Interview with Dr Simon Stewart

Dr Simon Stewart, Reader in Sociology and Director of the Centre for European and International Studies Research at University of Portsmouth, is the Principal Investigator on a new research project titled Homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic: homeless migrants in a global crisis,supported by the Democratic Citizenship research theme. Stewart has been awarded a £180,907.82 ESRC/UKRIgrant.This project, involving researchers from University of Portsmouth, University of Sussex and St Mungo’s, the homelessness charity, will produce an 18-month qualitative-based study of migrant homelessness during the coronavirus crisis, framed by the wider global and national context. 
  1. How did the idea for this project originate? And how did your collaboration with St Mungo’s and Uni of Sussex come about?

My approach to sociology often leads me to the edges of the discipline, to areas that sociology has a tendency to neglect. For example, my research interests include aesthetic value and how the evaluative judgements we make – aesthetic and ethical – play out in the moment and over time. These topics relate to broader metaphysical questions about value and meaning. For a long time I have been wanting to carry out sociological research on homelessness. I have always found it upsetting that homelessness exists in wealthy societies such as ours. Strangely, this topic is relatively underexplored in terms of its global dimensions. The ESRC/UKRI’s rapid-response call in relation to the COVID-19 crisis spurred me on to take this opportunity to launch a new project that explores homelessness during times of global crisis. People experiencing homelessness are disproportionately impacted by coronavirus. Government efforts have helped provide emergency accommodation for thousands of homeless people during the crisis, but concerns remain about how homeless migrants with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) can be supported in the longer-term. Many homeless migrants face multiple everyday challenges; they experience the hostility and aggression directed toward homeless people, compounded with often intense experiences of racism. Our project will examine how migrant homelessness is experienced during times of crisis and how homeless individuals experience and evaluate situations based on a complex mixture of factors including their habitus, wider social forces and the dynamics of a particular situation. While much of the research on homelessness is nationally specific, we will examine the crisis with a global perspective, one that identifies the complex global processes that underpin homelessness as well as the coronavirus. I am excited to have forged an excellent collaboration with colleagues at University of Sussex and St Mungo’s. When I contacted them, they did not need much persuasion to be involved because they both understand the significance of the topic. Professor Sally R. Munt was my PhD supervisor back in the early 2000s and she is now a great friend. She brings to the project expertise on different contemporary themes of ‘otherness’ and has considerable experience working with vulnerable groups. She has expertise in exclusion and its effects, social, emotional, and cultural. In 2014, she was PI for an AHRC project on British cultural values working with refugee women. Dr Hayley Peacock is our contact at St Mungo’s and is playing an integral role in the project. She holds a PhD in Geography (Queen Mary, University of London) and currently leads on a peer research project on transient work and insecure housing, training 12 peer researchers with lived experience of homelessness in social research skills and co-producing the research with them.  

2. Tell us more about the research that you will carry out over the next 18 months.

Working with St Mungo’s services, a particular focus of the study will be the experience of non-UK nationals and their attempts, during the crisis, to resolve their immigration status. Many of these migrants are at the sharpest end of homelessness. According to Jamie Carswell, co-chair of the London Housing Director’s Network, roughly 900 of the 3,600 rough sleepers who have been offered emergency accommodation in the capital during the crisis have NRPF.

The project will innovate by examining the biographical and life history narratives of St Mungo’s clients in relation to their experiences of homelessness during the coronavirus crisis. Alongside semi-structured interviews, we will use participatory research methods including peer research, autoethnographic diaries, mobile phone photo-ethnographies and life history narratives in order to capture the rich and emotive narratives of those experiencing crisis. In doing so, we will examine the intersection of personal histories, complex global processes and the dynamics of the particular situation. Researching vulnerable groups requires ethical sensitivity. It carries the danger of risking more disappointment among the respondents and exacerbating intense feelings of loneliness and isolation. Our team has considerable experience working with vulnerable groups and ensuring that ethical safeguards and confidentiality procedures are strictly followed. Professor Munt will lead on research ethics and will also be responsible for mental health issues arising. She has considerable experience in this field and is Clinical Director of Brighton Exiled/Refugee Trauma Service (BERTS).

3. Ultimately, how do you think this work can impact both policy and academic research?

We will make recommendations for measures that can be taken to better protect vulnerable individuals in the UK and elsewhere during future crises, including a potential surge in homelessness in the economic downturn that may follow. This project’s approach to impact is guided by a commitment to four key principles: First, we are applying a problem-based approach: the problem of homelessness in the context of a global crisis. Second, we are engaging stakeholders throughout the research process, including creating an Advisory Group of key stakeholders. Thanks to St Mungo’s reputation within the homelessness sector, they have been able to build trusted relationships with commissioners, local government and national government. The research will therefore have direct influencing opportunities and effect systemic change through policy-driven recommendations. Third, we will ensure the sustainability of our impact through ongoing dialogue with UK-based stakeholders in order to provide more effective responses to homelessness immediately after the current crisis, supporting the most vulnerable, and when future crises occur. Fourth, we will produce internationally significant outputs including articles in academic journals, flash findings through a research blog, and a report for public dissemination.

The main academic beneficiaries of this project will be leading researchers in the fields of sociology and cultural studies. However, the project’s focus on homeless migrants will ensure a wider academic interest in migration studies, cultural geography, development studies and social policy.