Out in the cold: How Scotland can end homelessness
By 7.30pm a queue of people has already formed below the railway bridge on Argyle Street, underneath the rattling of the trains leaving Glasgow Central Station.
It is four degrees outside, a Friday night at the start of December, and the Homeless Project Scotland is nearly ready to start serving food for anyone who needs it. Tables line the underpass, placed up against closed shop shutters. Pots of food send billowing steam up into the bridge overhead.
It is a relatively quiet evening for the kitchen. Around 90 people have shown up, but sometimes it can be well over 200, with the line running the length of the bridge and round the McDonald’s on the corner. Those at the head of the queue examine a white-board menu – chicken or vegetable curry, sausage pasta, chilli, mac and cheese, a chorizo paella, and half a dozen types of soup.
Terry, in his 40s, stays in a nearby homeless centre. He tells Holyrood the project has offered him a lifeline over the past six weeks or so.
“This place is an inspiration for me,” he says. “If it wasn’t for these people [the volunteers] we wouldn’t have something to eat. You don’t know where your next meal is coming from. I’ve been coming for the last six weeks, and they’ve shown me a different path of life, to help me get back on my feet. Some of the people here have houses, they just can’t provide for themselves.”
The kitchen will serve anyone who needs it. Some are in hotel accommodation – provided as an emergency measure in response to COVID – some are in homeless centres, and a few sleep rough on the streets. Everyone has their own reason for going, but it all comes down to one thing: hunger. A long line of people, wrapped up and huddled against the cold. This is the reality of homelessness during the pandemic.
Colin McInnes is one of the founders of the project. He tells Holyrood the pandemic has changed the way he operates, forcing him to move his kitchen from the back of a van and out onto the pavement.
He says: “We had to buy COVID friendly tables, which can be easily cleaned, we had to buy sanitiser stations, we had to buy tape, banners, posters, plus 63 pots, 63 gas burners, gas bottles, all this stuff so we could bring the soup kitchen away from the trailer and become a socially distanced kitchen on the street.”
He adds: “Before COVID started it was very, very difficult to get councils to accommodate people. Now COVID is here it is a bit easier, but they aren’t really accommodating them, they’re just giving them a roof.
“Last week we had around 190 people attending. They are homeless, vulnerable, lonely, sad, or they need someone to talk to. They come along, get food, have a chat with the volunteers and then they go home, or they go to their accommodation. It’s hiding the problem from the streets, so the public don’t see it.”
The project is not alone in having to reposition itself following the sudden emergence of coronavirus. COVID and the subsequent lockdown seemed to change everything. Workers were sent home from offices, children were kept from school, and traffic disappeared from the roads.
Local authorities across Scotland, meanwhile, launched plans to move people off the streets and into hotels and B&Bs, while volunteers from charities such as the Homeless Project Scotland scrambled to adjust their work in response.
Rules prohibiting people with No Recourse to Public Funds from accessing local authority support were lifted – temporarily – allowing councils to help people who would normally be left isolated. In Edinburgh, the change allowed the council to house around 50 people who would otherwise be left to sleep rough.
The Scottish Government extended the Unsuitable Accommodation Order, which prevented pregnant women or families with children from being placed in B&Bs for more than a week, to include all homeless households, while an eviction ban, announced at the start of December – covering all cases except serious anti-social behaviour – tightened previous restrictions and meant families got a six week reprieve over the holidays. That, in turn, helped to reduce pressure on local authorities, which have a duty to rehouse people made homeless.
But while the pandemic proved that change is possible, with the huge reduction in the number of people sleeping on the streets offering proof that urgent action can bring results, rough sleeping is just one aspect of Scotland’s housing crisis.
The vast majority of people experiencing homelessness are sofa surfing, based in temporary accommodation, or staying in non-residential buildings. And although progress has been made on rough sleeping, the numbers of Scottish households in temporary accommodation remains high compared with the rest of the UK. In fact, in the face of the pandemic the number has reached an all-time high, with over 14,000 households in temporary and emergency accommodation.
Claire has her own flat, but she comes along to the Argyle Street soup kitchen because she struggles to make ends meet. She tells Holyrood: “There are folk like me, out on the streets, who can’t afford to buy the things they need. By the time I pay my bills off I’m lucky if I have a fiver at the end of a day, and that isn’t going to keep me for two weeks, so this is the only way I can get help. It’s impossible. They give me dinners and I sort them so I have one each day. Sometimes I get milk and biscuits, sometimes other stuff, but at least they help me.
“COVID has made everything worse. It’s much worse. But I’m going to get food to help me survive. I’m not doing anything out of the ordinary, I’m only going to get food, and when I get it I’m straight back up the road. I’m only down here because I need food, or I wouldn’t be out at all. I’d be in the house till this whole thing is over. But I’d rather this than sitting at home with nothing.”
Action taken in response to COVID could lay the groundwork for long-term change in Scotland’s approach to homelessness. However, experts have expressed concern that things may get worse as the economic consequences of the pandemic begin to bite.
Homelessness charity Crisis has called on politicians to make sure that the prevention of homelessness is a national priority ahead of the next election. Addressing housing supply is also critical to ensuring that people in temporary accommodation have somewhere safe and settled to move onto. Campaigners have called for not only an increase in the supply of homes for social rent, but also an increase in the range of suitable and affordable housing options, including use of the private rented sector for those who choose it. But as local government struggles in the face of the pandemic and longstanding budgetary constraints, new measures from the UK Government have added a further complication in protecting some of Scotland’s most vulnerable people.
“I’m only down here because I need food, or I wouldn’t be out at all. I’d be in the house till this whole thing is over.”
Under plans announced by Priti Patel, and introduced via statutory instrument, the Home Office will be able to use rough sleeping as grounds for refusing or cancelling the leave of non-UK nationals. In short, after Brexit, a non-UK national could be arrested and removed from the country for rough sleeping. But rough sleeping is broadly defined, and the grounds are discretionary. This means the change could apply to someone who has spent just one night on the street.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The new provision will be used sparingly and only where individuals refuse to engage with the range of support available and engage in persistent anti-social behaviour.
“We remain committed to ending rough sleeping for good and have been working hard to ensure the most vulnerable in our society have access to safe accommodation. This year alone, we have provided over £700m in funding to support rough sleepers.”
Yet, while the Home Office insisted the grounds would be used on a “discretionary basis”, 141 charities, lawyers and local authorities wrote to Patel to warn the policy would have “severe consequences” for survivors of modern slavery, increasing the number of cases where victims are wrongly arrested, detained and removed from the UK.
And given around a quarter of rough sleepers in the UK are thought to be foreign nationals, with many unable to access mainstream support because they have no recourse to public funds, homelessness charities are extremely concerned.
As Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, puts it: “Throughout the pandemic we have seen unprecedented action to protect people experiencing homelessness. This is in danger of being undermined by these new immigration rules which also threaten to push people further away from support and put them at risk of exploitation.
“The number of people sleeping rough on Scotland’s streets has drastically reduced because of the bold action taken by Scottish Government, who’ve also recently outlined a new, ambitious plan to tackle homelessness.
“The UK Government says the new rules will only be used sparingly, when people have refused support, but we know through our work that many are forced into rough sleeping because they cannot access mainstream support with housing and benefits. These rules must be reconsidered – the danger people face otherwise is unthinkable.”
The Scottish Government too opposes the change – communities secretary Aileen Campbell tells Holyrood it was an “inhumane policy devoid of compassion and fairness” – while local authorities across the UK announced they would refuse to comply with the measure. In Scotland, COSLA joined with ministers in expressing concern for what the policy would mean for local authorities’ ability to reach and support people at risk of rough sleeping.
In fact with the EU settlement scheme deadline approaching, there remains a very real danger that people with no recourse to public funds could find themselves at risk of removal after losing the current emergency protections introduced in response to COVID.
As City of Edinburgh Council Housing, Homelessness and Fair Work Convener Kate Campbell explained, in a letter to the Home Secretary: “Once the public health requirement to accommodate individuals ceases, the council will no longer be able to continue to provide accommodation without creating a significant legal and financial risk. It is likely that to do so would be considered illegal. This means that we will be legally required to ask people to leave accommodation knowing that they have no alternative accommodation secured, and are likely to have no alternative but to sleep rough.”
Councillor Kelly Parry, COSLA community wellbeing spokesperson said: “Councils and their partners work hard to make sure everyone has safe accommodation and can access their rights. Not having access to benefits and homelessness support makes this a real challenge for assisting many people from outside of the UK. Fear of removal, or other vulnerabilities linked to immigration status, can make it harder for migrants who have fallen on hard times to engage with councils to access support.
“As we approach the end of the Transition Period, and with the pandemic causing significant challenges in our communities, we are particularly worried about people who may not be able successfully to make an application to the EU Settlement Scheme before the deadline. We need to keep working together to make sure people living in the UK can find legal routes to regularisation, employment and support – we cannot allow people to fall into crisis.”
And so while the pandemic has shown how urgent action can tackle homelessness, the future remains deeply uncertain for some of the UK’s most vulnerable people.
Yet, as homelessness charities insist, Scotland and the UK already possess the tools required to tackle the housing crisis, if politicians can find the will to use them.
The Everyone Home Collective, a group made up of charities and academics, has outlined how Scotland can end homelessness within the next decade, with proposals based around five key areas: prioritising the prevention of homelessness, building more homes, ending rough sleeping, ensuring there are no evictions into homelessness, and systemic change.
The Collective has called on MSPs to commit to ending child poverty by 2030, to build 53,000 affordable homes over the next five years – including 37,100 homes for social rent – and for rough sleeping to be considered a public health emergency. And while the pandemic has caused huge problems for both local authorities and charities such as the Homeless Project Scotland, it has shown that when the political will is there, rough sleeping can be ended.
Ultimately, however, the best way to tackle homelessness is to prevent it happening in the first place.