Dr. Beth Watts, Research Fellow
Dr. Beth Watts, Research Fellow

Scotland is exceptionally unusual in granting virtually all homeless people a legal entitlement to settled accommodation. Drawing on comparative research with single homeless men in Scotland and Ireland, Beth Watts asks what difference such legal rights really make to experiences of homelessness.

This article was first published on the British Politics and Policy blog, by the London School of Economics.

Should access to housing for homeless people be a legal right? Though housing tends to be seen as a ‘human right’, in very few countries are homeless people legally entitled to emergency shelter. In fewer still are those who are homeless legally entitlement to settled accommodation. Scotland is thus unique in that virtually every homeless person has a legal right to settled accommodation secured via their local authority.

What difference do these legal rights make in practice though, and are homeless people’s experiences in Scotland actually better than they are elsewhere? In particular, do rights really ‘empower’ those who are homeless in the way their advocates claim? These are some of the questions I’ve been exploring in my research, first, by trying to unpack exactly what ‘empowerment’ means in the context of homelessness policy and second, by comparing the impacts of two very different policy approaches – those of Scotland and the Republic of Ireland.

The research

In Scotland and Ireland, improving responses to homelessness has been a major priority over the past 15 years. Policy reform and substantial resources have been directed at improving homeless people’s access to settled accommodation. While in Scotland these efforts have taken the form of expanding the group legally entitled to settled housing, in Ireland such a ‘legalistic’ and ‘adversarial’ route was rejected. Instead the focus was on building strong partnerships between statutory and voluntary agencies, agreeing a set of common goals, monitoring progress and ‘ratcheting up’ standards of service delivery.

Comparing first, the approaches of those implementing homelessness policy and second, the experiences and perspective of single homeless (or recently homeless) men in Dublin and Edinburgh thus offered a qualitative means of testing the theory that legal rights ‘empower’ those who are homeless.

What is empowerment?

Drawing on Stephen Lukes’ theory that power has multiple ‘faces’, two different  ways in which homelessness policy might empower those who are homeless can be distinguished, one ‘traditional’ and the other ‘radical’. Traditionally, a person’s ‘power’ has been understood as their capacity to realise their own interests in decision-making situations, particularly when their interests conflict with those of others. Interactions between those experiencing homelessness and ‘street level bureaucrats’ implementing homelessness policy can be understood in part as a ‘power situation’ because the interests of the homeless person and service provider may conflict.

The ‘street level bureaucrat’ is likely to be seeking to abide by managerially and legally imposed rules and guidance; minimise the stress and workload associated with their role; prioritise individuals they deem particularly deserving and/or achieve the best outcome for the service user. While these ‘interests’ may in some or indeed many cases be congruent with meeting the interests of the homeless person – to secure accommodation – in others they may not. Viewed in this ‘traditional’ way, empowering those experiencing homelessness would involve reducing the service provider’s capacity to decide not to meet – or prioritise meeting – the homeless person’s housing needs.

This is not the only way to understand empowerment in relation to homelessness policy however. ‘Radical’ views of power contend that people are not always conscious of their own ‘interests’: processes of socialisation and the production of discourse influence the preferences and needs individuals recognise. Because of that, people’s ‘subjective preferences’ and ‘real interests’ can diverge. At a deeper level, these ‘insidious’ mechanisms of power might influence people’s internal dispositions and attitudes in ways that may work against their ‘real interests’.

On this ‘radical’ view (radical and indeed controversial, given it’s potentially paternalistic repercussions), empowering those experiencing homelessness would involve bringing the subjective preferences and real interests of this group into line and/or promoting dispositions and attitudes that support rather than undermine those interests being realised. It is worth noting that the ‘radical’ view of empowerment points to the insufficiency of efforts to empower focused purely on expanding the ‘voice and choice’ of service users: participatory models will only genuinely empower where subjective preferences and real interests are the same.

The impact of legal rights

In practice, Scotland’s blunt framework of legal rights appears to empower those experiencing homelessness in both the ‘traditional’ and ‘radical’ sense.

First, local authority staff in Edinburgh (and elsewhere in Scotland) are under a clear and legally enforceable obligation to respond to those experiencing homelessness in a specific way, i.e. to secure settled accommodation for them, and temporary accommodation in the meantime. Any other objectives or priorities they might wish to pursue are ‘crowded out’ of the decision-making process. In Dublin, a much wider set of considerations were able to play a role in informing providers’ responses. The formal policy aim of helping the homeless person access accommodation was balanced against whether they were deemed ‘ready’ for or deserving of their own accommodation yet, whether the area they would be rehoused in already had too many previously homeless people living in it and how local residents would react. This reflects the substantial level of discretion held by Dublin service providers compared to their Edinburgh counterparts, with the consequence that those experiencing homelessness were in a far weaker position in pursuing their need for settled accommodation.

Second, there appeared to also be a more subtle difference in the experiences of homeless men in Edinburgh and Dublin. Reflecting the legal reality of their situation, homeless men in Edinburgh tended to feel a sense of entitlement to accommodation, to feel as one hostel resident commented that “everyone has a right to be housed”. This sense of entitlement went alongside impatience at being ‘stuck’ in temporary accommodation: hostel residents were “champing at the bit, ready to go”. Not only were the legal entitlements ‘internalised’ in this way, but professionals working in the sector in the main saw this these “angsty” dispositions among clients as a legitimate and positive force driving standards of service higher.

In Dublin, the dispositions and attitudes of the homeless men were starkly different: far from seeing themselves as ‘entitled rights-holders’, they expressed gratitude for receiving any assistance at all, often articulating positive views about temporary accommodation they had accessed that was of an observably lower standard than that experienced by homeless men in Edinburgh. This tended to be accompanied by a strong sense of culpability for being homeless and moving on from homelessness: after a long stay in one hostel, one Dublin man explained that he felt he’d “not been pushing it as hard as [he] should have”. This sense of responsibility translated into substantial scepticism that people should have a legal right to housing, instead “you should work towards it”. In this context, one hostel resident in Dublin described being in temporary accommodation as “sort of a trial… to see who’s worthy… whose pulling their socks up and putting the effort in”. Far from prompting these men to fight to move on, these dynamics appeared to weigh them down, encouraging them to accept their lot.

This qualitative comparison of Scotland and Ireland appears to support a positive ‘story’ regarding the capacity of clear and blunt legal rights to housing for homeless people to ‘empower’. Such rights minimise provider discretion, ‘crowd out’ non-needs-related considerations in responding to homelessness and also appear to enhance the assertiveness of service users. Though such a ‘sense of entitlement’ among those dependent on state support might be seen in wholly negative terms by some, by encouraging the aspiration and providing the means for those who are homeless to access settled housing and ‘get back to normal’, Scotland’s legal rights appear to promote self-reliance rather more than the highly discretionary Irish model.

Note: This article was first published on the British Politics and Policy blog, by the London School of Economics. The article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. 

About the Author

Beth WattsBeth Watts is a Research Fellow at I-SPHERE, Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. Her current research focuses on homelessness and social housing, and specifically on the ongoing impacts of welfare reform. Drawing on her background in politics and philosophy, she seeks to bringing tools from moral and political philosophy to bear on housing and social policy issues. She completed her PhD at the University of York in 2013, which compared homelessness policy in Scotland and Ireland. For more information about her research, see her profile here.