Issue 14 - December 2016

HOMELESSNESS IS FAR FROM FIXED IN SCOTLAND

By Rosemary Brotchie, Policy and Research Manager, Shelter Scotland

It has been a source of pride over the last 15 years within the housing sector and amongst politicians, that Scotland leads the world in tackling homelessness. But this is a claim that Shelter Scotland has argued always needed to be earned rather than simply asserted.

Back in 2002 the landmark Homelessness Task Force report set new standards in breadth and ambition and a lot has been achieved since then to make the ambition reality in Scotland. Most significantly, homelessness law has been reformed to give all homeless people similar rights to a settled home, regardless of whether they fell into a category deemed priority.

Despite the significant changes in rights and improvements in the way councils respond to housing crisis, homelessness is far from fixed in Scotland today. The best legal framework is only as good as the way it provides people with the help they need. With 10,000 people in temporary accommodation, the right to a home is clearly not the same as getting a home. Meanwhile, 150,000 households on council house waiting lists show the wider strain on the system. Shelter Scotland acknowledge the commitment the Scottish Government has shown to meeting housing need, and we welcome the commitment to building 50,000 affordable homes over the course of this parliament, and especially that three quarters of them will be for social rent.

New homes, however, are only part of the solution to homelessness and, across Scotland, provision of services to help people in crisis are uneven. That is why, alongside the action to build new homes, it is time to re-forge a commitment to tackling homelessness, building on the gains of the last 15 years but also recognising the areas where progress has been patchier.

The best legal framework is only as good as the way it provides people with the help they need. With 10,000 people in temporary accommodation, the right to a home is clearly not the same as getting a home.

From 2012 all unintentionally homeless households in Scotland have had a right to settled accommodation. Since then the main focus for local authorities has been on developing and embedding a ‘Housing Options’ approach, which focuses on preventing homelessness where possible and finding alternatives to a household making a homeless application.

Despite the far broader group of people that authorities have had a statutory duty to assist, since 2012, the number of homeless applications and acceptances has been steadily declining. In 2015/16, 34,662 households applied as homeless, 4% fewer than the year before and a 24% reduction on 2011/12. Of these, a total of 28,226 households were assessed as homeless in 2015/16 in Scotland. This decline can be attributed to the effectiveness of the Housing Options approach, rather than any reduction in the number of people in housing crisis approaching authorities.

However, despite these positive top-line figures, there remain significant challenges in responding to homelessness in Scotland. Long-delayed guidance on the delivery of Housing Options issued in March 2016 has stressed that local authorities should be recording a homeless application from everyone that has a concern about homelessness, rather than only doing so where prevention has not been possible. Many local authorities predict that this change in process will result in a significant increase in the number of statutory homeless cases over the coming year and will be a challenge for some operational teams. Other issues include pressure on temporary accommodation for many local authorities, the ability to move households on to settled accommodation, the increasing proportion of people with complex needs and the need to make appropriate services available for this group.

Alongside this, Scotland needs to recognise that the changing shape of welfare, the shifts in population and our evolving public services and institutional landscapes will all put pressure on households. Local authorities in Scotland have been subject to several years of budget reductions, with homelessness services and temporary accommodation – and subsequently their voluntary sector partners – facing increasing cuts through changes to the social security system. This is against a context of political, economic and constitutional uncertainty across UK. While the long-term impact of these changes and ongoing reform is uncertain, one thing we can be sure of is that it is the poorest and most vulnerable that is consistently hit hardest by social and political instability. This makes it all the more important that the Scottish Government follows through on its commitment to create a ‘Fairer Scotland’, which must include preventing and alleviating homelessness.

Shelter Scotland is calling for the Scottish Government to commit to delivering a new National Homelessness Strategy. This is our overarching and most important ask of the Scottish Government behind our latest campaign Homelessness: Far From Fixed. A new Homelessness Strategy should be a national, cross-departmental action plan which shows renewed commitment to tackling homelessness and becomes the cornerstone of successfully preventing and responding to homelessness in Scotland in all of its forms. We want clear leadership and accountability to be attached to this, and for the action plan to be considered a priority for the Scottish Government, especially considering the high cost of homelessness against continuing cuts to public funding.

However, despite these positive top-line figures, there remain significant challenges in responding to homelessness in Scotland

We believe that a new strategic action plan should be co-produced with a range of stakeholders and partners, including people who have experienced, or are experiencing, homelessness. As such, in the policy paper that sits behind our campaign, we have not set out a detailed blueprint but have identified areas that we think a new strategy should cover and set out a series of recommendations to be considered.

So a re-commitment to tackling homelessness is not just something for housing campaigners and housing practitioners. It is for political leaders at all levels, political parties; members of the public and users of housing services.

The 2012 homeless commitment was the product of a new infant parliament, eager to show the world that new forms of institution could make a real difference. As Scotland’s Parliament grows into a new, more mature phase there is no better focus than homelessness to show why that matters.

A refreshed homelessness plan and programme would re-invigorate current expert and practitioner groups. It would set new horizons for homelessness services and deliver on other top-ranking national priorities: improving social justice, bridging the attainment gaps in schools and focusing public spending on prevention work.

Most of all, it would allow that claim – that Scotland leads the world on homelessness – to be backed by evidence of real progress, real change.

By Rosemary Brotchie, Policy and Research Manager, Shelter Scotland

Issue 14 - December 2016

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