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Comment: Rough sleepers must not be abandoned

Holyrood

Comment: Rough sleepers must not be abandoned

If politics is the art of the possible, the last few weeks have been akin to discovering a whole new colour.

In the face of an unprecedented, deadly viral threat, it is remarkable how many previously unthinkable political choices suddenly became not only thinkable, but essential.

The economy has been effectively on hold for weeks, the population for the most part shut in our homes. The UK Government was reportedly taken aback at how readily the population made a collective sacrifice to keep our communities safe. The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has seen a Conservative government pay the wages for 8.7m jobs. Almost 800,000 people in Scotland are currently being supported between that scheme and Self-Employment Income Support. As applications for Universal Credit nonetheless soared, the Chancellor also found enough money to increase the standard allowance by £1,000 a year, for the next 12 months. 

In perhaps the most radical move of all, rough sleeping was all but eliminated across the UK, as hotels and former Airbnb flats were opened up to give people somewhere safe to stay during the pandemic. Frontline campaigners have long argued that housing is what ends homelessness. Coronavirus provided an extraordinary impetus to act. The speed and effectiveness of the response was remarkable. The Simon Community said that the hotel initiative has reduced the number of people sleeping rough to “a handful” in Glasgow and around 20 people in Edinburgh. Those still on the streets are all people who did not want to leave their regular sleeping place. The increase in capacity for shelter meant that in one fell swoop no one needed to sleep rough in Scotland’s two biggest cities. It’s a truly extraordinary demonstration of what can be achieved when faced with a national emergency – and has undoubtedly saved lives in a terribly vulnerable population.

But a question mark hovers over the future. For most of us, it’s a relief to see our society slowly reopen. But as plans to reopen the tourist sector gather pace, fears are growing for those who have found temporary digs in hotels. We must not forget these people – people who are so used to being forgotten – in our rush to get back to normal.

I’ve spent the last eight weeks speaking to people across the UK who are experiencing, or have recently experienced, homelessness. They’ve told me stories of lives lived at the edge of society and on the edge of survival. I can tell you, long before we were hit by the coronavirus pandemic, the housing emergency was already very real. Scotland has not seen the same terrifying rise in rough sleeping that has blighted England – where the numbers have risen by as much as 250 per cent since 2010. Robust laws here ensure that unintentionally homeless people are entitled to permanent accommodation. Unlike in England, the Right to Buy – which annihilated social housing stock – has been abolished in Scotland. A Scottish adaptation to the way that Universal Credit is paid means that people here can still choose to have the housing portion of the benefit paid directly to their landlord.

Scotland has also been at the forefront of bringing the Housing First model to the UK. Strong and increasing evidence shows this to be the most effective and efficient was to deal with chronic homelessness. Based on the idea that the homeless person’s primary need is stable housing, the process differs from traditional models in that it does not require individuals to be ‘housing-ready’ – for example, having addressed drug or alcohol dependencies – before offering them a home. Instead, they are given stable housing, and then offered help with the issues that may have contributed to their homelessness. In 2010, Glasgow was the site of the UK’s first Housing First pilot project. For the last ten years, Housing First Scotland has been building a consensus around this intuitive, but politically challenging, idea. 

The commitment of successive Scottish Governments resulted in sharply decreasing numbers of people facing homelessness during the first half of the last decade. Yet official figures show that the number of homeless households has started to rise once more. Charities and campaigners warn that progress made between 2010-15 is being eroded. In the latest figures, covering 2018/19, homelessness hit 29,894 households in Scotland – a rise of three per cent on the year before. 

While coronavirus has shown what can be done given the political will, it also threatens to be a perfect storm to push thousands more people into precarious housing situations. The virus, as well as the steps taken to contain it, has disproportionally hit those already experiencing all types of disadvantage.

The Fraser of Allander Institute has predicted that a three-month lockdown could result in a 20-25 per cent contraction in Scottish GDP. With many industries paused due to lockdown, the number of Scots out of work has already rocketed to 127,000. A further third of Scottish workers are on furlough. With economic predictions dire, it is unclear how many will have jobs to return to when the programme ends. 

Emergency legislation was passed in early April to give Scottish tenants longer notice periods where they face eviction – but for some this will only be a temporary stay of execution. Underlying all these measures, the long-term housing crisis is still in play.

We simply do not have enough affordable and social housing. Over the last ten years, the rates for private rentals have increased at twice the rate of inflation. Meanwhile wages have fallen in real terms. According to Shelter Scotland, Scotland needs another 53,000 affordable homes, including 37,100 for social rent, to meet need. The Scottish Government is currently working towards a welcome, if likely insufficient, target to build 50,000 affordable homes – including 35,000 for social rent – by March 2021.

However, housing minister Kevin Stewart has already warned that the lockdown makes it “unlikely” that those homes will be erected on time. Even before coronavirus hit, there was evidence that targets were not being met. In July last year, an investigation by The Ferret found that the £25m Rural Housing Fund established to provide 500 new homes by 2021 had resulted in only 80 approvals and 23 completions. 

This week, the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery – tasked with recommending post-COVID solutions to ensure transition towards a greener, net-zero wellbeing economy – argued that the Scottish Government should accelerate investment in affordable housing as part of its recovery from the pandemic. Economy secretary Fiona Hyslop has promised to publish a response to their call by the end of July. I urge her to remember that we no longer live in the same world that we did at the start of 2020. It’s time to think beyond the narrow horizons of what was then deemed possible. We now know that we can get people off the streets. We cannot allow them to go back.

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