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Avoidance strategies: stress, appraisal and coping
in hostel accommodation
To cite this article: Lynne McMordie (2020): Avoidance strategies: stress, appraisal and coping in
hostel accommodation, Housing Studies, DOI: 10.1080/02673037.2020.1769036
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/02673037.2020.1769036
© 2020 The Author(s). Published by Informa
UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis
Published online: 23 Jun 2020.
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Avoidance strategies: stress, appraisal and coping in
Institute for Social Policy, Housing, and Equalities Research (I-SPHERE), School of Energy, Geoscience,
Infrastructure and Society, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, UK
Living in temporary accommodation (TA) can impact negatively
on social and emotional well-being, particularly where it is poor-
quality, large-scale, or congregate in nature. None-the-less, the
‘avoidance’of TA, where an individual will sleep rough or squat
when a bed space is available for their use, often provokes
puzzlement on the part of the public, service providers and policy
makers. Homeless people who abandon or avoid TA are often
viewed as holding beliefs, characteristics or traits that render
them unable or unwilling to make choices which prioritise their
own well-being. Drawing on cognitive appraisal theory, and quali-
tative testimony from those with direct experience of TA in
Belfast, this article challenges these perspectives, arguing that the
avoidance of TA is better understood as a rational and reasoned
response to an environment where intolerable levels of stress
often pertain and individual control over stressors is
Received 19 July 2019
Accepted 29 April 2020
Evidence has consistently demonstrated that living in temporary accommodation
(TA) can impact negatively on social and emotional well-being (Boyle and Pleace,
2017; Credland, 2004; Mitchell et al., 2004; Watts et al., 2018). Where TA is of good-
quality, self-contained and close to established support networks, these impacts may
be lessened; however, the sense of temporal instability associated with TA may con-
tinue to have a negative effect on well-being, irrespective of TA quality or type (Boyle
and Pleace, 2017; Credland, 2004; Ellison et al., 2012; Mitchell et al., 2004; Watts
et al., 2018). That said, it is widely accepted that negative impacts are felt most
acutely where the form of TA is poor-quality, large-scale, or congregate in nature
(Boyle and Pleace, 2017; Bush-Geertsema and Sahlin, 2007; Credland, 2004;
Fitzpatrick et al., 2010; Mackie et al., 2017; Mitchell et al., 2004; Watts et al., 2018).
CONTACT Lynne McMordie email@example.com Institute for Social Policy, Housing, and Equalities Research (I-
SPHERE), School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh Campus,
Boundary Rd N, Edinburgh EH14 4AS, UK.
ß2020 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives
License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/), which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in
any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way.
Hostel and shelter accommodation, in particular, can exacerbate the impacts of
homelessness and may, in fact, function as an organisational barrier to permanent
housing, rather than its intended purpose of facilitating exit from homelessness
(Bush-Geertsema and Sahlin, 2007; Grunberg and Eagle, 1990; Johnsen and Teixeira,
2010; Mackie et al., 2017). In this context, the development of smaller-scale or self-
contained TA is often viewed as an improvement in provision (Bush-Geertsema and
Sahlin, 2007). However, such accommodation is frequently set within a transitionary
continuum where access is determined by ‘housing readiness’(Mackie et al., 2017;
Sahlin, 2005; Stewart, 2019). The ‘treatment first’philosophy which underpins such
provision, emphasises stability or recovery as a prerequisite of movement toward
independent living (Bush-Geertsema and Sahlin, 2007; Ellison et al., 2012; Johnsen
and Teixeira, 2010; Mackie et al., 2017; Stewart, 2019). Available evidence indicates
that the staircasing of services around a transitionary pathway can function to divide
the homeless population into two distinct groups: those who can evidence change
and progression and those with more complex needs who become entrenched within,
or excluded from, the transitionary pathway (Benjaminsen, 2016; Johnsen and
Teixeira, 2010; JRF, 2016; Kuhn and Culhane, 1998; Mackie et al., 2017).
In contrast, there is a robust body of evidence which supports the efficacy of
Housing First and housing-led approaches to homelessness, where the rapid provision
of permanent housing coupled with access to flexible support, bypasses or signifi-
cantly reduces the need for TA in the first instance (Boyle et al., 2016; Johnsen, 2013;
Padgett et al., 2016). Despite this evidence, public opinion (particularly in response to
observable increases in homelessness) will often sway toward the expansion of hostel
and shelter accommodation, including the opening of vacant buildings for congregate
use by those rough sleeping (O’Neil et al., 2017). This phenomenon is especially evi-
dent in public responses to street deaths, perhaps unsurprisingly so given the highly
visible and urgent need for shelter of those affected (Bush-Geertsema and Sahlin,
2007). The phenomenon of avoidance, that is, where an individual will sleep rough or
squat when a bed space is available for their use, complicates the simplicity of these
narratives, particularly in light of a growing consensus that some users view hostel
accommodation as a frightening and intimidating environment (Homeless Link, 2013;
Johnsen and Teixeira, 2010; Mackie et al., 2017; NIHE et al., 2016).
Attempts to account for the phenomenon of avoidance tend to lean toward one of
two broad categories: namely, individual or environmental explanations. Individual
explanations focus on the personal characteristics and behaviour of those who aban-
don or refuse accommodation, often emphasising the centrality of individual path-
ology or complexity of need (see, for example, Homeless Link, 2018).
Environmentally oriented accounts, on the other hand, locate the causes of abandon-
ment in broader structural factors, placing a particular focus on the unsuitability/
negative impact of available accommodation and barriers to wider health and social
care services (see, for example, Mayday Trust, 2018). More recently, the concept of
Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE) has brought together knowledge of
individual factors (such as adverse childhood experiences and complex trauma) and
environmental factors, placing considerable emphasis on awareness of how one may
interact with the other (Breedvelt, 2016; FEANTSA, 2017; Keats et al., 2012). While
2 L. MCMORDIE
such approaches seek to actively avoid or counter the direct blaming of difficulties on
the individual, they often continue to see hostel accommodation (albeit modified) as
an appropriate site ‘to focus in depth on the emotional needs, and capacities, of
homeless people’(Johnson, 2010, p. 48). This has given rise to the (re)development
of hostels with the specific purpose of addressing the systemic exclusionary practices
of ‘other’hostels (Homeless Link, 2018). Access to such services often requires evi-
dence of repeat placement breakdown: that is, service users progress through the pro-
cess of placement and exclusion before obtaining access to those services that are
suited (at least in theory) to their needs (Homeless Link, 2018). In attempts to explain
the continued occurrence of abandonment within these specialist services, we see a
degree of leaning back toward individual pathologies: in a recent report, for example,
Homeless Link (2018) argue that ‘[abandonment] generally occurred most often in
the high support hostels, which can to some extent be attributed to the chaotic lives
of some of the residents’(p. 22).
Drawing on understandings of stress developed in psychological research and the-
ory, I aim to demonstrate that homeless people’s avoidance and abandonment of hos-
tels and similar accommodation represents a rational and reasoned response to
unmanageable stress and threats. It is structured as follows. First, a model of stress is
outlined through a consideration of cognitive appraisal theory—with a particular
focus on Lazarus and Folkman’s(1984) seminal study, Stress, Appraisal and Coping—
before the methods used to generate the empirical data in the paper are described.
The paper then proceeds to apply the model of stress to experiences of hostel and
shelter accommodation use as articulated by participants in this research. In the con-
cluding discussion I argue that abandonment and avoidance is, firstly, informed by a
desire to assume control of outcomes and to do so in a way that promotes well-being,
albeit in a very immediate sense and, secondly, reflective of the very limited control
that homeless people have over the stressors and threats that often pertain in this
The conceptual framework
Participants in the study that informs this paper consistently reported experiences of
stress in the hostel environment and the adoption of various coping strategies as a
means of mastering, tolerating or reducing its psychological impacts. Stress has sig-
nificant implications for human wellbeing, in the direct sense of occasioning physio-
logical alterations in the body (see, for example, Tawakol et al., 2017) and in the
indirect or psychosocial sense of influencing cognition and social interaction (see, for
example, Paulmann et al., 2016; see also, DeSteno et al.,2013 for an overview of dir-
ect and indirect emotion-related effects). This article is largely structured around an
exploration of the latter, arguing that cognitive appraisal theory allows for an under-
standing of the psychosocial effects of stress on decision making strategies, coping
behaviours and the building of social supports (see Moors, 2014 for an overview of
cognitive appraisal theory).
Cognitive appraisal theorists are divided with respect to whether distinct states (such
as stress) should be held as the principle phenomena to be explained (see, for example,
HOUSING STUDIES 3
DeSteno et al., 2013 and Reisenzein, 2019); or whether (sub)emotional components
should be the primary object of study, with the labelling of distinct states being of
lesser or secondary concern (see, for example, Scherer, 2009 and Scherer and Moors,
2019). The analysis presented here purposefully seeks to tread a middle course, suggest-
ing that the exploration of stress (as a discrete state) yields important insights into the
causal mechanisms of abandonment and avoidance, while also insisting that such
exploration demands particular regard for the emergent nature of stress and, thus, its
(sub)emotional components and the process of interaction between the same.
This is possible, I would argue, where stress is conceptualised as being ‘contextual’
meaning that it is determined by the interaction of components at the level of the
person and the environment (DeSteno et al., 2013; Folkman, 2010, p. 901; Lazarus
and Folkman, 1984; Moors, 2014); and, as ‘a process’, meaning that it is dynamic and
emergent in nature, changing across environments and over time (DeSteno et al.,
2013; Folkman, 2010, p. 901; Lazarus and Folkman, 1984; Moors, 2014; Scherer and
Moors, 2019). This conceptualisation allows for an analysis of the process by which
multiple components (both internal and external) interact to produce the (emergent)
experience of stress and associated phenomenon of avoidance for a given individual,
in a given environment, at a particular point in time (Bhaskar, 2008; Fitzpatrick 2005;
Although certain components—such as expectancy, goal relevance and control—
are proposed with notable frequency (see Moors, 2014 and Reizenstein, 2019), the
precise form of the individual components involved in the generation of stress, and
the nature of the construal process by which they are appraised as stressful by the
given individual, are in essence ‘working hypotheses …open to empirical correction’
(Moors 2014, p. 304). It is in this spirit, that I utilise the work of psychologists
Richard S. Lazarus and Susan Folkman (see Lazarus and Folkman’s(1984) conception
of stress, Lazarus’(1999) synthesis of stress and emotion, and Folkman’s(2010)
account of stress and coping) as an under-labouring framework for the exploration
and analysis of experiences of stress as articulated by participants in this research.
Lazarus and Folkman (1984) describe the process of cognitive appraisal as occur-
ring in two interrelated, non-linear stages: namely, primary appraisal and secondary
appraisal. Primary appraisal is concerned with the individual’s evaluation of the given
situation in terms of whether or not they have anything at stake in the transaction:
that is, what (if anything) they stand to gain or lose. Lazarus and Folkman propose
three forms of primary appraisal: irrelevant, where the individual holds no vested
interest in either the transaction or the results of the transaction; benign positive,
where the individual perceives the transaction as positive with no potential for nega-
tive outcomes; and, stressful, where the individual perceives a transaction as having a
potentially negative result or an outcome detrimental to well-being.
Secondary appraisal refers to the further evaluation of demands considered stress-
ful, with three forms again being proposed, namely: a challenge appraisal, where a
transaction is evaluated as holding potential for mastery or gain; a threat appraisal,
where a transaction prompts anticipation of future loss or harm; and a harm/loss
appraisal, where material, physical or emotional harm or loss has already been
4 L. MCMORDIE
endured in the transaction (for a summary of evidence on the differing influence of
threat versus challenge appraisals, see Scherer and Moors, 2019).
Both primary and secondary appraisals are influenced by the extent to which the
individual perceives their inner and outer resources as enabling effective coping: with
coping being defined as behavioural efforts to master, reduce, or tolerate the stressful
demand (see DeSteno et al., 2013 for an account of emotion regulation and coping).
Lazarus and Folkman categorise the components influencing appraisal (and by
extension the adoption of coping strategies) under two broad headings: namely, situ-
ation-level components and person-level components. Situation components may be
understood as the ‘properties of situations that make them potentially harmful, dan-
gerous, threatening, or for that matter challenging’(Lazarus and Folkman, 1984,p.
82). Person-level components refer to the individual’s understanding of the given
event and the characteristics that determine what holds importance for them in a
given encounter. I especially draw on Lazarus and Folkman’s exploration of predict-
ability and uncertainty (as situation-level components), and commitments and general
beliefs about control (as person-level components).
In applying Lazarus and Folkman’s framework to the phenomenon of avoidance, this
article draws upon qualitative data from a research study on temporary accommoda-
tion and chronic homelessness in Belfast, Northern Ireland (McMordie, 2018). The
study sought to explore the experience of a sub-group within the Belfast homeless
population—often with more complex needs—whose housing history is marked by
cyclical temporary accommodation placements, episodes of rough sleeping and vari-
ous forms of institutional stay. The existence of this group is well evidenced in the
Northern Ireland homelessness literature (Boyle and Pleace, 2017; Boyle et al., 2016;
Ellison et al., 2012; NIHE, 2005,2017; NIHE et al., 2016), across the United
Kingdom (Fitzpatrick et al., 2012), Europe (Benjaminsen, 2016) and the United States
(Kuhn and Culhane, 1998). As such, the findings of this study, although explicated
through the lived experience of people in Belfast, are intended to have wider
Participants in the study were selected purposively from among those with a his-
tory of repeat homelessness, serial temporary accommodation placement and episodes
of rough sleeping. Recruitment was facilitated by an organisation which provides sup-
port to individuals who are resident in temporary accommodation, sleeping rough, or
living in settled accommodation after a prolonged period of homelessness.
Pseudonyms are used throughout this article to identify participants.
The study purposefully sampled a small, homogenous group, with eight partici-
pants in total, all of whom were adult males. The intended purpose of the study was
not to establish the frequency of avoidance or patterns of occurrence across seg-
mented groups, but instead to uncover and understand the components at play in
hostel accommodation at the level of the environment and the level of the individual.
Of particular interest was how these components interact to produce the phenom-
enon of avoidance for a given individual, in a given environment. Such exploration
HOUSING STUDIES 5
requires research that has particular regard for intraindividual comparison, that is,
research that seeks not to evaluate individual actions against a normative standard
but, rather, to contextualise and compare intraindividual action across time, events,
environments, and actions (DeSteno et al., 2013; Lazarus and Folkman, 1984; Wynn
and Williams, 2012). This approach necessitated an in-depth focus on each partici-
pant’s housing and homelessness history and, as such, the sampling strategy priori-
tised depth of exploration over the breadth of the sample. Given that the sample
focused exclusively on the experience of male participants, the study cannot be taken
to reflect the specific experience of women in temporary accommodation.
Participant interviews used a life history methodology to enable the development
of a physical timeline of each participant’s housing and homelessness history (for
discussion of life history timelines see Freedman et al., 1988; Gramling and Carr,
2004; and, Harris and Rhodes, 2018: and for discussion of biographical approaches
to housing histories see May, 2000). The timeline was constructed using visual
prompt-cards that listed the various temporary accommodation services in Belfast,
other forms of homelessness (such as rough sleeping and sofa surfing), types of
institutional stay (such as prison and hospital), and other forms of accommodation
(such as private and social lets). The interview then made use of a second set of
prompt-cards listing a range of experiences arising from, or contributing to, the
experience of social exclusion (such as being the victim of a violent crime or having
used hard drugs). The categories used in developing the experience framework were
derived from the UK Multiple Exclusion Homelessness study (Fitzpatrick et al.,
2012). The first occurrence of each relevant experience was then located in the
homelessness timeline. This approach facilitated the development of a clear under-
standing of complex housing histories and allowed for in-depth representation of
service user experience and perception (Bryman, 2016; Freedman et al., 1988; Harris
and Rhodes, 2018; May, 2000). In the process of construction, service users spoke
at length about their experience of homelessness, providing an account of their
housing history and its impact on their physical, social and emotional well-being.
Interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed and subsequently coded using an
Primary and secondary appraisal
I now move on to apply Lazarus and Folkman’s concept of primary appraisal (that is,
the process by which the individual evaluates what, if anything, is at stake in a given
transaction) to experiences of temporary accommodation use as articulated by partici-
pants in this study. The three outcomes of primary appraisal identified by Lazarus
and Folkman are: irrelevant; benign positive; and stressful.
In this study participants described access to temporary accommodation as holding
relevance: they articulated a strong sense of having a vested interest (a stake) in
obtaining access to shelter and support. The consequences of not attaining access
were described as highly impactful in an immediate sense: often leading to episodes
of rough sleeping or squatting, with an associated deterioration in physical and
6 L. MCMORDIE
mental health, increased contact with the criminal justice system, and significant
experiences of victimisation and self-harm:
I got a …bad, bad, kicking just for no reason, bottles broke on my head. (Sam)
The stake held in avoidance of rough sleeping was such that it functioned to
incentivise engagement with TA services, over-and-above other disincentivis-
I don’t like being around other people. I’d rather be on my own. But sure, if you need a
bed, you need a bed, don’t you? (Mark)
Yet, hostel accommodation was also (indeed simultaneously) described as occa-
sioning harm and loss. People spoke of instances where they were exploited, victi-
mised, or threatened by others, and articulated a more generalised experience of
anxiety/unease within the hostel setting—one arising from the congregate nature of
Most of the hostels I was in …you’ve always been wanting to get wasted off your head
because you don’t like it. You don’t feel settled, so you try and blank things out. (Kyle)
Indeed, participants described the experience of using hostel and shelter accommo-
dation as one marked by stress and spoke colloquially about their head being ‘done
in,’about feeling ‘fucked’or ‘melted.’Use of hostel accommodation, then, was eval-
uated as neither ‘irrelevant’nor ‘benignly positive’but instead as ‘stressful’: a transac-
tion that was necessary to obtain access to shelter yet fraught with potential for
outcomes detrimental to well-being.
Lazarus and Folkman suggest that a ‘stressful’appraisal may be further evaluated—
through the process of secondary appraisal—as a challenge, a threat, or as having
already occasioned harm or loss. Challenge appraisal (that is, where a transaction is
evaluated as holding potential for mastery or gain) holds particular relevance to
‘housing ready’models of temporary accommodation, where the prospect of promo-
tion (i.e., gain) is expected to act as a motivating factor for compliance, engagement,
stability and personal growth (i.e., mastery of environment and self).
Participants articulated an understanding of hostel accommodation as being prem-
ised on this very basis: that is, they sought to master the demands of hostel accom-
modation in the hope of gaining access to shelter in the first instance and, thereafter,
of obtaining access to better forms of accommodation or an exit from homelessness
entirely. That said, they often described available gains as being markedly fragile
I’ve done that [detox] to go into [a hostel] and then [a move-on apartment] …It was
all—I don’t know …everything was good and all, that’s why I went to …a place of
my own, but it didn’t work out …what happened was I ended up drinking …That
was me …straight to rough sleeping. (Kyle)
Here, Kyle describes his movement toward ‘gain’in terms of access to increasing
levels of privacy and security (‘a place of my own’) as being staged, incremental and
dependent upon his capacity to demonstrate stability and sobriety. In contrast, his
movement toward ‘loss’(‘it didn’t work out’) was presented as sudden and complete,
HOUSING STUDIES 7
with the associated impact (‘straight to rough sleeping’) being immediate and highly
detrimental to well-being.
Alongside the fragility of potential gain, participants also described significant diffi-
culty in attaining any sense of mastery over stressful demands. Indeed, research on
the impact of hostel accommodation on well-being (such as Bush-Geertsema and
Sahlin, 2007; Ellison et al., 2012; Mackie et al., 2017; McNaughton Nicholls, 2009;
Sahlin, 2005; Watts et al., 2018) has demonstrated that, far from enabling a sense of
mastery, the rules and routines of hostel and shelter accommodation often function
to curtail individual autonomy and capacity for self-determination. Here, Darren
describes the difficulty he experienced in adhering to the rules of a particular hos-
You can’t hand your drink in. That’s a problem as well because then what are you going
to do with your drink? You stash it, some other cunt finds it, they take it, then you’re
left with no drink. Then you’re rattling [i.e. withdrawing from alcohol] the next
For Darren, part of the challenge of sustaining a hostel placement rested in the
intersection between alcohol dependency and rules that prohibit the storage of alco-
hol on premises (‘you can’t hand your drink in’). The available alternatives (‘you
stash it’) present a significant risk of loss (‘some cunt finds it’) and associated harm
Yet, even where environmental components act to constrain control, as they do for
Darren, some sense of mastery may still be attained where the individual perceives
the demand as one that is tolerable, particularly where access to social supports act to
mitigate against stress and enable effective coping. However, the support available to
participants in this study was most often attached to accommodation services, render-
ing access to support conditional on successful retention of placement or precarious
based on continual transfer between services. Here, James explained why he had not
‘even got on the list yet’for substitute prescribing, despite having actively ‘put his
hands up’and requested support.
I overdosed, and they threw me out of here …That’s what I don’t understand. You
would think they would want to help me in here …but they asked me to leave …I
was out for three weeks …Trying to keep up with [support referrals] …is hard as
well, you know? Cause you move from place to place, like, you don’t know where you’re
going to be the next day. (James)
Participant’s capacity to sustain a challenge appraisal was radically diminished,
first, by the ambiguous nature of what was available for gain and, then, by environ-
mental components that enfeebled the individual’s capacity for mastery over demands
while simultaneously disrupting access to social supports. In response, participants
described adopting a range of coping strategies. These included covert behaviours
whereby people would hide or disguise substance use as a means of avoiding negative
outcomes, particularly those associated with exclusion or eviction; or, muting behav-
iours whereby they increased substance use to sublimate symptoms of psychological
distress, particularly where hostel accommodation was perceived as requiring a con-
stant state of hypervigilance.
8 L. MCMORDIE
In describing covert and muting coping strategies, participants continued to evalu-
ate hostel and shelter accommodation use as retaining aspects of a challenge appraisal,
albeit one that co-existed alongside appraisals of threat, harm or loss and, as such,
necessitated sublimation or circumvention of stressful demands. In contrast, where
participants described the use of avoidance strategies—that is, where they refused or
abandoned placements entirely—they appeared (at least ostensibly) to move away
from an appraisal of challenge, rejecting their interest (‘stake’) in obtaining access to
shelter and support. I will now go on to explore the role of situation-level compo-
nents and person-level components in this movement away from a challenge
appraisal toward avoidance of temporary accommodation.
Situation-level components: Predictability and uncertainty
Lazarus and Folkman suggest that predictable stressors may be preferable to unpre-
dictable stressors, in that predictability allows the individual time to prepare (the pre-
paratory response hypothesis) or relax during periods of safety (the safety signal
hypothesis) (Lazarus and Folkman, 1984; see also, Matthieu and Ivanoff, 2006). Both
concepts hold relevance to hostel and shelter accommodation where services are often
premised on the provision of shelter and support: i.e., a safe space where people may
engage, at some level, in preparatory activities for move-on. Yet, there was a consen-
sus among participants in this study, that accessing and retaining temporary accom-
modation was marked by an absence of the kind of predictability that might allow for
such preparatory undertakings. Here, Joe provides an overview of the accommodation
he accessed over approximately one and a half years:
This [hostel 1] was like a year or so …sometimes they would throw me out for a bit
and then I’d have to go to the night shelter. But then, the night shelter doesn’t let me in
…So, I sleep out …[Then] the police brought me in there [hostel 2]. They didn’t
want me to freeze to death …They asked me to stay but then they said to me, with
my mental health …they can’t. So, they asked me to leave …[Then] I was in [hostel
3]. I was only there for about three days …[Then] they put me there [hostel 4] for one
night. But they said to me, I’m drinking too much and …‘you’re not allowed to
Joe describes access to shelter (and security of tenure where access is gained) as
being fraught with instability. Even in his most consistent placement (hostel 1), access
was sporadic and interspersed with periods of precarious night shelter use and rough
sleeping. Recalling a single instance where access was gained and (for a period) sus-
tained, the experience was described as inextricably linked to loss of positive predict-
ability, with established expectancies regarding personal safety and care suddenly no
I loved it. They didn’t care [about my ethnicity] and they looked after me. They checked
on me every hour …I got a lot more help. I went into town to pick up my money. I
came back a few hours later and [they] wouldn’t let me in. [They] said, ‘you don’t live
here anymore.’And I said, ‘what do you mean, I don’t live here anymore.’[They
responded], ‘A van came and picked all your stuff up out of the room.’The whole place
cleared out. (Joe)
HOUSING STUDIES 9
Whether viewed from the perspective of a preparatory response or a safety signal
hypothesis, the absence of predictability within the hostel and shelter setting, was per-
ceived as severely inhibiting capacity to either institute preparatory coping strategies
or to relax during periods of purported safety. On the contrary, hostel accommoda-
tion was most often described as giving rise to a profound and continuous sense of
[It’s] the atmosphere in them for a start …you’re always waiting on somebody calling
you, or somebody moving in who you’ve argued with …You’re always on edge, you’re
always, constantly, on guard. (Kyle)
Yet, where participants provide an overview of their experience of chronic home-
lessness, there was a consistency in outcomes that allowed for some form of predict-
ability. That is, the experience of chronic homelessness was one of consistent
transition between various services and forms of acute homelessness, and as such sub-
jective or lived experience was described as negatively and unbearably predictable.
I’m exhausted. I’m fucked. I’m burnt out. I am. Still sleeping rough. It always stays the
same. It does. (Mark)
Rough sleeping. That’s all I’ve ever known. That’s all I’ve ever had. I’ve never had a year
that I haven’t slept rough. (Kyle)
Although participants often expressed confidence in predicting the outcome of a
given placement (namely, harm or loss) they articulated deep reservations about their
capacity or ability to exercise control over predicted outcomes.
They put me in a hostel. A hostel I don’t want to be in …I hate it. I’d rather stay on
the streets but I can’t with my [health condition]. I’m paying [money] for a bed I can’t
sleep on, a mattress that’s broken …There’s another three people [in my room].
There’s stuff going missing all the time, and they [hostel staff] do fuck all about it, they
don’t care …Here, I’ve no privacy. I’ve nothing. (Joe)
Here, Joe perceives his current placement as one that he has been ‘put in’contrary
to his wishes (‘I don’t want to be here’). In this context, his preferred coping strategy
would ordinarily be avoidance (‘I’d rather stay on the streets’), but he feels compelled
toward engagement on account of a health condition. His endeavours to tolerate the
stressful demands of hostel living are premised on a challenge appraisal: the prospect
of gain in the form of sustaining shelter and avoiding further deterioration in phys-
ical health. Crucially, his appraisal of challenge must be sustained alongside concur-
rent and pressing threat and harm: ‘no privacy,’‘a bed I can’t sleep on,’and ‘stuff
going missing’. The mastery or reduction of threat, harm or loss through the mobil-
isation of coping strategies aimed at altering the environment are perceived as being
of very limited utility (‘they do fuck all about it, they don’t care’). Even where repeat
use of temporary accommodation produces negative outcomes with a degree of con-
sistency that allows for predictability, Joe lacks access to the forms of control that
might allow for effective coping: sustaining a challenge appraisal is based entirely on
his capacity to endure threat, harm, and loss.
In the context of such enduring threat, Lazarus and Folkman’s concept of event
uncertainty holds particular relevance. They use event uncertainty to refer to
10 L. MCMORDIE
probabilistic evaluations regarding the likelihood that a harmful event will occur.
Conditions of ‘maximum uncertainty’are proposed as ‘maximumly stressful’in that
the individual must engage in preparatory coping for two different outcomes: that is,
both the occurrence and non-occurrence of the harmful event (Lazarus and Folkman,
1984, p. 92). In temporary accommodation, where provision is often marked by inse-
curity of tenure (i.e., residents may be subject to temporary exclusion or eviction
without court action), probabilistic evaluations emerge as both important
Institutional control of access (i.e., where staff control resident and visitor entry to
premises) was described as weaving insecurity of tenure into the comings and goings
of everyday life. Here, Darren explains:
[Access] depends on who’son …and how much [alcohol] you’ve had. If you’re kind of
compos mentis and you get an all right one that’son …they’ll go ‘away you on in.’
You have other [staff] that’ll be, ‘no, have you been drinking?’‘Aye, and what, you
know I’m a fucking alcoholic.’And then: ‘you’re not getting in, come back
The act of seeking entry to accommodation was perceived as demanding signifi-
cant preparatory coping, including the capacity to understand and negotiate access
criteria that were subjectively applied and thus continuously shifting. Where access to
emergency night shelter accommodation was sought, this uncertainty was com-
pounded by the arduous nature of having to endure exposure to adverse wea-
[Access is granted] depending on who’s on, or what’s said, or how many people there
are …You’re standing outside in the pishing rain, you know, hail, fucking
For Darren, preparing for one outcome (access) while simultaneously preparing
for another outcome (refusal of access), created feelings of confusion and helplessness
that he sought to resolve through the abandonment of attempted access:
That’s why I changed it. I was just like, look; I’ll tell you what it is …I’ll not be in
Others described attempts to reconcile themselves to the probability of failure:
I come [to the night shelter] quite late. But if I don’t get in, I don’t get in. I just sleep
rough. I’m used to it …but it’s taking its toll on me …My head’s done in …I
haven’t got sleeping for three days. (Mark)
In splitting individual resources between preparation for competing and often
incompatible outcomes, the mechanisms of day-to-day access were described as shift-
ing the balance of appraisal from one of challenge, to one of threat, harm or loss.
Crucially, where participants attempted to occupy a position outside the arena of
competing outcomes, they were exposed to equal or greater harm in the form of
HOUSING STUDIES 11
Person-level components: commitments and beliefs
Lazarus and Folkman’s framework also steers attention to person-level components as
important determinants of appraisal. This section first explores the role of individual
commitments: that is, what holds meaning or importance for the individual.
Sam described an extended period of rough sleeping and night-shelter accommo-
dation use; an experience he defined as being characterised by feelings of
‘hopelessness.’He spoke of his initial feelings of appreciation and contentment upon
gaining access to a hostel. Securing accommodation represented the achievement of a
long-held and important goal. He continued:
Then when I found out where I was and what’s around me, I was in for a week, had to
get out of there …The people are there for things they’ve done, sexual abuses, and
what happened in my family, around me, affected me big time …I couldn’t have
stayed there, rather the streets …in case there was one of them people next to me …
there was always a lot of aggression in me but it was also, I was in control of myself, I
wasn’t going to attack one of them or anything like that. (Sam)
Here, Sam gave primacy to his commitment to avoiding circumstances that repli-
cated or evoked earlier childhood trauma and did so without equivocation. He
described how the interplay between environmental components (‘what’s around me’)
and person components (‘what happened in my family’) gave rise to intolerable levels
of psychological distress. Sam’s description made clear that the level of threat posed
could not be managed or tolerated through emotion-focused coping: the person fac-
tor (the trauma of adverse childhood experiences) could not be reframed or altered
within the given environment (proximity to people who have sexually abused others).
His means of coping was emphatically problem focused: he altered his relationship
with the environment by abandoning his placement (‘had to get out of there’).
Mark also described giving primacy to avoiding replication of circumstances that
evoked earlier experiences of trauma. Describing his experience of victimisation as a
result of a paramilitary attack, he explained:
They beat me when I was [an adolescent], so they did …Blood squirting up the walls
and all. I thought I was dead and all. Scary isn’t it? …They [hostels] work for some
people, I would say. For me? No. Because people go into the hostels and they want to
get stability or whatever. Then they see I’m not coping and that there. I don’t like being
around too many other people. That cracks me up. I can’tdoit …If I squat, nobody
knows. Nobody sees me. I feel safer squatting. (Mark)
Here, Mark described the impact of a highly significant person factor (the trauma
of physical assault) in light of an environment factor (being around other people in a
hostel or shelter setting). He evaluated the risk posed by the interplay of these com-
ponents as intolerable (‘I can’tdoit’). Like Sam, he concluded that problem-focused
coping—where action taken in the form of avoidance altered the relationship he had
with the environment (‘I feel safer squatting’)—was the most salient and appropriate
coping strategy. Taken in conjunction with additional environment components—the
need to evidence progress (‘they want to get stability’) and feelings of exposure to
judgement (‘they see I’m not coping’)—Sam evaluated hostel and shelter accommoda-
tion as being fundamentally incompatible with his commitment to the avoidance of
12 L. MCMORDIE
Mark’s appraisal that squatting was his safest option was an appraisal that occurred
in the context of a specific environment (the hostel or shelter) and bore little resem-
blance to his stated or overall preference. Here, he explained:
All I know is, I just want a quiet life. That’s all I want. I just want to be settled down
and relax. Go out and do what you have to do, come back …that’s all I ever want. I’m
exhausted. I’m fucked. I’m burnt out. I am. Still sleeping rough. It always stays the
same. It does. (Mark)
What Mark aspired to was settled housing. His evaluation of risk and his use of
avoidance was not presented as fixed or immutable, but instead as a situational
response generated by the interplay of person and environment components.
Likewise, Sam’s utilisation of problem focused-coping in the hostel environment dif-
fered markedly from his evaluation of what would assist him to achieve a greater
sense of well-being: ‘counselling is the big thing,’he explained, ‘definitely, counselling
is one [of the] main things.’What Sam aspired to was emotion-focused coping, a
means of altering or understanding the inner meaning of the trauma he had experi-
enced. He was prevented from doing so, not as a result of a belief that the impact of
trauma was fixed but, rather, by the urgency lent to key person components within
the given environment.
In adopting avoidance strategies, Sam and Mark’s decisions were influenced by
their beliefs about control in the hostel and shelter environment. If we return to Sam
and his decision to abandon a much sought-after placement, we can see how proxim-
ity to particular others produced emotion (aggression), with the coping strategy
deployed (abandonment) enabling a sense of control (over himself). Control in this
sense was primarily related to the avoidance of a specific outcome (‘I wasn’t going to
attack one of them’). So too for Mark, where proximity to general others produced
emotion (fear), with the coping strategy deployed (avoidance) enabling a sense of
control (‘no one knows, no one sees me’) and the prevention of a specific outcome
(‘that cracks me up’i.e. causes severe mental distress). Both were unequivocal in their
assertion that they were unable to assert control over outcomes within the hostel
environment: Sam ‘had to get out of there’and Mark ‘can’t do it.’
Abandonment and avoidance are often interpreted as markers of disengagement
with services that might facilitate stability, progress, personal growth or other simi-
larly positive outcomes. In this figuring of the phenomenon, people who abandon or
avoid hostel placements are often perceived as holding fixed beliefs, characteristics or
traits that render them unable or unwilling to make choices which would improve
their own well-being. Yet, what we see in Sam and Mark’s account, is the figuring of
abandonment and avoidance as, firstly, an active and considered choice and, secondly,
as a choice which is informed by a desire to assume control of outcomes, and to do
so in a way that promotes well-being, albeit in a very immediate sense. Avoidance
and abandonment, then, are a reflection of the extent to which Sam and Mark per-
ceived the environment (the hostel) as one that precluded control over outcomes and
not, as might be assumed, a general dispensation toward disengagement
HOUSING STUDIES 13
Discussion: implications of a transactional understanding of
When we conclude that avoidance and abandonment of shelter are indicative of inef-
fective coping, we often do so on the basis of an interindividual comparison: that is,
the act of avoidance is evaluated against a normative or ideal standard of functioning
(DeSteno et al., 2013; Lazarus and Folkman, 1984; Parsell, 2018). However, where the
environment in which the individual functions is one that poses extraordinary or
unusual challenges, interindividual comparison is of limited (if any) utility: the person
who abandons hostel accommodation may be assumed to be coping chaotically or
ineffectively when in fact their actions are rational in the context of demands arising
in the hostel environment (DeSteno et al., 2013; Lazarus and Folkman, 1984;
McNaughton Nicholls, 2009; Somerville and Bengtsson, 2002). This is particularly
relevant in the context of temporary accommodation in Belfast where participants
often had limited access to, and control over, the external resources which might
allow for the mobilisation of effective coping strategies. Many of the stressors they
described stem from practices that are deeply embedded in traditional responses to
homelessness. These practices exert a profound influence on their lives and, yet, are
often unresponsive to their individual coping efforts: poor outcomes (such as avoid-
ance and abandonment) are interpreted as evidence of individual failure or inability
to cope, without considering the onerous demands of the environment in which the
individual is enmeshed. In this way, the failings of homelessness service systems are
actively displaced onto the individuals those systems purport to serve (Lazarus and
Folkman, 1984; Parsell, 2018).
Cognitive appraisal theory offers housing studies a framework for nuanced explor-
ation of what exactly it is about hostel accommodation that causes people to act and
react as they do. In turn, increased knowledge of the nature and form of the compo-
nents (and associated interactions) that actualise particular outcomes, for particular
people, allows for clearer identification of the challenges that impede the delivery of
effective solutions to homelessness. I would contend that addressing these challenges
demands purposeful intervention by service providers and policy makers; not further
adaptive coping on the part of the individual. Existing evidence would suggest that
solutions to chronic homelessness are achievable, particularly where provision is
offered in the form of Housing First and housing-led accommodation models (Boyle
et al., 2016; Johnsen, 2013; Padgett et al., 2016). The experience of the participants in
this research suggests that an approach to homelessness service provision that fully
recognises the role of environmental stressors in abandonment and avoidance of hos-
tel accommodation, demands a radical reconsideration of the physical and service
environment within which services are offered.
I would like to express my sincere thanks to those who participated in this study for sharing
their experiences. I am also grateful to Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Dr Beth Watts, and the
anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful advice and comments on an earlier version of
14 L. MCMORDIE
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).
This work was supported by Oak Foundation (OCAY-16-107).
Notes on contributor
Lynne McMordie has worked in the homeless sector in Northern Ireland for over ten years
and has managed a range of homelessness services, including: temporary accommodation,
drop-in centre and street outreach services. She has worked extensively with marginalised
adults, particularly in the areas of destitution, complex needs and multiple exclusion. More
recently, Lynne has commenced a PhD with I-SPHERE at Heriot-Watt University, on the
design, use, and impacts of temporary and supported accommodation models for homeless
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