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Without Shelter: Estimating Rooflessness in Scotland - Research Findings

DescriptionThis research attempted to use contact-recontact methods to provide better information about roofless people in Scotland.
Official Print Publication Date
Website Publication DateDecember 29, 1998
Development Department Research Programme Research Findings No. 28(1996)
Without Shelter: Estimating Rooflessness in Scotland

Ian Shaw, Michael Bloor, Stephen Roberts
School of Social and Administrative Studies
University of Wales Cardiff

ISBN 0-7480-5918-0Publisher The Scottish OfficePrice £5.00
Estimating the scale and nature of rooflessness has frequently proved to be a methodologically intractable problem. This research, jointly funded by The Scottish Office and Scottish Homes, and with the aid of a grant from the European Commission, attempted to use contact-recontact methods to provide better information about roofless people in Scotland. The study was not successful in its main objective, but has provided useful information both about the methodology and about the roofless people contacted in the course of the research.
Although detailed information is available about people who apply to local authorities as homeless under the homeless persons legislation, very little is known about the smaller group who are roofless at some point. Previous attempts to count and characterise this group have proved unsatisfactory. Consequently The Scottish Office, together with Scottish Homes, commissioned Dr Michael Bloor and Dr Ian Shaw, of the University of Wales Cardiff to carry out research, using "contact-recontact" methods, to provide estimates of the number and characteristics of people who had been roofless in Scotland over the study period.
Methodology and objectives
Typically, the difficulty about counting roofless people is that some people may be counted more than once, while other people who may have no contact with agencies are not counted at all. In an attempt to overcome this difficulty, the study used contact-recontact (also known as mark-recapture) methods as a basis for a model which could allow the size of the whole population to be estimated from a partial sample. The method as used in this study depends on identifying repeat contacts, or overlaps, with different agencies by individuals. The resulting model is intended to allow the numbers who have not been in contact with agencies to be estimated. Similar techniques have been widely used with both human and animal populations, where it is difficult to carry out a direct count of the whole population of interest.
This research was carried out in a sample of authorities, including the 4 cities, with the assistance of a range of statutory and voluntary agencies. The researchers developed a questionnaire to screen individuals to ensure that consistent definitions were applied across the agencies. Participating agencies asked their clients over a 6 month period to provide a limited amount of information about themselves such as age, gender and birthplace; and their housing situation. This was recorded either by the client or by the agency on the questionnaire. In order to allow repeat contacts to be identified without compromising confidentiality, respondents were also asked to provide limited identification (such as initials and date of birth).
The main objectives of the study were to estimate the number of people who had been roofless at some point over the six-month study period, and to describe their characteristics.
The research was carried out in 3 phases:

Phase 1 included the selection of areas, initial contact with agencies, development and validation of a screening questionnaire, and consultation with European experts on the feasibility of common approaches to estimation of rooflessness in European countries.

Phase 2 was the main fieldwork phase which took place in the second half of 1995.

Phase 3 included the collection of supplementary information, analysis and report writing.

Number of people experiencing rooflessness
The very small number of overlaps obtained between agencies meant that a statistically valid estimate of the number of roofless people could not be produced. However, in the course of fieldwork, 448 people were identified who had been roofless at some point in the previous 6 months. This is not an estimate of the total number of roofless - it represents only those who were identified in the sample of agencies in the study districts and people who did not contact any agency were excluded.
Characteristics of roofless respondents
Information about the characteristics of people roofless over the period is limited to the 448 roofless respondents. The results quoted below relate only to these respondents and cannot be assumed to be true of all people who were roofless at some point over the period.
  • Eighty-six per cent of respondents were male. Forty per cent were aged 25 or less, and seven per cent were under 18.
  • Almost three quarters (73 per cent) were single. A fifth (19 per cent) were separated, widowed or divorced.
  • The vast majority of respondents in the 4 cities had been born in the same city.
  • The most common locations for sleeping rough were on the street (42 per cent), in a stairwell (11 per cent), in a park (8 per cent), and in a car (6 per cent) or a building or caravan with no services (6 per cent).
  • Over the previous 6 months, 78 per cent had been roofless for at least 8 nights, 57 per cent for at least 30 nights.
  • Thirty-seven per cent of the roofless respondents had stayed 10 or more times in insecure accommodation in the previous 6 months.
Methodological issues
Contact-recontact techniques have previously been used in estimating groups of people who are difficult to reach by conventional means, including people sleeping rough.
An agreed operational definition of rooflessness is essential for a consistent approach across agencies, and such a definition was successfully developed and implemented.
Despite the large number of agencies who agreed to participate in the research, the data collected were not adequate to allow reliable estimates to be made. A number of possible reasons were identified, including:
  • difficulties experienced by some agencies in devoting continuing resources to the research (partly because of the length of the fieldwork period)
  • refusal of some potential respondents to participate
  • agencies' anxieties about issues of ethics and confidentiality
  • time sampling of agency participation, which was essential for agencies with large caseloads, reduced the efficiency of the method
  • additional problems raised by using contact-recontact methods to estimate national rather than local populations.
As a result of the limitations of the data, the researchers felt unable to present figures for the prevalence of rooflessness in Scotland. However, a detailed example of the operation of the contact-recontact method is given in an Annex to the main report.
Although considerable difficulties were experienced in applying the contact-recontact method, the researchers conclude that the method is not necessarily unsuitable for estimates of roofless people. However, the research has suggested a number of lessons for research design:
  • Maximising response from individuals in the sample is critical to the success of the method, as low response rates dramatically reduce overlaps.
  • It is essential to use a properly designed and validated measure to ensure that consistent definitions are applied across the full range of participating agencies. The researchers successfully developed and implemented such a measure.
  • The researchers' experience of using paid interviewers for part of the data collection suggests that centrally managed and resourced fieldwork may improve the level of response.
  • The report considers the relationship between rooflessness estimates in one area and more generally available information on homelessness in other areas. The conclusion is that such relationships may provide the basis for rooflessness estimates in districts where contact-recontact methods may not be feasible.
  • The fieldwork should consist of short discrete time periods.
  • Small local populations, particularly sparse populations, are an unsuitable unit for study using this method.
  • The issue of agencies operating in the same district but covering different geographical areas needs to be addressed.
  • It is essential to take full account of the statistical issues of independence and sample homogeneity.
This Research Findings summarises "Without Shelter: Estimating Rooflessness in Scotland" which is available priced £5.00.
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