Homelessness & rough sleeping: The long view – David Belfall

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In March 2002 the Homelessness Task Force led by the Housing Minister (first Jackie Baillie and then Iain Gray) published its second and final report on how to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping in Scotland. After nearly 3 years work it provided an analysis of the problem based on extensive academic research, proposals for major legislative changes, and a series of recommendations both for preventing homelessness and tackling it when it occurs. It is noteworthy that, although the Task Force included representatives of Shelter and other third sector organisations, the Big Issue and COSLA, all with strikingly different views, its report was unanimous. Its publication was greeted with near universal acclaim. It was seen as a prime example of how social policy should be made. Indeed the report won international awards. And yet, 16 years on, homelessness and rough sleeping persist as significant social problems and political issues in Scotland. Why is this?

Returning to this policy area after 16 years I am struck by how relevant the Task Force’s analysis and recommendations remain. The failure has been in not  following through with sufficient focus, drive and co-ordination. Thus the Scottish Government finds itself in the position of having to set up a further action group led by the Chief Executive of Crisis, Jon Sparkes, and to commit to a further spending programme of £50M over 5 years. These are welcome developments but why has this become necessary?

It is important to recognise that no country, ancient or modern, has ever been able to eliminate homelessness entirely. It is certainly not a problem which can be resolved overnight, or within the lifetime of a single Parliament. Thus the current Ministerial commitment to “ending homelessness”, welcome though it is in expressing a renewed determination to tackle the problem, goes beyond what can be achieved, at least in the foreseeable future. Of course this does not mean that homelessness cannot be reduced substantially in Scotland. The Task Force set the more modest and realistic objective of achieving a “step change in the incidence of homelessness in Scotland”. But even this remains to be achieved.

Ministers are also committed to “eradicating” rough sleeping in Scotland. Language of this kind – with its echoes of pest control – is best avoided, but it too is unachievable, unless police vans are sent out to clear the streets. People sleep rough for a variety of reasons, in many cases because their experience of being placed in hostels and night shelters has been unacceptable on account of the abuse and violence of other residents. There is scope for greatly reducing the number of rough sleepers by improving the range and quality of accommodation which rough sleepers are offered, but ultimately it is the right of an individual to decide that what he or she is being offered is unacceptable. They cannot (or should not) be forced or compelled to leave the streets.

It is important also to recognise that those who become homeless frequently have other problems which need to be addressed alongside their housing needs. In some cases alcohol and drug misuse, mental health issues and domestic abuse contribute substantially to homelessness, and it is known that those leaving care, the armed forces and prison are particularly at risk of homelessness, as are asylum seekers. All these groups were identified as being at risk in the Homelessness Task Force report 16 years ago, but too little has been done since then to reduce that risk. For example, at the time of the Task Force report some very useful work was being done at Saughton Prison to ensure that on release prisoners had sustainable housing to go to. This was relevant to reducing repeat offending as well as homelessness. But it took 15 years, until December 2017, for the Scottish Government to issue comprehensive guidance (the SHORE standards) on meeting the housing needs of prisoners on release. Those leaving institutional care still account for a significant number of homelessness applications.

It was because of these considerations that the Task Force said, in its 2002 report, that:-
“Homelessness will not be solved overnight or by single programme actions. Progress will require determined, co-ordinated and focused action over a period of years. It will require priority to be given to homelessness by a range of public agencies, including those who may not currently see homelessness as a particular pre-occupation.”

Because it saw homelessness as a long-term problem requiring a multi-agency solution, the Task Force recommended the establishment of a Homelessness Monitoring Group. Such a group was indeed set up, but it was quietly abandoned after a few years when the attention of the Scottish Government (and the Scottish Parliament) shifted elsewhere.

This raises a more general issue, not limited to homelessness. Our political process does not readily accommodate long-term social problems where progress depends on a long-term plan, solid and unspectacular work, and unremitting effort and attention rather than “quick fixes”, intermittent focus and headline-seeking announcements.

Thus, after the initial welcome and action following the publication of the Homelessness Task Force reports, homelessness steadily slipped down the political priority list, with a brief revival between 2010 and 2012, until 2017 when disappointing homelessness figures led to renewed interest, the appointment of the Jon Sparkes group and the promise of further funding.

However, this is not to minimise, or be negative about, the progress that has been made over the last 16 years. The Task Force’s recommendations for major legislative change enhancing the rights of homeless people have been enacted and actioned – though important recommendations concerning “intentionality” and “local connection” (I will not go into details here) remain to be brought into force. Significant progress has also been made in addressing the health needs of homeless people, albeit that much still needs to be done especially by the new Health and Social Care Partnerships. Perhaps most importantly public consciousness of the problems of homelessness and rough sleeping has been raised, and by their generosity the Scottish public have shown their willingness to assist deserving cases. Again, however there is scope to better inform and address public concerns, for example about street begging. Meanwhile the many third sector organisations tackling homelessness in Scotland continue to play a vigorous and innovative part in tackling the needs of homeless people.

Local authorities remain in the forefront of tackling homelessness. Here too progress has been made, as homelessness has been driven up the local authority priority list. Significant improvements have been made in the way local authorities deal with homeless people, most notably after the introduction of the innovative Housing Options approach around 2009 and the more recent development of Housing Options Hubs, which aim to identify and share good practice. The improved performance of local authorities is much to be welcomed, though they will no doubt continue to complain about resource limitations on what they can do. But there remains a need for further action to end the use of unsatisfactory short- term accommodation options such as night shelters and B&B. This has long been recognised as a priority and it is to be hoped that the additional funds now to be made available by the Scottish Government will finally enable this problem to be eliminated. It can be done, and it can be done in the lifetime of this Parliament!

Glasgow, as ever, presents special challenges, because of the scale of the problem. An injection of central government money in the early 2000s enabled the old style large hostels in the city – unsafe and indeed dangerous for users as they were – to be closed. But other unsatisfactory forms of temporary accommodation such as night shelters and B&B continue to be used. A recent report by the Scottish Housing Regulator has made it clear that there is still a need to improve, and speed up, the handling of homelessness cases in the city. Moreover, the figures given in the Regulator’s report illustrate the scale of the problem. In 2016-17 the council received applications from over 5,300 homeless households and had a duty to secure settled accommodation for nearly 4,200. But there are only 8,000 lettings for social rent across Glasgow every year and the council (which is no longer itself a landlord) managed to secure accommodation for only 2,400 households out of the 4,200. Any credible programme for achieving a step reduction in homelessness in Scotland needs to address the Glasgow situation specifically.

So, the report card on tackling homelessness over the last 16 years is mixed – progress made but much remains to be done. However, I take encouragement from the appointment of the Jon Sparkes group. In a remarkably short time it has produced a report on rough sleeping and a report on homelessness is due shortly. Much of its analysis echoes that of the Homelessness Task Force – though without attribution. Its recommendations seem sound and sensible.

Encouragement is also to be drawn from the re-establishment of the Homelessness Prevention and Strategy Group (HPSG), effectively to perform the role envisaged for the Homelessness Monitoring Group 16 years ago. It is particularly welcome that the HPSG is to be co-chaired by the Housing Minister and the COSLA spokesperson on homelessness, and that it includes third sector members such as Gavin Yates from Homeless Action Scotland who are well placed to contribute constructively and to perform the essential role of “challenging friend”. It is also encouraging that, rather than looking for quick fixes, the HPSG is taking a considered and measured approach to its work, and that it is determined to obtain maximum value from the additional resources now to be made available.

Let us hope that the HPSG can develop, monitor and pursue a long- term plan for further tackling homelessness and rough sleeping in Scotland and that, in another 16 years, Jon Sparkes is able to give a less qualified report on what has been achieved.

Before retiring in 2002 David Belfall was Head of the Housing and Area Regeneration Group at the Scottish Executive (as it then was), at the time of the first Rough Sleepers Initiative in Scotland and the Homelessness Task Force. He has recently become a trustee of Homeless Action Scotland, the national membership body for tackling homelessness in Scotland. David is writing in a personal capacity.