Eradicating Core Homelessness in Scotland’s Four Main Cities: Asking the impossible?

Today I-SPHERE publishes a report that provides an analysis of ‘core homelessness’ in Scotland’s four largest cities: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen. It originated from an approach to I-SPHERE from Social Bite entrepreneur, Josh Littlejohn, in early summer of this year with a view to developing the evidence base to inform the disbursement of funds from this December’s ‘Sleep Out’ in Princes Street Gardens.  It later became clear that the timing was very fortuitous – with this fast turnaround report delivered just in time to provide an early frame of reference for the work of the Scottish Government’s recently established Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group.

Mandy Littlewood, Honourary Research Fellow

The research considers four key (overlapping) areas of interest to Social Bite: rough sleeping; substance misuse; temporary accommodation; employability and independent living. It established that homelessness remains a significant problem in Scotland’s main cities, despite the very strong statutory safety net in place since the coming into force of the Homelessness etc. (Scotland) Act 2003, and widespread support for the principles of the ‘Housing Options’ approach to homelessness prevention implemented since 2010.  There is also evidence that homelessness combined with ‘complex needs’, such as substance misuse, involvement in the criminal justice system, or mental ill-health, is becoming a proportionately greater problem for local authorities across Scotland.

The research involved gathering the views of key service providers in all four cities on the solutions needed in their specific contexts. A total of 46 took part in the six focus groups, from a wide range of organisations, representing local authorities, health and social care providers, hostels and other temporary accommodation providers, and agencies supporting people with multiple and complex needs.

The really interesting point to emerge from these discussions was the extent to which the issues differed between the cities. Service providers in Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen generally felt that rough sleeping has been stable, or even declining, over the past few years in their city. In Edinburgh, in sharp contrast, the consensus view was that increasing numbers are on the streets, as emergency accommodation struggles to cope amid acute pressure on all forms of affordable housing. Yet, of the four cities, Glasgow still has by far the biggest rough sleeping problem.

Temporary accommodation patterns also vary significantly across the cities. Edinburgh has far higher numbers in B&B accommodation than the other cities, while Dundee is much more reliant on hostels than is the case elsewhere. Both Glasgow and Aberdeen make extensive use of ‘temporary furnished flats’ to accommodate homeless households in mainstream social rented stock, but system ‘blockages’ mean that there can be significant delays in these households moving on to permanent housing, especially in Glasgow.

In both Edinburgh and Aberdeen there is concern about growing numbers of rough sleepers (mainly EU migrants) with no recourse to public funds, while in Glasgow significant system pressures are associated with the substantial numbers of asylum seekers granted refugee status and accepted as statutorily homeless.

There were also broad areas of agreement across the cities. Alongside affordable housing supply and access, participants emphasised the need for ‘assertive’, ‘sticky’ and ‘flexible’ services working with rough sleepers and other homeless people with complex needs. Models like Making Every Adult Matter (MEAM)’s ‘link workers/service navigators’ and the City Ambition Network (CAN) initiative in Glasgow were suggested as examples of good practice.

Service providers generally voiced strong support for Housing First, rehousing people with more complex needs into mainstream tenancies with wrap-around support. However, some element of congregate provision was argued to be required for people for whom Housing First may not be suitable. There was also a feeling that some tendering processes and funders favour ‘innovative solutions’ that are not necessarily backed by evidence, over older solutions that have been proven to work.

In substance misuse, the (now mainstream) ‘recovery’ model commanded widespread support, though it was clear that access to relevant drugs services was very uneven across the four cities, and was particularly problematic in Dundee and Edinburgh.

Employability was acknowledged to be an especially challenging area for homeless people who often face severe labour market disadvantages. Nonetheless, there was support for training and access to work schemes, including direct placement and support services within ordinary workplaces.

There were perceived barriers to collaboration between third sector organisations – competition for funding leads to fragmentation of delivery, stifling strategic or innovative working. The new Alliancing model in Glasgow was highlighted as a potentially positive way forward.

Although temporary accommodation pressures in Edinburgh have reached crisis point, solutions there need to focus on expanding access to affordable housing more broadly.  Across the cities, there needs to be better coordination of services and increased flexibility, as well as less emphasis on tenancy readiness and more tenancy sustainment support.

Our work on this report started from the premise that private charitable giving cannot provide a comprehensive and sustainable solution to homelessness in Scotland. That can only emerge from a system-wide approach and policy commitment to addressing the structural causes of homelessness – particularly poverty and inadequate affordable housing supply. However, we hope the evidence provided in the report, together with the profile-raising activities of Social Bite, can help to shape the public debate in a progressive direction that makes positive policy responses more likely. It is also intended that the additional resources generated by Social Bite fundraising will be deployed on evidence-based practical solutions that will, if they prove effective, be mainstreamed as part of the public policy response in the longer-term.

The task ahead is not easy. If it was, homelessness would have been eradicated by now.  This report will hopefully help to provide the evidence base on which to build lasting solutions.

Photograph courtesy of Steven Hope.