Blog: Ending homelessness in Scotland: Good is no longer good enough

Ligia Teixeira

Ligia Teixeira

A new bold ambition to end rough sleeping and dramatically reduce the use of temporary accommodation is a welcome and exciting development in Scotland. Ligia Teixeira reflects on how we can best ensure that vision is translated into reality.

On the 5th of September 2017 Nicola Sturgeon announced that the Scottish Government is to set up a Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group, backed with £50 million over five years to ‘eradicate rough sleeping’.[1] The new Action Group meets for the first time today (5 October 2017), with an announcement of the names of the 12 members appointed to run it and a commitment to work openly and collaboratively with the wider sector.

The Scottish Government has tried to tackle the problem of homelessness at different levels before, but comprehensive solutions have proven elusive. Certain things have been successful – the introduction of progressive legislation, the shift to prevention, and improving the lives of thousands of people who were affected by homelessness or at risk. Yet it’s been hard to move the needle, and despite the many good efforts homelessness seems stubbornly high and set to increase.[2]

A variety of factors are contributing to this – some are macro and widely discussed, such as the impact welfare reform and cuts, the lack of affordable housing and the legacy of poverty. Less talked about are the challenges inherent in solving problems like homelessness that affect people who are politically voiceless and the value society places on the immediate over the long term. The result is often like filling a glass of water one drop at a time – impact quickly evaporates.

Now that we are about to embark on a new course of action, there is a unique opportunity to stop, reflect, and use a more effective approach. We are rightly aiming for long-lasting change, but the transformation from words to a living plan that’s mirrored in day-to-day actions across the homelessness sector is not something that will just happen. It will take a concerted, consistent effort over time by all actors operating in this space.

So this begs the question: what steps should be taken to ensure success and achieve lasting change? Past lessons from Scotland and beyond show that the Scottish Government is off to a good start by setting a bold goal, our North Star. Ending rough sleeping won’t be easy, but the focus will create a sense of urgency and a new sense of what is possible.

What other steps should be taken to ensure that, as we embark on this new journey, good decisions are made and positive change happens? Here I propose five that, if followed, I believe will help ensure success.

  1. Mobilise Commitment And Open Up the Circle

The Scottish Government have already taken steps to mobilise commitment by creating a core group to help drive the new agenda. It will be important to ensure that those involved in the Action Group are committed to seeing any plans through execution.

Beyond the core Action Group, it will be important to ensure individuals and organisations who have a role to play in solving homelessness in Scotland, especially those charged with executing any plans, are involved from the onset. Getting people to collaborate and put their individual agendas aside is a hard thing to do yet vital. One of the reasons behind the success of the 2008 Finnish homelessness strategy was that it was a catalyst for new types of collaboration at local level. Leaders across Finnish cities abandoned their individual agendas in favour of a collective approach to ending homelessness.[3]

Long-lasting change will also require mobilising those less engaged, e.g. the public and businesses. Our capacity and resources, even with an additional £50m to play with, can only go so far. We need others to take up the cause as their own if we ever hope to increase public support, instigate appropriate community/local action, and create lasting change.

  1. Change The Conversation And Put Communication At the Heart of All Efforts

The importance of transparent and compelling communications between partners and externally with the public should not be underestimated or overlooked. In fact, strategic communications – when approached thoughtfully, informed by data, and delivered with precision – can be transformative.[4] As a first step, the Scottish Government and new Action Group should ensure the vision and plan is crystal clear for everyone, and explain what results it will hold itself accountable for achieving.

Solving homelessness at scale also requires changing the conversation – to broaden our base of support and help others better understand their connection to the goal of ending homelessness. But this is not about just raising awareness; to truly drive change we need to ensure our communications are informed by evidence. Recent research for Crisis suggests that not only do sector campaigns fall short and waste resources when they focus solely on raising awareness – they actually do more harm than good.[5]

  1. Find Out What’s Really Needed And Is Most Effective

Action Group members will face some hard initial questions about which interventions and methods to feature in their plan. There will be no shortage of options or opinions, so it will be vital to dive into intensive research to assess potential approaches and be clear about what success looks like. This research should seek to harness the best thinking from government, third sector, universities, think tanks and ‘experts by experience’.

A vital part of this work should include radically reframing how we see the homelessness system, assess the utility of everything we currently do, with an eye to making it better. Any subsequent funding decisions should be informed by the best evidence of what works to end homelessness sustainably. Lasting change will also involve doing less of what is less effective. None of this work will be easy, but it is hoped that the new emerging Centre for Homelessness Impact will help focus and enhance efforts in this area.[6]

  1. Measure, Evaluate And Create ‘Learning Organisations’

To be able to test, refine, evaluate and improve the plan over time, we should be able to measure its key elements. Data assessments are at the heart of any successful change initiative, as the findings can be used to underpin strategy and ensure accountability. A national ‘rough sleeping’ diagnostic tool would help no end with new efforts to end homelessness in Scotland – it would enable us to gather the information needed to understand the scope of the challenge and assess progress on a daily basis.[7] Think of it also as a customer relationship management system that would enable us to connect people more effectively with the support they need. Making the data publicly available would create added incentive for local areas to keep up, creating a virtuous cycle.

It would also be important to keep our eye on the real goal. When it comes to ending street homelessness, we are often too quick to declare success. For real change to happen we must be willing to use success metrics that are meaningful and ‘person-centred’. Traditional metrics in our space – e.g. people not seen again following an enforcement action – are usually not sufficient because they can be achieved without meeting the only really important goal: delivering permanent and sustained exits from homelessness.

  1. Bold Goals Seem Impossible… Until They Aren’t

A huge amount of commitment and effort has only taken us so far until now. And history shows – whether dramatically reducing smoking, alcohol-related traffic fatalities, or deaths from malaria – that bold goals seem impossible until they aren’t.

Now we are shifting gear and the path ahead is fraught with obstacles, but the biggest leadership challenge for us is to resist temptations to slide off the ultimate goal when the going gets tough. Lessons from similar initiatives across the developed world suggest that in many cases this does happen after the early and relatively easy successes. The fact that initiatives to end homelessness in the United States[8] have often come hand in hand with growing criminalisation of street homelessness should act as a cautionary tale.[9] And while there may be a role for enforcement, it should only used as a last resort and alongside appropriate support.[10]

There’s an opportunity to learn from past experiences and make real change happen. Scotland should build on successes to date and commit to finding its own unique place in creating lasting change. There is no magic formula for ending homelessness, but we – individuals, the homelessness sector, and society more generally – should no longer be satisfied with business as usual. Good is no longer good enough when too many people are suffering because they don’t have a home to call their own.

  • Dr Lígia Teixeira is the head of research and evaluation at Crisis, the charity for homeless people, and a 2016 Clore Social Fellow

[1] Scottish Government (2017) A Nation With Ambition: The Government’s Programme for Scotland 2017-18: http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2017/09/8468/0

[2] Bramley, G. (2017) Homelessness Projections: Core Homelessness in Great Britain. Crisis: https://www.crisis.org.uk/media/237582/crisis_homelessness_projections_2017.pdf; and Fitzpatrick, S. (forthcoming), Core Homelessness in Scotland’s Four Largest Cities. Social Bite: Edinburgh.

[3] See Busch-Geertsema, Volker (2010) ‘The Finnish National Programme to

reduce long-term homelessness’: file:///Users/ligiateixeira/Downloads/discussion%20paper_FI10%20(4).pdf

[4] See, for example, Farwell, James (2012) Persuasion and Power: The Art of Strategic Communication.

[5] See Teixeira, L (2017) ‘How do Third Sector Organisations Persuade People that Homelessness Can Be Tackled?’ LSE Politics and Policy Blog: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/communicating-homelessness/ and O’Neil, M. et al. (2017), Finding a Better Frame: How to Create More Effective Messages on Homelessness. Crisis: https://www.crisis.org.uk/media/237700/finding_a_better_frame_2017.pdf

[6] Teixeira, L. (2017) ‘The Next Big Thing in Preventing and Tackling Homelessness?’ Crisis Blog: https://www.crisis.org.uk/about-us/the-crisis-blog/the-next-big-thing-in-preventing-and-tackling-homelessness/ and Teixeira, L. Ending Homelessness Faster By Focusing on What Works. Crisis and GHN: https://www.crisis.org.uk/media/237356/ending_homelessness_faster_by_focusing_on_what_works_2017.pdf

[7] A good example to look at and build on is Community Solutions’ ‘Built for Zero’ initiative: https://www.community.solutions/what-we-do/built-for-zero. Also important to look at the systems used in cities like Glasgow (GHN’s database), London (CHAIN: https://data.london.gov.uk/dataset/chain-reports), and New York (StreetSmart: https://www.wired.com/2017/05/new-york-citys-businesslike-tech-fighting-homelessness/)

[8] National Law Centre on Homelessness and Poverty, No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities. https://www.nlchp.org/documents/No_Safe_Place

[9] In Europe criminalisation has also been rising FEANTSA (2007) ’The Criminalisation of People Who are Homeless’. http://www.feantsa.org/download/en_summer07_criminalisation-1499627889099696060.pdf. See also Sanders, B and Albanese, F. (2017) An examination of the scale and impact of enforcement interventions on street homeless people in England and Wales. Crisis: https://www.crisis.org.uk/media/237532/an_examination_of_the_scale_and_impact_of_enforcement_2017.pdf

[10] In October 2016 Heriot-Watt, GHN and Crisis held an event with a variety of Scottish stakeholders to reflect on the issues associated with interventionist responses to street homelessness: http://www.welfareconditionality.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Interventionism-Event-Summary.pdf