Blog: Progress of the Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group

Jon Sparkes

Jon Sparkes

Jon Sparkes details the second meeting of the Scottish Government’s Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group which focussed on solutions to help more rough sleepers this winter as well as longer term goals.

In the four weeks since the first meeting of the Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group, the clocks have gone back and the temperature has dropped. This seasonal switch to winter and the fact that the Edinburgh night shelter, run by Bethany Christian Trust, has opened its doors reinforced the urgency of the first task of the Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group as we met for the second time.

What can be done to reduce rough sleeping this winter? This has been the focus of a substantial amount of work from the Action Group members who have consulted with a huge range of colleagues, working to support rough sleepers across Scotland, to identify what can be done quickly. The work has been split into a number of distinct areas: person-centred support, community engagement, the role of night shelters, better co-ordination between services and agencies, changing public perception of homelessness, and structural changes that can be put in place.

There is a huge willingness across the community working to support homeless people to implement solutions as quickly as possible. There is an opportunity to potentially accommodate more people in the winter night shelters, but with a recognition that if this happens support services also need to be extended to help find solutions for rough sleepers that are more sustainable for the longer-term. NightStop and supported lodging models may also be able to provide some resource this year to help more people, and better data sharing between organisations will enable more thorough support which helps take people off the streets.

While there is a lot of community activity across cities that homeless people can be involved with, it’s not always coordinated or easy to find information. The group is looking at how this can be brought together in one place to signpost people to services available throughout the day. Another piece of work is looking at cross-border capacity, so exploring whether neighbouring councils have accommodation that could support rough sleepers on a short-term basis.

This is just a snapshot of the emerging work that will continue until the next meeting of the group. At that point we will produce a series of recommendations to the Minister for Local Government and Housing, Kevin Stewart, on a number of interventions that can be undertaken quickly to help more rough sleepers this winter. Some of the ideas will inevitably require additional financial resource, however many will rely on effective partnership working and can be implemented quickly. We are also realistic enough to know that not everything can be implemented at this very short notice before the winter, but we will develop these solutions all the same for later implementation if necessary.

The members of the Action Group have a wealth of experience over many years working with homeless people, but as a group we are very conscious that there are others whose views are vital in ensuring that the solutions we put forward to the Scottish Government are robust, fit for purpose and will help as many people as possible in ending their homelessness. Nobody knows better than those people who are homeless or have experienced homelessness what it feels like and what could have helped them through their journey out of homelessness. It’s so important that we listen to that vital intelligence and over the lifetime of the Action Group we will hold a number of events, led by Glasgow Homelessness Network, to listen to people who have personal experience of homelessness, and to ensure their ideas and views are represented in all the recommendations that the group puts forward.

Additionally, the views and experience of the wider homelessness sector and those from associated areas are hugely relevant. With that in mind a workshop session was held to start to gather evidence from those working in homelessness and other related sectors. Over 60 people attended from councils, housing options hubs, the justice system, health services, housing associations, and a range of charitable organisations who work with young people, care leavers, migrants, women and many other groups.

As I mentioned above there’s already been a great deal of consultation on the first question of what we can do this winter so our focus for the workshop was on how we end rough sleeping for good and what needs to be done to transform the use of temporary accommodation.

What was clear from the group assembled was that there is consensus that many workable solutions can be found from looking at past experience and success elsewhere and this will be crucial to providing recommendations on how rough sleeping in Scotland can be permanently ended.

Some familiar themes were put forward: multi-agency working, better joined-up practices, person centred approaches, and the impact of a housing first model. There were a variety of very practical suggestions on how to make these opportunities a reality. There was also a focus on ensuring adequate follow-up services are in place and that links are made early between exiting statutory systems such as prisons and services for young people leaving care, to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.

All the ideas will be collected and considered by the Action Group and we will continue to consult with colleagues throughout the lifetime of the group.

Next, attention turned to how to transform the use of temporary accommodation and I first asked the question ‘what would good look like?’ Not as simple a question as it may seem on the surface. We need to ensure that we have a clear definition of what we mean by temporary accommodation – do we include emergency and supported accommodation or do we keep these as separate? This will be a key priority for the Action Group to consider.

Again, the quality of the ideas was excellent. Being able to house people locally in areas where they have support networks and are connected to communities was a key theme, as was the idea that if temporary accommodation works for someone then the option should be available to turn it into a permanent tenancy.

It may seem obvious that the requirement for additional volume and variety of accommodation was mentioned but it’s important that this is recognised by the Action Group, as is ensuring that any temporary accommodation must be of a decent minimum standard that promotes the dignity of the people using it. Flexibility, support, affordability, compassion, choice and evidence-based practice were all discussed, as was the question of how temporary accommodation should be funded. I can’t underestimate how often the word permanent was used and there is a clear consensus that finding permanent solutions should be the priority. A few of the groups also talked about the need for unsuitable temporary accommodation, such as B&Bs, to be limited and the suggestion was made by more than one group that plans be enacted to phased out their use – whether this be over five or ten years was the only bone of contention. The important point is that if we tackle homelessness systemically and permanently then these solutions will not be needed.

A few themes cut across both evidence gathering sessions. The impact of welfare cuts and a need for a systems change to enable the interventions to be successful were both passionately debated. So was the role of the public in changing the way that homelessness is viewed in Scotland and ensuring that achieving an end to homelessness is seen as achievable. These elements are all on the radar of the Action Group, particularly for the fourth and final question What needs to be done to end homelessness? Something which I am sure we are all keen to see made a reality for Scotland.

I will continue to keep you informed through this blog every step of the way for the Action Group.

  • Jon Sparkes is chief executive at national homelessness charity Crisis and chairs the Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group