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Two pay cheques away?

November 01 2019
Wake up: People sleeping rough are vulnerable to horrific abuse such as being urinated on by strangers ©Streets Kitchen Wake up: People sleeping rough are vulnerable to horrific abuse such as being urinated on by strangers ©Streets Kitchen

Being a couple of pay cheques from the street isn’t true for those with caring family or friends who can provide support. It’s telling us something different, says Simone Helleren, the need to destigmatise needing help.

It is sometimes argued that “we are all two pay cheques away from homelessness”. This counters the idea that people are either personally responsible for their homelessness or particularly vulnerable: sinful or sick (Gowan, 2010) mad, bad or sad (Seal, 2005). Stigma plays more than a bit-part in complex stories that land people in homelessness. Perniciously, stigma helps to keep people homeless and keep the strategies we use to help fragmented, precariously funded and underfunded.

The way we think and talk about homelessness is important. The two pay cheques thinking does attack part of the problem because it emboldens people experiencing homelessness to feel “it could happen to anyone, so there is nothing especially wrong with me”. It also stops some people from pissing on people sleeping rough because “it could be me”. And it ignites a giving spirit in individuals and philanthropists who donate time and money more willingly to the deserving poor.

There is a danger that two pay cheques thinking will deprioritise some social issues that DO create homelessness, and don't impact on us all equally, like inequality and poverty. I think I first heard the phrase “two pay cheques” around 2011. This may not be a coincidence as there is no doubt that since 2010 the pile-on of austerity, welfare reform, volatile employment conditions, such as zero-hour contracts, and a failing housing market has pushed many more people into a precarious position where homelessness is more likely than it was before.

But two pay cheques thinking has more in common with antistigmatising campaigns in mental health than anti-austerity campaigns. As Will Davies argues the “idea that one is simply ‘unwell’” might provide comfort “to people wrestling with their own depression or anxiety”, but it simultaneously veils “more fundamental cultural, political and economic questions regarding the distribution of distress in our society” (Davies in Tyler & Slater 2018).

So, are we all two pay cheques away from homelessness? Not according to the findings of Bramley and Fitzpatrick. They propose that “homelessness is not randomly distributed across the population”. The odds of it occurring are to do with “individual, social and structural factors [eg, poverty], most of which are outside the control” of individuals. The authors explain that people who experience these factors and do not go on to become homeless are buffered by a range of protective factors including having a partner and being able to stay in the family home as a young adult. What’s clear is that some of us already have help in our lives.

We are all dependent and vulnerable (owing to having a physical body), but society has made not having back-up help shameful. There is this thinking that people doing well get there and stay there just because they work hard and they’re good. They might be, but they too depend on and get help. We were all babies once that needed our arses wiped and in time, we will all be old or sick and will again need our arses wiped.

The ability to help (not just wiping arses) and care is golden. But because needing this sort of care is laced with stigma, the work is poorly paid and insecure instead of guaranteeing a living wage, good employment conditions and professional esteem. What’s needed are universal programmes to address income inequality, increase meaningful secure employment opportunities and provide decent affordable housing. That’s why it’s time to challenge the idea that we’re all two pay cheques from homelessness.


Bramley, G and Fitzpatrick, S (2017) Homelessness in the UK: who is most at risk? Housing Studies, 33 (1) pp.96-116

Gowan, T (2010) Hobos, Hustlers and Backsliders: Homelessness in San Francisco. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 

Seal, M. (2005) Resettling Homeless People. Lyme Regis: Russell House.

Tyler and Slater (2018) Rethinking the Sociology of Stigma. The Sociological Review. 66 (4) pp. 721-743