Three priorities for tackling homelessness in Scotland

In the current political crisis-ridden, post-‘welfare reform’ context and given impressive changes to homelessness legislation elsewhere in the UK, Scotland’s claim to be a world-leader on homelessness may be weakening. Beth Watts identifies three areas where Scotland can raise its game.

Shelter Scotland’s ‘Far From Fixed’ conference last week provided a welcome opportunity to reflect on the next steps that should lie ahead for policy-makers, service providers and other stakeholders in Scotland’s homelessness sector. In preparation, we were asked to consider how to ensure that homelessness is a political and public policy priority, an exceedingly timely question given the multiple political crises unfolding in Scotland, the wider UK and globally.

Several themes emerged from the day. First, that homelessness is a ‘system outcome’, that is, in large part the predictable and avoidable consequence of how our housing market, labour market and (crucially) welfare system work (see for instance our series of Homelessness Monitor reports). Tony Cain (ALACHO) made this point in the closing panel session, arguing that a ‘paradigm shift’ across these areas is required if we want to make a real difference on homelessness. Second, the importance of challenging the stigma associated with homelessness, and of those who have experienced homelessness directly always having a role in designing responses to it were themes that loomed large across the day. Sonya and Suzanne, both having recently experienced homelessness, opened the day making these points, which were echoed by David Duke (Street Soccer/The Change Centre) in the final session. Third, Rosemary Brotchie (Shelter Scotland) made the case for addressing the issue with the sense of urgency it deserves, for strong leadership (both from Scottish Government and key stakeholders) and for the development of a national homelessness strategy.

My own contribution focused on the importance of understanding the causes, individual impacts and social costs of homelessness, and how we can intervene effectively to prevent and resolve it. Of course, gaps remain in this evidence.  Furthermore, what can sometimes feel like relentless reforms to social security and housing entitlements and cuts to local authority budgets are taking us ceaselessly in the wrong direction by eroding the safety net that has historically protected many people from homelessness.

Nevertheless, it is possible to gain a foothold. Research evidence and a look at the successes and failures of existing policy responses point to some clear messages about ‘what works’ (and what doesn’t) in tackling homelessness. Shouting those messages loudly is surely one key ingredient in not only ensuring that homelessness is a political and policy priority, but in instilling positivity about our capacity to make a difference. These are my three top priorities:

  1. Homelessness prevention: Scotland was ten years behind England in introducing a Housing Options model of homelessness prevention and due to quite legitimate concerns to avoid gatekeeping, has done so in a relatively ‘light touch’ manner. This now stands in stark contrast to the more proactive methods we see employed in England and Wales. Wales is without doubt leading the field in this territory, with the Housing Act (Wales) 2014 establishing for the first time individual legal entitlements to assistance to prevent or relieve homelessness. The recent passing of the Homelessness Reduction Bill in England is testament to the positive outcomes with which the Welsh approach is now associated. The time has come for Scotland to learn from the best of practice elsewhere in the UK and move to a more ambitious and robust approach to homelessness prevention. A key part of that is recognising the hugely differential risk that different groups (see below) face of experiencing homelessness: this injustice also provides a resource to inform effective targeting of prevention measures.
  1. Personalised, non-institutional and re-integrative responses: one message that emerges loud and clear from whole range of evidence on homelessness interventions is that personalised support in non-institutional settings that focus on re-integrating those experiencing homelessness with mainstream housing, work and social opportunities work better than one size fits all approaches that separate those who are experiencing homeless off in congregate settings, be it hostel environments, homelessness-specific day centres or employability schemes.[i] The weight of compelling evidence behind Housing First is one particularly stark example of this, and we should be moving without hesitation towards that model for the group it is designed to help. But we should also be asking ourselves the broader question of how we embrace the principles of personalisation, deinstitutionalisation and integration more generally. There is huge concern about the changing funding regimes on the way for temporary and supported accommodation, but if there is any scope at all to use these changes to embed evidence-based principles in new systems, we should take it.
  1. Current policy and practice works for some groups better than others. Two particular groups stand out as fairing less well under current responses than others. First, those with multiple and complex needs, spanning not just homelessness but also health, mental health and addiction issues, and involvement with the criminal justice system. Some really welcome work is underway in this territory, not least by the Health and Homelessness Steering group facilitated by NHS Health Scotland. Karen McCluskey’s plenary session focusing on the opportunities brought by the new Community Justice Scotland also offered cause for optimism in this area. Fast and efficient pursuit of the principles mentioned above, and the integration of relevant services, is crucial to improving responses to this group. Second, young people, who remain dramatically over-represented in the homeless population, with 16-24 year olds making up a stubborn 28% of homeless acceptances while accounting for only 14% of the adult population. Young people (and we seem to now need to concede that this includes under 35 year old low income single people for these purposes) and are being pushed into circumstances of increasing insecurity by ongoing cuts to housing entitlements and out of work benefits, reductions in local authority budgets and of course wider trends in the housing and labour market. The removal of automatic entitlement to support with housing costs for 18-21 year olds is, worryingly, only one more part of the undeniably bleak picture here. It was reassuring to hear Angela Constance (Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities) reiterate Scottish Government’s commitment to reverse this in her plenary address to the conference, though frustrating to hear the challenges they face in finding a mechanism to do so under the current distribution of relevant powers between Westminster and Holyrood.

Homelessness has been a long-standing public policy priority in Scotland, for the Scottish Government and a wide coalition of stakeholders concerned to (in the words of Shelter Scotland’s campaign) ‘fix it’. But any claim Scotland once had to being a world-leader on homelessness is slipping away in the current crisis-ridden, post-‘welfare reform’ context and (more positively) given decisive and impressive changes to homelessness law and policy elsewhere in the UK, particularly in Wales. We can raise our game, and we can do so by being uncompromisingly outward looking, learning lessons from other countries’ policy responses and stubbornly pursuing demonstrably effective approaches that we know can make a real difference.

[i] For a synthesis of that research see chapter 9 of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report UK poverty: Causes, costs and solutions.