Social work, social inclusion and values-based practice

Where is social work in homelessness in the UK?

It is sometimes assumed that when we talk of a 'psychologically informed' environment, we have in mind services and environments that draw their inspiration from (and so are 'informed' by) academic or clinical psychology. This is an understandable mistake, but a mistake all the same.

One of the surprise discoveries from the PIElink editor's field trip to the US in Spring 2016 was that the profession most involved in managing homelessness support services and outreach in the US seemed to be not psychologists, but social workers.

This is not the case in the UK, where 'social care' client groups have been defined more narrowly, in terms of disability, illness or childcare. Being homeless is NOT seen as grounds in itself for social work assistance, in the absence of some other factor that confers eligibility, in the UK. In this, it seems that the UK that is out of step with the rest of the world.

Instead, much of the creative practice in homelessness arose quite spontaneously, under the Supporting People programme; and this has had both advantages and disadvantages. (HERE).  But another significant impetus for the re-thinking of the role of homelessness in the UK came about through another government initiative, the social inclusion programme.

It was one of the particular areas, the National Social Inclusion Programme for mental health, that brought mental health and social housing closely together, at least at policy level; and this eventually gave rise to the 'guidance on meeting the psychological and emotional needs of people who are homelessness' (sic), which brought the phrase 'a psychologically informed environment' to a wider audeince.

Yet as this social inclusion work was supposed, almost by definition, to be a cross-platform effort involving all government departments, it did little to shift the separation of jurisdictions between housing-related support and social work.

Pros and cons

On the one hand, this has meant that much of the creativity in homelessness work evidence in the UK in recent years has been more led by an action learning culture free of centralised professional presuppositions about 'best practice', and so more 'needs-led'. Much of the development of homelessness and comparable project in the UK were under the banner of social inclusion - and even the 'social model of disability - but not of social work.

On the other hand, it has meant that there has been little equivalent to the work of individuals such as Jay Levy, who, in his writings on the 'pre-treatment' approach, has analysed and articulated the work of homelessness services there in terms derived from a blend of social theory and research - and with the immediacy of active engagement.

Instead, the theorising on PIEs in the UK has often been led by psychologists; and whist there are now many psychologists very actively involved and 'embedded' in homelessness services in the UK, this has sometimes led to the belief that psychologists are the experts here, the ones who 'do the informing' in a PIE.

This was one of the reasons that the revised version of the core elements of a PIE has proposed that instead of PIEs 1's 'a psychological model', we take 'psychological awareness' as the essential feature. In this formulations, we reserve the term 'psychological model' for those concepts derived specifically from research psychology (laboratory, clinical or community); and 'psychological approach' for ways of working with their origins in psychology, but which can be adopted by any service.

This also puts in a rather different light the values-based practice - person-centred, pragmatic, holistic and systemic - that characterises Housing First in the US (see: principles and pragmatism in Housing First and PIEs : HERE).

It is an issue that is explored, especially in the context of the new social psychiatry, in Red Herrings and Real Achievements, the concluding section of Robin Johnson's trilogy of monthly essays following that US field trip, which appears in Cross-cultural Dialogues on Homelessness, from Pre-treatment to Psychologically Informed environments (HERE).


Further background reading/listening/viewing

PIElink pages

Where did it all come from? : HERE

The lasting legacy of Supporting People : HERE

What psychology? :  HERE

Pretreatment : HERE

Psychological awareness : HERE

The ethics and politics of PIEs :  HERE

American PIE? : HERE

Principles and pragmatism in Housing First and PIEs : HERE


Library items

Psychologically Informed Principles in Residential Care : HERE

Reaching Out (SEU Report, 2004) : HERE

Does it take a psychologist to make a PIE? : HERE

Three models of the causes of homelessness  : HERE

Red Herrings and Real Achievements : HERE