Out in the cold: homelessness

Written by Kate Shannon on 29 December 2017 in Inside Politics

Why is homelessness still a major problem in Scotland in the 21st century?

Homelessness: Picture credit - iStock

Last month, the Scottish Government announced the creation of a new group set up to tackle homelessness this winter. 

The Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group, backed by an initial £328,000 of funding from the government, aims to increase emergency accommodation in areas with the greatest numbers of rough sleepers, making personal budgets available to frontline workers to meet immediate housing needs, and support greater use of the emergency Nightstop service.


First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “We have a shared commitment to eradicate rough sleeping and end homelessness which is why we established the action group, backed by £50 million to drive change.

“While we take these immediate steps to help those who find themselves at risk of rough sleeping this winter, the group’s work now continues as we strive to end rough sleeping for good.”

Action group chairman and chief executive of Crisis UK, Jon Sparkes, added: “As the cold weather bites, it’s critical to support as many people sleeping on the streets as possible. 

“However, the longer-term focus of the action group is on sustainable solutions which prevent people rough sleeping in the first place and our focus is now on looking at the practical and systems changes required to end rough sleeping for good.

“These proposals mean that immediate, effective support can be given to people sleeping rough this winter, as well as making longer-term solutions easier to access.”

But why, in 2017, is a group like this needed?

According to Shelter Scotland, a Scottish household becomes homeless every 19 minutes. 

If this isn’t shocking enough, more than 6,000 children will wake up without a permanent place to call home this Christmas and 28,000 households were made homeless in Scotland in the past year.

However, Shelter Scotland director Graeme Brown told Holyrood that the Scottish Government deserves to be commended for a number of recent measures and commitments regarding housing and homelessness. 

These include the pledge to build 50,000 affordable homes by 2021 and recent changes to the private rental sector, which mean tenants have more security and stability coupled with better safeguards for landlords, lenders and investors. He also welcomed the creation of the Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group.

However, Brown believes there are still serious issues to be addressed in Scotland.

He said: “We pushed the case for a homelessness strategy all the way through the Scottish parliamentary elections and indeed again at the local government elections. We raised it with officials, with other bodies and we’ve been bringing together a range of voices from the sector on this subject. 

“I’m absolutely delighted that the action group has been established and it’s right that they turn their early attention to rough sleeping.

“We’re now in winter and no one wants to see people out in the streets in this weather. 

“What I would add to that is that the problems of homelessness in Scotland are not just about rough sleeping, we estimate [there are] about 5,000 people rough sleeping across Scotland, though you understand actual counts are difficult. 

“However, there’s another 20-25,000 people who have been assessed as homeless and I think what my concern is, or my word of caution would be, that the problems we face in terms of homelessness are systemic problems.

“We still have a real fundamental issue with 10,500 households in temporary accommodation in Scotland. Temporary accommodation is a necessary transition point but it’s not a solution. 

“We shouldn’t still have homelessness in Scotland. We are in the position where we have got progressive legislation but frankly, it’s just not been implemented in the way that it should be.”

In her Programme for Government in September, Nicola Sturgeon addressed homelessness.

She said: “As Westminster austerity and welfare cuts take their toll, we are seeing worrying signs of an increase in homelessness and rough sleeping. We are not prepared to tolerate that. Let me restate a conviction that I hope will unite all of us.

“It is not acceptable for anyone to have to sleep rough on our streets. We must eradicate rough sleeping.

“However, in setting that national objective, we must recognise that it requires more than just housing. Every individual has unique needs and challenges.

“We will therefore establish a short life expert group to make urgent recommendations on the actions, services and legislative changes required to end rough sleeping and transform the use of temporary accommodation.

“To support its recommendations, we will establish a new £10 million a year ‘Ending Homelessness Together’ fund.

“And we will invest an additional £20 million a year in alcohol and drug services, to help tackle some of the underlying problems which so often drive homelessness.”

Brown welcomed this but said Scotland is seeing the re-emergence of homelessness as a major problem which affects many different policy areas.

He added: “Ex-prisoners make up a significant proportion of the homeless population. Every piece of criminal justice research in the last 25 years has said if you don’t have meaningful occupation and permanent accommodation sorted out [on leaving prison], you are more likely to reoffend. 

“The Scottish Government quite rightly wants to tackle reoffending, we know that every year we have a constant number of people who are ex-prisoners entering the homeless population. Something needs to be done about that.”

The Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Communities Committee has been focusing on homelessness as part of its work programme. It is expected to report its findings in early 2018.

Committee convener Bob Doris MSP told Holyrood: “Our committee wanted to find out more about the reasons why people become homeless, the extent to which the services available for those facing housing crises were assisting but most importantly, to try and identify key ways the system can be improved.

“We heard first-hand from people who are homeless, and those who have experience of sleeping rough or sofa-surfing, during our visits to shelters and supported accommodation in rural areas around Perthshire and city centres in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

“The people we met in homeless shelters said that relationship breakdowns, disruptive family life or mental health issues were some of the reasons for their lives spiralling out of control – leading to a chaotic life on the streets or sofa-surfing with nowhere permanent to live. 

“While our committee has still to agree conclusions, it is already clear that the pathway from vulnerable rough sleeper to securing a permanent tenancy with the required supports can certainly be improved. I am sure this is something the committee will wish to say more about when we do report.”

Just one of the people affected by these issues is Eddie. He is in his 60s and is currently living in Lanarkshire.

He was homeless for two years after his life spiralled out of control following the death of his partner.

He said: “I heard something upstairs and found that my partner had collapsed to the floor. She’d had a heart attack out of the blue, and had died by the time I got to her.

“That’s when my life hit rock bottom. Looking back now, I know that I rushed into a new relationship out of grief and it was the wrong thing to do. I ended up inheriting my new partner’s debts and this eventually led to me having a nervous breakdown.

“I was at a really low point in my life. I was drinking a lot and had suicidal thoughts. “One night, I got picked up by the police after they found me on the banks of the Clyde where I was thinking about ending it all.

“I lost my home, my family, and felt completely isolated. I was put into temporary accommodation miles away from where I’m from and this just made my feelings of loneliness and desperation worse.

“But one day, I had a Simon Community Scotland leaflet through the letterbox and that’s when things started to change.”

Eddie is now a full-time volunteer at the charity [Simon Community Scotland], where he helps people who are currently homeless or at risk of becoming so.

Doris added: “Everyone deserves to have a safe place that they can call home which is self-evidently one of the most basic human needs in society. 

“It is welcome that there will be a significant investment of £3 billion Scottish Government funds over the lifetime of this parliament to deliver at least 50,000 affordable homes.

“However, in the midst of that investment, we must ensure that those individuals and families that are most vulnerable are appropriately supported into good quality, secure tenancies.

“With a variety of funding streams now emerging, it is important that these monies are spent effectively to eliminate homelessness in Scotland. 

“Our committee will provide constructive public scrutiny of such initiatives and will continue to monitor these matters going forward.”

Looking ahead, 2018 will be Shelter Scotland’s 50th anniversary and while the charity will mark the occasion, it will not be a celebration.

Graeme Brown said: “I honestly don’t want Shelter Scotland to be here in another five years if at all possible. 

“We’re not celebrating the fact that we’re 50 years old in 2018, I think we’re going to mark it and ask what needs to be done to make sure we’re not here in the future and I think that’s an important message. 

“This has been a social policy issue for the last 15, 20 years. 

“We’re now, unfortunately, seeing some of the results of countless governments failing to invest in social housing, not addressing properly the homelessness issue, not reforming the private rented sector and we’re now trying to play catch up. 

“Looking ahead to our anniversary in 2018, we’re not going to be sombre about it, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not something we want to celebrate. 

“It says something that we’re still here 50 years later. If you take your mind back to what Scottish housing was like in those days, we came into being because countless families were living in what was effectively poor, sub-standard and sometimes slum accommodation.

“Sure, a lot of things have improved in housing but there’s still work to be done.”   



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