Blog: Working together to provide more support for homeless people this winter

Jon Sparkes

Jon Sparkes

After First Minster Nicola Sturgeon and housing minister Kevin Stewart approved the first recommendations of the Scottish Government’s Homelessness & Rough Sleeping Action Group which will help more people sleeping rough this winter, chair of the Group Jon Sparkes explains more.

More rough sleepers will be helped this winter after the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon and housing minister, Kevin Stewart MSP, accepted the short-term recommendations of the Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group.

We met, for the third time, to finalise the plans which will see additional outreach support provided for Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen as well as a temporary increase in emergency bed spaces in Edinburgh where there is the greatest need for more capacity. The Group also recommended that a watching brief is kept on Dundee to identify interventions that could help rough sleepers there as well.

The effort of Action Group members to work quickly to identify practical support along with the willingness of council leaders and sector colleagues to commit to more flexible practices at short notice has been remarkable. As is the fact that the Scottish Government have acted swiftly to accept our recommendations and provide the additional funding required, on top of resource allocated by members of the Action Group, to put these plans into place as quickly as possible. This means that more rough sleepers can be helped through this winter and will have access to longer-term support.

While the recommendations prioritise the most immediate and effective support for each individual this winter, where possible we have looked to include solutions that provide more than a temporary roof over the heads of individuals sleeping on the streets. While this is hugely important, particularly as the colder weather bites, the longer-term focus of the Action Group is on sustainable solutions which prevents people sleeping rough in the first place.

Recommendations which will now be implemented include:

  • Increase emergency accommodation in Edinburgh, and increase outreach capacity in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen
  • Boost multi-agency partnership working, adopting ‘by name lists’ and empowering front line workers through direct access to services and dedicated accommodation
  • Making personal budgets and/or flexible emergency fund available for front line staff to employ where maximum flexibility is required to meet immediate housing needs
  • At times of extreme weather, ensure flexible provision is available in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow for anyone who will not use winter night shelters, despite all efforts
  • Maximise use of Nightstop in Edinburgh and support implementation in Glasgow by January 2018

With agreement on the plans secured and funding in place, work will now begin to roll-out them out as quickly as possible, it will also be important to monitor success and if appropriate take forward lessons learnt for our longer-term considerations on how we can end rough sleeping for good.

The bulk of the work of the Action Group will now shift to the second question tasked of us – how do we end rough sleeping for good? At out latest meeting, I thought it was valuable to cast our minds back to a successful approach to tackling rough sleepers from 20 years ago – the creation of the Rough Sleepers Unit (RSU) in England. While the location may be different, I think, there are still valuable lessons we can learn from that experience.

Ian Brady, formerly of Centrepoint, and now of DePaul International, was personally involved with the RSU and joined our meeting to reflect on his experience which led to a two thirds reduction in the numbers of people sleeping rough in England a year ahead of the target date.

Ian was clear that success is only possible if a number of measures are put in place. Firstly, the commitment to end rough sleeping must be led from the top of government. This enables departments such as health, environment and welfare (as well as housing) to provide cross-directorate commitment with money assigned specifically for rough sleeping.

He also told us that robust intelligence about the people living on the streets at different times of the day must be gathered. For example; people out on the streets during the daytime may have different reasons for being there than those sleeping out overnight. At the time of the RSU, street counts were established in 31 cities across England to show how the initiatives brought in were reducing the number of people sleeping rough. Ian also believes that for a long-term system change or prevention approach to be adopted then you first have to be able to show how interventions lead to successful outcomes for people.

Other elements of the RSU included the appointment of a Homelessness Tsar to oversee the work and bring government and voluntary sector together, ensuring local authorities were at the heart of decision making and giving autonomy to frontline service providers to find individualised solutions for each person, particularly those who were most vulnerable or entrenched as rough sleepers.

The reduction in numbers of rough sleeping was sustained for almost ten years with an increased investment in homelessness and the establishment of a directorate at government level to keep the momentum going. Without getting into the detail of why this success was not maintained even longer term, what it does show is it is possible to bring about a dramatic reduction in rough sleeping in a relatively short space of time if there is a focused and sustained approach.

I believe we have that momentum now. We have the commitment from the Scottish Government (including their £50 million Ending Homelessness Together fund), the dedication of the members of the Action Group as well as the support of the wider community working in homelessness, who we continue to speak with throughout this process. Crucially we also have the work being undertaken to listen to people with lived experience of homelessness and how their journey could have been made better.

There is a vast amount of information on what the barriers are to ending rough sleeping but there’s also a knowledge bank on what can and does work elsewhere. We will draw from all of this as we start our investigations into this complex topic going forward. We’ll start by dividing rough sleeping into smaller but still weighty areas – prevention, housing supply and access, frontline work with rough sleepers, learning and measurement, assessing the legal framework and engagement beyond the homelessness sector. Each area will be led by a different member of the Action Group and they will report back on initial progress before Christmas where we also hope to get a report on how the work agreed for this winter is helping more homeless people, and to start our 3rd piece of work on how we can transform the use of temporary accommodation.

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