Accommodating a crisis

Written by Gemma Fraser on 19 December 2018 in Inside Politics

Families faced with homelessness should not have to spend more than a week in temporary accommodation, but B&Bs are becoming a much more long-term prospect 

Image credit: iStock

The room was filthy, the bed infested with mites.

There were no cooking facilities, except a microwave shared between the 90 hostel residents.

There had been no hot water for days. And that one microwave, relied on by the 90 residents as their only means of getting a hot meal, was broken.

The scene sounds like it comes straight from the pages of an Irvine Welsh novel, depicting a dirty squat used solely as a drugs den. It does not paint the picture of a family home where a father is trying to care for his baby alone.

It does not paint the picture of a safe, secure and comfortable environment which all children should be entitled to; which all humans should be entitled to.

But here we are, in 2018, listening to the chilling description of the kind of squalor a 10-month-old baby and her father were forced to live in as the only alternative to sleeping rough. Accommodation, it’s important to point out, that was provided by the local council.

“He had slept in cleaner crack and heroin dens,” Kezia Dugdale angrily told fellow MSPs in her passionate speech during a parliamentary debate on homelessness.

The father in question – a former drug addict who has been clean for nine years – had gone to Dugdale, his local MSP, for help, driven by desperation after the third day of no hot water.

“Imagine trying to feed a baby with no hot water and a microwave between 90 residents in this city in 2018,” she told MSPs.

Dugdale’s constituent had been living in the so-called temporary accommodation for two months by the time she became aware of his dire situation. That’s despite the fact legislation states that homeless families should not be housed in temporary accommodation such as hostels and B&Bs for more than a week.

In Edinburgh, where Dugdale’s constituent lives, figures released via a freedom of information request by The Ferret revealed that as many as 466 homeless families spent eight days or more in B&B accommodation between September 2017 and September 2018.

“They were breaking the law 466 times in that last year,” Dugdale told MSPs. “But when you look at the detail of the law, they weren’t actually breaking it because there’s an exemption and the exemption is you can be placed in that accommodation if there’s nothing else suitable – and there isn’t anything else suitable in this city.

“We are so far short of having the accommodation we need for so many families.”

Edinburgh City Council has admitted it is in the midst of a housing crisis which has seen the authority spend more than £190m on temporary accommodation – the highest in Scotland – over the past five years.

It has only 15 per cent social housing in the city compared to a national average of 24 per cent, but has pledged to work towards having no families living in B&B accommodation.

“Ending the use of bed and breakfast accommodation for homeless families is still our absolute focus.

“Ultimately, we want to end the use of B&Bs altogether – but this will take time,” said SNP councillor Kate Campbell, Edinburgh’s housing convener.

“So far we’ve increased funding for our Private Sector Leasing scheme, allowing private landlords in the city to put their properties into the pool to be used as temporary accommodation. We’ve also brought on 30 more council flats to use as temporary accommodation for families and we’ve prioritised 50 per cent of our own mid-market rent properties for households experiencing homelessness.

“We have an extremely pressured housing market and the long-term solution is more affordable homes, particularly social housing. That’s why we’ve made the pledge to build 20,000 affordable homes over the next 10 years. But in the short term there, we have to look at all the different ways we can improve things for families and households experiencing homelessness today.”

She added: “Increasing the number of flats available as temporary accommodation for families has meant the length of time that families are spending in a B&B has come down, as well as the number in B&B at any one time. But I can’t stress this enough, we will not stop until there are no families in B&Bs.”

The number of people in temporary accommodation in Edinburgh rose 89 per cent from 661 households in 2010 to 1,246 in 2017, again representing the highest rise in Scotland.

But while the crisis in Edinburgh is stark, it is by no means isolated to the capital.

Across Scotland there has been an overall rise in the number of people placed in temporary accommodation since 2002. Snapshot figures from March 2002 show there were 4,153 households in temporary accommodation, compared with 10,933 in March this year.

Fiona King, national campaigns and policy manager for Shelter Scotland, told Holyrood: “What we’re seeing is that the statistics over the last ten years or so show an increasing reliance on temporary accommodation and the numbers are just going up and up when homelessness figures over the same period have actually been going down – this year the slight increase is a bit of an exception.

“Essentially, there’s a huge bottleneck in temporary accommodation and it is a massive problem. The legislation lays out that you have a legal right to temporary accommodation and to a permanent home if you’re found unintentionally homeless.

“[Temporary accommodation] is not a bad thing, it’s an important part of the homelessness journey for a lot of people and so it is absolutely integral to helping people successfully move away from homelessness.

“But statistics show people spend just under six months, on average, in temporary accommodation. No one should be languishing in a poor quality B&B or hostel for more than a few days. It can be a very scary and negative experience staying in a B&B or hostel if you’re a vulnerable person or if you’re struggling with addiction to go into an environment which is very unstable.”

Shelter Scotland has been campaigning for the past five years for legally enforceable standards across the whole of the temporary accommodation stock to at least make the experience more bearable.

But does there also need to be stricter enforcement of the legislation which should prevent families spending more than a week in B&Bs?

“The lack of enforcement and the lack of consequence is a real problem and legislation is only as valuable as it is enforceable,” said King. “The intention behind that piece of legislation is incredibly powerful, but in the current housing crisis, in some local authorities, it’s unworkable so it’s totally ineffective for the households affected.

“Good legislation always needs to be coupled with the right resources and the culture to facilitate it being enacted and acted on.”

The real problem lies in the fact there simply isn’t enough housing available, and that is especially abundant in the cities.

King added: “There’s just not enough housing across Scotland to meet the need and that’s what underlies this.

“A lot of the housing problems we see including high rents in the private rented sector are to do with supply and demand and there is such a great demand and not enough supply, so this is just another symptom of the housing crisis and it’s one symptom that affects the most vulnerable households in the country.”

It is reported that someone presents as homeless every 18 minutes in Scotland, which illustrates just how big a problem it is to find homes – temporary or otherwise – for all those who need help.

In 2017-18, a total of 34,972 households applied as homeless in Scotland, marking a one per cent rise on the 2016-17 figure – the first increase since 2008-09.

The Scottish Government published its Ending Homelessness Together Action Plan last month which aims to get homeless people housed in long-term and settled accommodation as soon as possible.

The strategy is ambitious and widely welcomed – indeed, the approach is said to be “world leading”.

It will see local and national government working together with third sector organisations, with a focus on prevention, and has been backed by a £50m fund over five years.

Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis and chair of the Homelessness & Rough Sleeping Action Group, said: “This is an ambitious plan that firmly positions Scotland as a world leader in ending homelessness.

“The turnaround has been swift and the approach is bold but achievable if the commitment is shared across local government, housing associations and homelessness charities.

“The plan has people at its heart and makes clear that the best approach is to prevent homelessness in the first place, however, we need to see a prevention duty in law for all public bodies as well as an ambitious set of targets which demonstrates that homelessness has been ended for more people.”

There are some that remain sceptical about how achievable the outcomes are, including Dugdale, who believes “there is nowhere near enough resource to back it up”.

Speaking at the Ending Homelessness Together debate at Holyrood, she said: “There is no doubt that the report is laudable and that its recommendations are admirable.

“However, based on what I see in Edinburgh, I have to say to the cabinet secretary and the minister that much of the report is utterly fanciful.”

Fanciful or not, there is no denying that something has got to change to end the housing crisis, and the fact that there is a willingness to accept drastic action is needed and a drive from government to do so is, undoubtedly, a massive step in the right direction.

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