact and legitimacy (or otherwise) of such initiatives.

For this reason, we argue in a paper recently published in Housing Studies, that calmer and more constructive dialogue might be possible in place of these highly charged debates if we can be much clearer about the structure and nature of different responses to rough sleeping.

Dr. Beth Watts, Senior Research Fellow

paper distinguishes between five different ‘modes of social control’ evident in responses to homelessness – four of which are united by an explicit aim to steer the behaviour of targeted individuals and the fifth of which rejects such an objective:

  • force – the removal of the possibility of non-compliance (e.g. arrest or imprisonment);
  • coercion – the threat of deprivation (e.g. denial of support for non-compliance with a ‘single service offer’);
  • bargaining – use or promise of an exchange of gains or losses (e.g. offer of a personalised budget);
  • influence – use of persuasion or ‘nudge’ mechanisms to shape beliefs and behaviours (e.g. assertive outreach); and
  • tolerance – no active/deliberate attempt to promote behaviour change (e.g. low threshold night shelters or soup kitchens).


In reflecting on strategies employed to combat homelessness in England over the years, we show that some interventions exhibit characteristics of more than one of these broad categorisations. The ‘RS205’ initiative developed in London in 2009 for example – so-called because it targeted the 205 (known) most ‘difficult to reach’ rough sleepers in the capital – included elements of persuasion (assertive outreach), bargaining (personalised budgets) and, if/when these techniques did not elicit the desired response, force (arrest or ASBO).

Similarly, whilst still relatively few in number in the UK, Housing First pilots – which provide rapid access to independent housing with wraparound support to homeless people with complex needs – arguably represent a meld of: persuasion, wherein staff proactively motivate clients to progress through the stages of recovery from addiction; bargaining, this being the ‘immediate’ offer of an independent tenancy direct from the street thereby negating the need for a prolonged hostel stay; and tolerance, that is, provision of long-term support which is not conditional on engagement with treatment plans.

Drawing upon interviews with national-level stakeholders, frontline practitioners and homeless people in England, the paper illustrates the complexity of views regarding the ethical legitimacy of the use of different forms of social control. It notes that, perhaps counter-intuitively, the use of force (the strongest form of social control) is in many instances considered acceptable by both service providers and homeless people themselves, especially if/when street lifestyles are visiting demonstrable harm on other people.

Interventions that might be defined as coercive (in the technical rather than pejorative sense of the term) such as ‘single service offers’ on the other hand, though representing an ostensibly ‘weaker’ form of social control given the absence of actual physical restraint, provide a more consistently anxious response given the potential of restricting access to support to already highly vulnerable non-compliers.

The use of bargaining techniques, such as personalised budgets with the most so-called ‘service resistant’ rough sleepers, have for the most part been welcomed by service providers, but for some raise questions of fairness and the risk of perverse incentives given that the ‘offer’ for this group is much better than is true for other homeless people.

The deployment of influence is less contentious than forceful or coercive interventions, but persuasive techniques such as assertive outreach are not viewed as risk-free given the potential to alienate some homeless people who may feel overly pressured and resolve to ‘dig their heels in’ yet further.  Nudge techniques such as the use of some forms of defensive architecture to dissuade homeless people from (but not completely remove the possibility of) bedding down are controversial – mainly on ‘who benefits?’ grounds – but provoke less ire among those who have experienced homelessness themselves than media coverage on this specific issue would often indicate.

Finally, tolerant approaches, which at first glance may appear comparatively benign, are themselves far from uncontroversial, given long-standing concerns that they can encourage street lifestyles and undermine efforts to end homelessness.

Indeed, it seems that deployment of every one of these modes of social control, and indeed the absence of such controls, raise important moral and practical dilemmas. We would argue that these subtleties and realities should be given much greater consideration in academic and policy discourse than they typically are.

Doing so reduces the very real risk of stakeholders ‘talking past’ one another in a debate that is prone to both conceptual conflation and emotive obfuscation. Consideration of these issues should not only shed light on but also reduce the heat of debate within this field, thereby facilitating more constructive conversations about responses to rough sleeping going forward.


The Open Access paper entitled ‘Homelessness and social control: a typology’ was recently published in Housing Studies and can be downloaded here.

Cover image courtesy of DocteurCosmos