Black’s Blog: Homelessness presents some sobering facts

Black’s Blog: Homelessness presents some sobering facts

Jimmy Black points out some hard truths on homelessness.

If you’re homeless, and the council won’t help you, take them to court. There’s a good chance they’ll give in and do their job in accordance with the law. But the chances are that you won’t have the cash, or an obliging local law centre, to help you enforce your rights. Even if you do, you may wait aeons for a suitable house to come up.

At the end of March, councils were struggling with around 30,000 open homelessness cases; far more than all the council house lets in a typical year. On 31 March, 15,000 households were in temporary accommodation, with an average stay of 347 days for couples with children. How mad is that in a rich, developed, European nation?

Before this blog goes critical, it’s worth considering the huge effort that councils put into advising, assisting and housing homeless households. Many thousands of people do succeed in moving to suitable, settled accommodation. Yet homelessness is increasing and people stay in temporary accommodation for ridiculous periods, because our broken housing market cannot supply enough affordable homes to meet the need.

It’s now simply accepted that councils cannot comply with all of their legal obligations to all the homeless households. Temporary accommodation must be “suitable”, as defined in the Scottish Government’s Code of Guidance. A recent court case has given councils a little more discretion on what “suitable” means, but there is a fairly precise definition in the Scottish Government’s Code of Guidance which they must follow. I tried quoting that at a council, once.

Everyone seems to agree that the answer to homelessness is more social rented housing. But there are some questions to explore here. Across Scotland, 48% of council lets go to homeless people. Since being homeless is surely the worst housing situation anyone can have, why are 52% of all council lets in Scotland going to people who, presumably, are not homeless?

That throws up another question. Faced with a homeless family, housing rights advisers have to work out whether the quickest way to the correct house is via the normal waiting list or through the homeless route. It’s a tactical decision that homeless families should not have to make.

Everyone supports building more social homes for rent, so you would think we would have more houses now than we had in 2007. We do, but just 1,000 more. In 2007 we had 607,000 houses for social rent. Now we have 608,000. Our building programmes have improved the quality of social rented housing, but not the quantity. Recently released figures show that the new build programme is faltering with lower numbers of new homes being started or approved.

Meantime, rather than build on land that lies unused, we demolish unfashionable multi-storey blocks and replace them with fewer houses. For example, 600 homes in the Wyndford flats will be replaced by 300.

In Dundee, the council demolished eleven multis holding over 1,200 flats while I was an elected member, in spite of my best efforts to stop it. North Lanarkshire is in the process of demolishing 4,000 multi-storey flats. Since 1998/99, Scotland has demolished 44,615 council houses. If we count in housing association and private demolitions, the total comes to 112,600.

These are not all slum clearance programmes. They are part of a long-term strategy to meet the aspirations of tenants and they are well-intended. But surely our first priority should be to take care of the short-term problems faced by 30,000 homeless households. And no, I’m not saying something crude and stupid like “let’s put the homeless in multis”. I’m saying let’s make sensible use of the stock we have and place people in houses which suit their needs. Aspirations come later.

Time to get back to legal matters. In the latest episode of the Scottish Housing News Podcast, Kieran Findlay and I asked Councillor Jane Meagher of the City of Edinburgh Council, and Govan Law Centre solicitor Sophie Berry if we should water down the homelessness legislation to make it easier for councils to comply. I’m glad to report that they saw no sense in that idea.

In fact, Cllr Meagher gave quite a forceful reply: “Scottish Government, put your money where your mouth is, fine if you want us to meet all these standards, but it cannot be done within the dwindling resources that local authorities have.”

Sophie described her work advising and representing women facing homelessness. I pointed out the overwhelming pressure which council homelessness departments face, and asked her what on earth was the point in taking councils to court? She said that legal representations and the possibility of judicial review can usually achieve good outcomes in individual cases.

Even so, she said: “You’re right, in that there aren’t enough houses, so there isn’t a good outcome for everybody. That’s just the situation that we’re in. I suppose the point of taking legal action is to force the councils to do something about their breaches of statutory duty, which seem to be largely accepted.”

Most of the themes in this blog are explored in the Scottish Housing News podcast, episode #42, which you can find below. Figures quoted are from Scottish Government statistics.

The Scottish Housing News Podcast is co-hosted by Kieran Findlay and Jimmy Black. All episodes are available here as well as on the following platforms:

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