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Literacy in the homelessness sector: patchy, underfunded – but crucial

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

A small but growing evidence base suggests that many homeless people have poor literacy skills, and are often excluded from opportunities to improve them. Exclusion from formal adult education and a preference to engage with non-governmental, charitable organisations can mean that the support homeless people are able to access depends on what these services are able to offer. However, little is known about what this looks like in practice, nor the factors shaping it.

Drawing on interviews with 27 practitioners from across Greater Manchester’s homelessness sector, my doctoral research shone a light on this neglected source of support for homeless learners.

Literacy in the homelessness sector

Interviews revealed a range of different ways the third sector supports homeless people with literacy. Mostly, support appeared to be designed to temporarily compensate for, rather than address in any sustained way, any skills weaknesses that people experienced. This typically involved doing things ‘for’ people rather than helping them to cope with everyday tasks independently. Providing assistance to read and understand official forms relating to welfare benefits and services was a common activity, as one service commented:

‘We aren’t doing a huge amount about that, having basic skills courses… a lot of the support work that will be done will be by people who will work with people to actually do forms.’

Whilst less common, interviewees also described a range of support provided to help homeless people to develop and improve their literacy skills. This included reading groups, creative writing activities, one-to-one support, literacy and numeracy courses, and embedded learning (or ‘learning on the job’).

Crucially, being supported to learn and develop their skills within a ‘familiar’, ‘comfortable’, ‘trusted’, and ‘safe’ environment was a key reason why practitioners felt such support should be offered in these specialist settings.

‘People tell us that they don’t feel judged here… they feel valued and respected…that’s what we want to do. Because some people don’t feel that anywhere else.’

A patchwork of underfunded provision

Whilst in a small number of instances literacy support formed a regular part of the service offer, most learning opportunities were short-term and ad hoc and skills provision was in large part dependent on accessing adequate funding. Most organisations were not receiving any government employment or skills funding, and accessing funding which recognised the challenges of working with this ‘client group’ was particularly difficult:

‘If we go to a hostel and two people show up, and the funding that we’ve used for that is based on a guided learning hour calculation… it’s not sustainable for us. So we need to find funding that recognises how much it costs to do that well and that’s a real struggle.’

Within a wider context of austerity, most organisations had experienced drastic funding cuts, which had taken their toll on the range of services they were able to provide (including educational activities). Practitioners were pessimistic about the prospect of obtaining government funding to support literacy learning within their settings in the future.

As such, provision was often dependent on what staff and volunteers were able to support themselves, which some felt could compromise the quality and effectiveness of support offered. On the whole, staff felt that they had neither the time nor the technical capacity to facilitate learning opportunities for homeless people:

‘I don’t have the knowledge base to teach, so people aren’t getting what they need.’

Why is Literacy 100 so important?

In my thesis I outlined several recommendations for government, the adult education sector and the homelessness sector. I argued that without recognition by policymakers and the requisite financial investment, the extent to which homelessness organisations will ever be able to offer high quality literacy support will remain limited. However, educators are not powerless and play a crucial role, albeit often against the odds and with limited support. Within this context, for the homelessness sector I recommended exploring opportunities for collaboration between different organisations, and suggested that an online ‘community of practice’ be created for those engaged in literacy support for homeless adults. So I am delighted that Literacy 100 has come together to provide a good practice forum for practitioners supporting homeless literacy learners. This initiative has the potential to strengthen the capacity of the homelessness sector in this field, and I look forward to seeing this movement grow.


Dr Katy Jones, Senior Research Associate at Manchester Metropolitan University. Email: katy.jones@mmu.ac.uk Twitter: @Dr_Katyjones

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