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Title: The impact of legal rights to housing for homeless people : a normative comparison of Scotland and Ireland
Author: Watts, E. E.
ISNI:       0000 0004 2744 0575
Awarding Body: University of York
Current Institution: University of York
Date of Award: 2013
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Taking as its starting point persistent debates about the appropriate balance between rights and discretion in the design and delivery of welfare policies, this thesis seeks to illuminate the contribution ‘rights-based approaches’ can make in responding to homelessness. It aims to bring conceptual clarity and empirical evidence to bear on the growing European and wider international focus on ‘rights-based approaches to homelessness’. Integrating classic debates in moral philosophy regarding the nature and status of rights with contemporary ideas about rights in social policy, the thesis distinguishes between various understandings of ‘rights’. Whereas deontological perspectives see rights as moral statements about human beings, consequentialist perspectives direct attention to the efficacy of legal or ‘black letter’ rights as a policy tool for achieving better outcomes for those in housing need. Focusing on legal rights to housing for homeless households, the thesis asks whether policy approaches founded on such rights deliver what we expect them to in practice. Specifically, it considers the impact of rights-based compared with non-rights based approaches, across four dimensions: meeting housing needs; juridification; minimising the stigma of homelessness; and empowering homeless households. A qualitative comparative study of homelessness policy in Scotland and Ireland forms the empirical core of the thesis. Scotland has attracted international recognition, having developed a strong legal safety net for homeless households, which in effect gives the vast majority of homeless households an individually enforceable legal right to settled housing. In Ireland, homelessness policy has also become a focal point for reform, but a rights-based approach has been rejected in favour of a ‘social partnership’ model, relying on a ‘problem solving approach’ among key stakeholders to build consensus and ‘ratchet up’ standards. The study involved interviews with key national stakeholders in both jurisdictions, and two local case studies in Edinburgh and Dublin, through which the perspectives and experiences of service providers, key local stakeholders and single homeless men were explored. The findings of the study add empirical weight to the current orthodoxy that rights-based approaches offer progressive solutions to the needs of homeless households. The research points to two key mechanisms through which legal rights help secure positive outcomes for single homeless men. First, legal rights minimise provider discretion, ensuring a focus on meeting the needs of homeless single men and crowing out competing policy objectives. A wider set of goals – including considerations of desert, ‘housing readiness’, social mix and community reactions – influence service provision in Dublin. This led to inertia in the Irish system, stemming flow through temporary accommodation. The comparative success of the Scottish approach in meeting the needs of homeless people, however, has implications for the capacity of other (non-homeless) groups in housing need to access social housing. It is argued, based on the empirical findings of the research, and within a normative framework of value pluralism and ‘tragic-realism’, that the Scottish approach strikes a ‘less worse’ balance between competing objectives than Ireland’s social partnership approach. Support for the Scottish model remains closely tied, however, to the capacity of the statutory system to not entirely crowd out the needs of other non-homeless households. Scotland’s approach remains vulnerable to the criticism that it sharpens perverse incentives for people to manufacture homelessness in order to gain priority in the allocation of social housing. Such a perverse incentive is, however, inherent to any approach to homelessness that prioritises homeless people in social housing allocations, and is present - albeit substantially dulled - in Ireland. This ‘moral hazard’ then, needs to be understood in the context of the choice stakeholders face between homelessness policies that prioritise need and create moral hazard, and approaches that do neither. Legal rights-based approaches also help secure better outcomes for homeless men through a second mechanism, namely their psycho-social impacts and their effect on discourses on homelessness. The framework of legal rights in Scotland helps construct those who are homeless as ‘entitled rights-holders’, supporting structural understandings of the causes of homelessness. In Ireland, homeless men were instead cast as ‘grateful supplicants’ and explanations of homelessness tended to emphasize personal responsibility and individual pathology. On this basis, it is argued that legal rights both minimise stigma and ‘empower’ homeless people, encouraging a more demanding and assertive set of attitudes, dispositions and expectations among homeless men that help maintain standards of service. According to this analysis, the capacity of legal rights to secure better outcomes does not rely primarily on the pursuit of legal challenges, but on the more subtle impacts of a rights-based policy framework. Integrating the key normative and empirical findings of the research, the thesis concludes by making three substantive ethical arguments concerning the design of homelessness policy. First, it is argued that in the case of homelessness, legitimate considerations about desert and deservingness in the allocation of social resources ought to be suspended. This argument rests on the empirical insight that Ireland’s ‘desert-sensitive’ approach appears to foster a set of dispositions among homeless men that stifle their progress out of homelessness, and on a normative perspective that seeks to suspend desert in the allocation of social goods that are deemed to be necessities for a ‘well-lived life’. Second, and by extension, it is argued that discretion in the delivery of homelessness policies ought to be minimised. In Ireland, providers’ over-riding discretion - and resulting attempt to balance various objectives, including ‘desert-sensitivity’ - places substantial hurdles in the path of homeless men seeking to access settled housing. The boundaries legal rights cast around provider discretion ‘empower’ homeless men in their interactions with providers, helping maintain a more purely needs-focused response to homelessness. Third and finally, it is argued that homelessness policies that bolster a sense of entitlement among those who are homeless – and recognition among others that this sense of entitlement is legitimate - are desirable. Such a sense of entitlement appears to form part of a wider ‘virtuous circle’ achieved by Scotland’s rights-based approach, which helps maintain pressure for – and achieve - positive outcomes for homeless men.
Supervisor: Fitzpatrick, S. ; Hudson, J. Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available