The hidden issue of temporary workers at risk of homelessness has been revealed in new research by leading homelessness charity St Mungo’s.

Today (30 Sept) St Mungo’s has published a report entitled “Tackling transient work and homelessness” which examines the link between those in temporary employment and homelessness. The research was supported and funded by the Wates Family Enterprise Trust (WFET).

The term ‘transient work’ covers employment that is typically not secure, including zero-hour contracts, agency and gig-economy work, as well as self-employment and temporary employment, which is often away from an individual’s usual base.

One of the report’s seven recommendations is that the increase in Universal Credit should be made permanent; a call being echoed by a group of 50 other organisations which is warning that millions of the UK’s poorest households could see their incomes cut by £20 a week from April unless the “lifeline” payment continues.

The 15-month study was conducted by former or current St Mungo’s clients, all of whom have experienced homelessness themselves. They were trained through a new Open College Network Peer Research programme delivered at the charity’s Recovery College and overseen by St Mungo’s Senior Research Officer Dr Hayley Peacock.

The 12 peer researchers helped co-produce the research including designing research materials, conducting interviews, sampling, analysis and contributing to the final report.

The study ran from August 2019 to July 2020 and gathered evidence from 172 people through focus groups, semi-structured interviews and a survey which was undertaken after lockdown and specifically focused on the effect of COVID-19.

Those who shared their experiences mainly worked in three key employment sectors: construction, hospitality and care.

The research found that among the transient workers interviewed:

Between June and July 2020, the team surveyed people in transient work to find out how COVID-19 has affected their housing security. The results showed, of those surveyed:

The report makes seven policy recommendations:

The researchers heard compelling stories of people experiencing serious financial hardship, having to work extremely long hours for pay that barely sustained housing plus travel, with no stable accommodation leading to them falling in and out of rough sleeping, and making it even harder to hold down a steady job.

One man said:

On site, nobody shows any real emotions, you know. You’re all sat in the canteen, you’re having a laugh and a joke, you know. You could walk out of here and, you know, you could be sleeping in the car. It’s always very hard to tell because our environment is… you don’t show emotions when you’re talking to your friends or colleagues on site. You don’t give that information away, really.

Research participants also experienced problems with the benefit system and felt trapped in poor quality jobs.

A woman agency worker said:

I was paying two council taxes in one year.  One was a £100 [per month], one was £104.  The current one was £104 and they missed when I wasn’t working, because you know when you’re not working you don’t pay your council tax, and then they kept sending these letters.  They turned around and said, ‘You owe us £2,000 to £3,000 in council tax.’  So, since I started working, that’s when the pressure came.

Steve Douglas CBE, Chief Executive of St Mungo’s, said:

This report shows a harrowing but not unsurprising picture of people hanging on by their fingertips, wanting to work and doing extremely long hours but for wages that sometimes barely cover the cost of the travel, never mind housing. For these people the system does not work and it is clear, that for many, homelessness is a real and immediate threat.

We often hear an average person is three pay cheques pay away from losing their homes – well, our research reveals there are some people already homeless despite working. The stress caused by such a precarious situation was evident from those who generously took part in our research. And we know this can easily be a hidden issue with those experiencing difficulties reluctant to disclose their situation for fear of discrimination or stigmatisation. Thanks go to our researchers who were able to sensitively undertake this important research.

“Employers have recognised some of these issues, which is encouraging. The pandemic and its impact is likely to increase this group of people who are vulnerable to homelessness. There is an urgent need for more awareness, understanding and action and the Department of Work and Pensions has an important role to play in developing longer term solutions to prevent future homelessness.”

Tim Wates, Trustee of the Wates Family Enterprise Trust and Wates Group Director, said:

Through the work of the Wates Family Enterprise Trust we are seeking to create insight into housing issues, influence policy and help further best practice. Housing is a huge and complex issue for the UK with no silver bullet available to resolve it. However the work that we support, combined with many similar initiatives, can help to move things forward.

Our work with St Mungo’s is a great example of this. After discussions with their excellent team, we felt further research into people in a precarious housing position – the ‘nearly homeless’ – might provide insight that would enable us to educate society on what is happening, help with the development of good practice, and positively influence Government policy around homelessness.

The full St Mungo’s report Tackling transient work and homelessness can be accessed here.