We know how to tackle homelessness, so let’s do it

Written by Graeme Brown on 15 February 2018 in Comment

Graeme Brown, director of Shelter Scotland, on the lessons learned from the Local Government and Communities Committee's inquiry into homelessness

Image credit: PA

It was humbling and at the same time inspiring to see people who have seen so much tragedy, danger and personal despair in their own lives turn up to Holyrood and share their lived experience of homelessness.

That’s what happened late last year as six formerly homeless people shared parts of their lives that were filled with stormy uncertainty – a section of their lives you could understand them wanting to forget.

Instead, they decided to share their story to help other people facing homelessness now and in the future.

They gave compelling evidence to the Local Government and Communities Committee, which this week published its report after an 11-month inquiry into homelessness in Scotland.

They showed how homelessness can truly happen to anyone – one made homeless after his landlord was repossessed which tipped his life into chaos and another who ran a business before hard times hit.

The inquiry received 64 written responses to its call for views and held six oral evidence sessions - including the six former homeless people. The subsequent report is a broad and comprehensive take on homelessness in Scotland and therefore very welcome.

Key recommendations from the committee include:

-              Statutory standards set for temporary accommodation

-              That the Code of Guidance on homelessness is reviewed and updated

-              The exploration of a new ‘Scottish-style’ Housing First model

-              Seeking reassurance that Housing Options guidance has been implemented properly and that gatekeeping is being tackled

We are delighted to see recommendations made on many issues that Shelter Scotland is regularly approached by the public for help and on which we have campaigned for change for many years.

We particularly welcome the recognition that temporary accommodation in Scotland can at times be of poor quality, unsuitable, expensive and ineffective, as this is the reality that many Shelter Scotland clients have to endure for months on end.

The recommendation that statutory standards on temporary accommodation should apply across the board is long overdue and badly needed. Temporary accommodation usage is rising, especially for families with children, as we have been monitoring for several years, and it is crucial that the accommodation provided is good quality, cost-effective, close to support networks and ceases to be the life in limbo it currently is.

Linked to this, the committee highlighted its concerns that the current Code of Guidance for homelessness has not been updated since 2005 and correctly identified that this may be leading to people facing barriers to accessing temporary accommodation. This is a relatively simple yet extremely effective change that would ensure parity of practice and something that Shelter Scotland has long been asking for, most recently in our Far From Fixed campaign.

Shelter Scotland has long been supportive of the core principles and aims of the Housing First model and its core principles, in that it can provide an effective response to homelessness for people who have multiple and complex needs. However, we feel that Housing First will require a wholesale change of approach from all partners in the homelessness sector if it is to be successful.

Additionally, it is important to consider how this will interact with existing legislation and rights and how councils that are already struggling to meet current statutory duties will be supported to meet this ambition. Without more detail on this aspect, there is a risk of unintended consequences and making our existing system even more complex for those trying to navigate it at a point of vulnerability in their lives.

As the Committee says, Housing First is an important part of the jigsaw. We need to make sure the rest of the pieces are in place to make this work and ensure that its shape fits with the rest of our world-leading legislation. We must deliver, in practice, an effective service for individuals with appropriate and timely support to help people out of homelessness and into a safe and secure home.

The committee’s recognition of gatekeeping and its call for the Scottish Government to combat the practice is particularly significant. Gatekeeping was identified as a problem by several respondents to the inquiry, especially those who had experienced homelessness and we are pleased to see that these concerns are being taken into account.

This recommendation comes shortly after the BBC recently carried out an investigation on gatekeeping and it is encouraging that this long-standing issue is finally gaining traction and recognition. We hope that decisive action is now taken so that nobody faces barriers to accessing the homelessness services which they have a right to.

This report is not coming into a vacuum. The Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group, (HARSAG), on which our Deputy Director Alison Watson sits, will report its recommendations on how we can end rough sleeping, how we can transform the use of temporary accommodation, and what needs to be done to end homelessness - all by late Spring 2018. Many of the LGC Committee’s recommendations call for further action and recommendations from the Action Group – we hope it heeds these calls and factors them in to its final recommendations.

The priority now is that this report and its recommendations are turned into action – action that will mean far fewer people in future will have to suffer the human tragedy of homelessness such as that experienced by the six formerly homeless people we heard about earlier.

Homelessness in Scotland is far from fixed, but we know what needs to get done – it’s now time to get on and do it.

Graeme Brown is Director of Shelter Scotland

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