Policy Briefing: What is the government doing about homelessness?

Ben Wray

James Turner, a political activist and mature student at The University of Highlands and Islands studying Sustainable Development, begins a new series of policy briefings on housing by analysing homelessness in Scotland and the approach of the Scottish Government and local authorities to tackle it

THE Scottish Government’s current housing policy is ostensibly geared towards both preventing homelessness from occurring where possible and in housing individuals and households that have become homeless. This is to be achieved through direct action, investment in affordable homes and through legislation. Local Authorities in Scotland have a duty to help those who are either at risk of becoming or who have become homeless by offering help and advice and by providing temporary and/or permanent accommodation as circumstances require.

Figures produced by the Scottish Government show that overall, homelessness applications have been steadily decreasing over the last decade but that this decrease has slowed in recent years. Between April 2015 and March 2016 (the last full year currently on record) Local Authorities in Scotland received a total of 34,662 homelessness applications which was a decrease of 1,287 (4%) on the previous year. The Homelessness in Scotland Bi-Annual Report for April to September 2016 shows that this fall in overall applications has continued with a 3% reduction in homelessness applications compared to April to September 2015.

What the bi-annual report also illustrates though is that the proportion of ‘direct homelessness applications’ which are those that have not gone through Housing Options first, has increased; between April and September 2016, 45% of all homelessness applications were ‘direct’ ones, an increase of 9% on the 2015 figure. This is a potential cause for concern given the pivotal role that Housing Options is meant to play in homelessness prevention, especially as the Scottish Government has attributed the decrease in homelessness applications to ‘Housing Options work undertaken by Local Authorities in Scotland’.

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Another point of concern that could be considered for further investigation is the statement in both the annual and bi-annual reports that the underlying causes of homelessness have remained relatively unchanged. Both reports cite ‘relationship breakdown/dispute in household: non-violent’ and being asked to leave’ as remaining some of the main causes of homelessness applications in Scotland. Given that these causes are both persistent and documented, it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that perhaps more could be done to try to prevent the causes of homelessness though it is also evident that homelessness is by nature something that can be hard to predict.

Current policy advocates the Housing Options Hubs as the main solution to this, with them being intended to enable households encountering difficulties and/or finding themselves at risk of homelessness to contact their Local Authority for advice and assistance with the aim of preventing homelessness from occurring. The efficiency of this system could be said to be questionable though; between April 2015 and March 2016, 62% of households that made homelessness applications had approached Housing Options prior to or on the same day which cannot be said to be indicative of Housing Options successfully helping households so that they don’t need to make homelessness applications.

Bearing this in mind, it is almost certainly necessary to investigate the effectiveness of Housing Options hubs further for at least two reasons. The increase in the number of direct homelessness applications being made suggests that it could be worth examining national and local awareness and accessibility of Housing Options – if households are unaware they exist then they will not be able to approach them for advice or assistance before homelessness becomes an issue. Furthermore, the advice and assistance actually given to households by Housing Options would be worth investigating given the proportion of homelessness applications that are made despite Housing Options being approached would seem to suggest that the advice and assistance on offer are not of much help. 

Scottish Government statistics indicate that homelessness applications where a household member reported sleeping rough ‘at least once in the last three months’ before the application was made has reduced from 13% in 2002/03 to 8% in 2016/17. The recently published Homelessness in Scotland 2016/17 report indicates that the proportion of homelessness applications of this kind varies between Local Authority area. Fife and Inverclyde both have the highest proportion of applications of this type (9%) while West Lothian reported that none of the applications they received came from people who had slept rough in the last three months. The Scottish Government indicates that “this probably reflects that this question is not being routinely and consistently completed”.

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While the reduction in the number of homelessness applications from people who have slept rough could be said to be positive, it should be noted that there is no national figure for the number of people who are sleeping rough in Scotland. Shelter Scotland estimates that it is ‘more than 5000’ people over the course of the year. Recent Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to Edinburgh and Glasgow councils reveal that worrying numbers of people are dying while homeless. Between April 2015 and March 2016, 18 people who had been assessed as homeless by Edinburgh City Council died. In Glasgow, 39 people died between May 2016 and March 2017. Of equal concern, the Sunday Herald, who made the Freedom of Information request to Glasgow City Council, reported that “the council admits these numbers likely underestimate the full scale’ of the issue. Indeed, the deaths of rough sleepers who are not from Glasgow or engaged with Glasgow City Council services are not included in these figures.

On paper Scotland’s housing policies certainly appear to be effective and encompassing, indeed the abolition of the priority need criteria in 2012 which meant that all Local Authorities in Scotland had a duty to provide permanent accommodation to anyone who is unintentionally homeless lead to Shelter describing it as ‘providing the best homelessness law in Europe’ but based on this brief analysis of the reports published by the Scottish Government, it seems very clear that the effectiveness of some the elements of their current policy are certainly in need of review if not revision.

Of particular concern should be an examination of why there is no official national figure for the number of people sleeping rough in Scotland. Without knowing how many people are in this situation and where and why, the effectiveness of any solutions cannot be accurately assessed. Of equal priority should be an investigation of the Scottish Government’s statement regarding the reason for the differing proportions of homelessness applications from people who have slept rough. If indeed Local Authorities are not ‘routinely and consistently’ asking people who make homelessness applications if they have slept rough, then it needs to be ascertained why this is so that steps can be taken to ensure such information is always obtained because again; if the extent of a problem is not known then the effectiveness of solutions cannot be accurately assessed.

More positively though, there may already be a way of helping homeless people who are sleeping rough. Originating in the United States and also successfully used in Finland, the ‘Housing First’ approach is already being used on a small scale by the charity Turning Point Scotland in East Dumbartonshire, Glasgow and Renfrewshire. Housing First focusses on getting people ‘directly into independent tenancies… with no requirement to progress through transitional housing programmes.’ Once people are in secure accommodation, Turning Point then works with them on an individual basis to help them obtain assistance they might need to help deal with the issues that lead to them becoming homeless. While the primary focus of Turning Point’s Housing First scheme is on assisting people who are misusing drugs this approach of ‘curing the problem then curing the causes’ could be easily adapted to enable anyone sleeping rough to get off the streets and into secure accommodation though of course this does of course raise the additional issue of the need for accommodation to be available to make this possible.