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Comment: Ten years on from the Christie Commission, it’s time to prioritise homelessness prevention

More affordable homes and social housing are needed to prevent people ending up homeless Picture: Alamy

Comment: Ten years on from the Christie Commission, it’s time to prioritise homelessness prevention

Ten years on from its publication, the Christie Commission’s report continues to hold a remarkable influence on public policy in Scotland.

The world, clearly, has changed a great deal since the report’s release in 2011, as the emergence of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown fundamentally altered the basic details of our lives.

Yet even in our public policy responses to coronavirus, Christie’s work looms large in the mind.

The Social Renewal Advisory Board, established to plot a route out of the pandemic while also reducing poverty, embedding a human-rights based approach and advancing equality, was a recent incarnation of the commission’s principles.

In fact the aims of Christie’s report – based in preparing public services for the challenges of the future – remain as relevant now as they did back in 2011.

The world has changed immeasurably in the ten years since the report’s release, but the need for a greater focus on prevention has not.

The report was guided by four ‘p’s – people, partnership, performance and prevention – with the Commission clear in the need to prioritise spending on services which stop problems before they arise. That means installing smoke alarms, so you don’t have to tackle a house fire.

But while the report remains one of the most important of the devolution era, there remains a sense that its vision was never properly fulfilled.

In Holyrood’s latest issue, Professor James Mitchell reflects on his work on the report. He told Holyrood: “The thing I would say about the commission’s report is there was nothing new in it. And there was nothing earth shatteringly important; there was no eureka moment.

“What the commission did was give voice to already existing thinking and views in the communities.

“And, of course, it did raise questions on why is this not happening everywhere. That’s the fundamental question.

“And what, in a sense, remains the fundamental question. If we’re all agreed this is the thing we should be doing, why is it not happening?”

The question is a very good one. Why is it not happening? Time and time again, our society is forced to focus energy on last-minute, emergency solutions, rather than acting earlier and focusing spending on prevention.

The homelessness system is a prime example. Ask any politician and they will tell you that people deserve a safe, secure place to live. They will also tell you that the best way to end homelessness is to prevent people from losing their homes in the first place.

Yet time and time again people are forced to reach crisis point before they are able to access the support they need.

That means that while rough sleeping numbers in Scotland are low – with the pandemic driving an urgent effort to move people off the streets and into self-contained accommodation – the number of people in temporary accommodation reached a record high this year.

That’s nearly 14,000 people unable to plan for the future or move on with their lives. It means people trapped for long periods of time in hotels and B&Bs, in some cases without access to proper cooking or laundry facilities.

But, as Christie’s recommendations show, it doesn’t have to be this way.

The Prevention Review Group, established to examine the role of prevention in addressing rough sleeping and high numbers of people in temporary accommodation, was driven by the same sort of ideas that led to the Christie Commission.

Published in February, its recommendations represent a blueprint for ending homelessness by stopping it happen in the first place, with a collection of experts from the homelessness sector, from local authorities and from academia calling for action to prevent homelessness starting much earlier than at present, with support available up to six months before someone faces the prospect of losing their home.

It also highlighted the importance of working in partnership – another of Christie’s ‘p’s – calling for changes to the law to ensure all public bodies, such as health services, have a responsibility to ask about people’s housing situation and identify any issues at an early stage. They would then act and offer help if that person is in danger of losing their home in the next six months.

Under the PRG recommendations, public bodies would work together with housing professionals to ensure that people get help early and do not lose their home unnecessarily. The proposals, if implemented, would ensure that no one leaves a prison or hospital without somewhere to sleep that night.

The recommendations were shaped by the Prevention Commission, a group of people with experience of homelessness, with Christie’s emphasis on placing people at the heart of decision-making echoed by the importance of choice in the PRG’s report. That’s why we want services to work in partnership with people to find out what help they need, and make sure they have choice over where they live and in what type of home.

In the run up to the election and its aftermath, all of the main political parties in Scotland supported the campaign to improve homelessness prevention. This parliamentary term is a chance to take those aspirations and put them into practice.

Ten years on and Scotland has a chance to bring Christie’s vision a little closer to reality. The Scottish Renewal Advisory Board report was titled ‘If not now, when?’ When it comes to homelessness prevention, the question is even more pressing. We can’t afford to wait any longer.

Jon Sparkes is chief executive of Crisis

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