Glasgow City Council have been accused of ‘systemic failures’ by Shelter Scotland, for breaking homelessness laws over 3,000 times between July 2016 and November 2017.
Ending homelessness in Scotland is not a question of resources or knowledge, it is a question of will. As a country we possess some of the most progressive homelessness laws in the world, yet the figures of homelessness are on the rise. In 2017-18, 34,972 homeless applications were made, the first time in nine years that figures have risen. It is imperative as a nation to understand the causes and complexities of our homelessness crisis in order to ask both our political institutions and ourselves: are we doing enough to end a needless crisis?
The causes of homelessness are complex and multifaceted. Factors can be loosely separated into two main groups: individual causes or structural causes. Individual causes can include but are not limited to: mental illness, debt, family breakdown, or drug abuse. More commonly, however, are structural causes such as unemployment, poverty, lack of affordable housing and governmental housing policy. Many people who are rendered homeless in Scotland are affected by a number of these issues and their needs are known therefore as ‘complex’. Though there is no official definition, ‘complex’ needs are the needs of individuals affected by three or more factors. It is estimated that in Scotland, 61 percent of those who make homeless applications are affected by four or more factors – a figure which demonstrates the complexity of our crisis. Though causes are continually referred to as complex, this is not to be considered synonymous with uncommon. The ease with which one can fall into homelessness is a fact which is often disregarded as cliché. Missing a single rent payment, an argument with a family member, or being fired are all everyday examples, commonly cited as avenues to homelessness.
How do we then, in both political and public life, end homelessness in Glasgow? Crisis’ 2016 ‘Manifesto to End Homelessness’ set out exact steps that our government must take in order to reduce the alarming rise in homelessness we have seen over the past few years. They signalled the importance of stronger prevention and early intervention. Preventative policies have both economic and moral incentives. They call for an increase in support for those with ‘complex’ needs as well as a commitment to the use of devolved powers on social security. Finally, and most importantly, they call for more funding for housing schemes. Lack of affordable housing is one of the most significant drawbacks in the fight to end homelessness and is an issue that can be remedied by re-distribution of government funds towards essential housing schemes.
The Scottish government’s efforts to end the homelessness crisis must not go unnoticed. Scottish homelessness laws are progressive and funding promises are being fulfilled. Perhaps the most significant development of recent years is the government’s use of Sweden’s successful HouseFirst initiative. HouseFirst provides the homeless with permanent affordable housing before addressing any other issues such as debts or addiction, believing that permanent accommodation is the vital basis of the recovery process. The initiative, which has seen Sweden’s homelessness figures decline, is hoped to have the same effect in Scotland. 2018 has seen the Scottish government reallocate £21 million of an existing £125 million welfare mitigation amount, to rapid rehousing and the HouseFirst initiative. The minister for housing, Kevin Stewart, expressed his beliefs succinctly when he stated: “Can we end homelessness in Scotland? Aye we can”.
However, it would be untrue to claim that our political bodies have been wholly successful, or indeed lawful, in solving the crisis. Glasgow City Council have been accused of ‘systemic failures’ by Shelter Scotland, for breaking homelessness laws over 3,000 times between July 2016 and November 2017. This is a practice known as ‘gatekeeping’, when a Council blocks services to the homeless that they are legally entitled to such as temporary accommodation. The results are extremely dangerous, leaving many without housing and open to the risks of rough sleeping, violence and other forms of insecure accommodation. It is true that we have some of the most forward-thinking homelessness laws in the UK, but this is a useless fact if they are not put into practice.
The most pertinent question for citizens will likely be ‘what can we do in our daily lives to make sure statistics fall’? The answer is: many things. Firstly, we can voice our support for both affordable housing and social housing to our local councillor. We can give our time and/or donations to homelessness charities such as Shelter Scotland, Crisis and SocialBite. SocialBite is a fantastic new social enterprise based in Edinburgh which has been globally recognised in the fight against homelessness. Their most recent project was the world’s largest sleep out entitled ‘Sleep In The Park’, which saw 8,000 people sleep out in Edinburgh’s Princess Street Gardens last winter. The money raised resulted in the building of 500 homes for rough sleepers. On December 8, Sleep in The Park is coming to Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee and again to Edinburgh. If you are unable to participate in any of these actions, the importance of giving money or food to the homeless you pass on the street cannot be undermined. To sit down and talk with a person who is passed by thousands of busy commuters, will provide something essential and severely lacking – acknowledgement. The eradication of homelessness is an achievable goal, a matter of both policy and practice. Yet its achievability relies not only on our political bodies but also on us. It is our duty to raise awareness and humanise the homelessness crisis in Scotland, and that can start with as little as a conversation.