Blog: Fourth meeting of the Scottish Government Homelessness & Rough Sleeping Action Group

Jon Sparkes

Jon Sparkes highlights the Homelessness & Rough Sleeping Action Group’s progress on ending rough sleeping, transforming temporary accommodation, funding models and gives an update on measures to help more people this winter.

The quiet determination that has been present in the meetings since the Action Group started work on 5 October continued as we started the 4th meeting by reviewing the implementation of the actions we recommended for this winter. To recap, we were set up as part of the Programme for Government commitment to tackle homelessness, and the creation of the £50m ‘Ending Homelessness Together’ fund for 2018 – 23, to make recommendations in the following 4 areas:

  • How to reduce rough sleeping this winter
  • How to end rough sleeping
  • Transforming the use of temporary accommodation
  • Ending homelessness
  • As you will know, the Government accepted all of our recommendations for the first question, and as a result there is additional and more co-ordinated activity to tackle rough sleeping in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. There are also some important ideas being piloted – for example, the use of ‘by name’ lists for the most vulnerable people who are sleeping rough with cross-agency reviews to ensure progress is being made to prioritise support for these people, and the use of personalised budgets to empower outreach workers in building trust and implementing solutions. It is early days, but I am pleased to say that all of our initial recommendations for this winter are now being implemented.

    An important principle of our work is that the Group listens to a wide range of stakeholders, but most importantly to people with personal experience of being homeless and of sleeping rough. Maggie Brunjes of Glasgow Homelessness Network presented the initial feedback from the 122 people with experience of homelessness that her team has met as part of the ‘Aye We Can’ series of workshops. I attended one of the workshops and other members of the Action Group also attended. The feedback was clear. Among many other comments:

    • Acting quickly is important, and acting in a way that recognises the range of issues going on in people’s lives
    • Moving as quickly as possible to permanent and settled housing means people can get on and sort out other things that are going on
    • Concepts such as ‘intentionality’ and ‘local connection’ are really problematic when people are going through a range of issues like relationship breakdown, enforced departure from the family home, domestic abuse, mental health issues and addiction
    • People need solutions that recognise they have a range of needs that many of us have – like having a pet or a partner
    • People also need better support and advice when leaving places like hospital, prison, care or the armed forces; and the public and charity sector need to work better together
    • In a debate about what constitutes suitable or unsuitable temporary accommodation, people with experience of homelessness are clear that Bed & Breakfast (as they have experienced it) is simply unsuitable
    • Staff should be well trained in responding to trauma, addiction and mental ill health
    • These comments will be kept right at the heart of the Action Group’s work throughout this project. The work to listen to the experiences of people who are or have been homeless will continue, and we have recognised a need to make even more effort to reach out to women, young people, and people in rural areas as we continue this work. This is only a summary and the full report from the Aye We Can work so far will be published shortly.

      Then we turned to the work that Action Group members have been doing on rough sleeping since the last meeting.

      Alison Watson from Shelter Scotland has been leading work on prevention and she presented the thinking so far, largely split between preventing predictable homelessness and taking action to prevent homelessness when the unpredictable happens like a relationship breakdown. On predictable homelessness we need to open dialogue with potential partners who support people in the following areas:

      • People who have been in the care system
      • Ensuring that people leaving prison have housing to go to
      • People leaving the armed forces
      • Working with women who experience domestic abuse
      • Young LGBT people who experience abuse and are forced to leave the family home when they come out
      • Supporting people leaving hospitals and other NHS institutions, including the mental health system or people being supported with drug and alcohol addiction
      • In each case we need to learn from organisations working in these fields, and engage them as front-line organisations in preventing homelessness and we will continue to do this throughout the life of the Action Group.

        Alison went on to discuss the need for us to build on the good work of Housing Options, but ensuring that no-one is excluded from this process for any reason. We are keen to understand how the front-line of homelessness prevention can be clearly spread across public and voluntary sector bodies with a ‘no wrong door’ approach – so police, NHS workers, prison staff, social care professionals and many others are equipped to play an increased role in homelessness prevention so that everyone who needs support gets the support at the earliest moment.

        Further work will now be done to establish precisely what would need to be done, and with whom, to make these aspirations a reality across Scotland.

        We then turned our attention to the work led by Maggie Brunjes from Glasgow Homelessness Network on the question of access to housing. Maggie set out a framework built on the premise that the objective should be that 100% of people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness revert quickly to settled housing, while recognising a range of options need to be available according to individual need and preference.

        The aim is to achieve a change in the system of housing and re-housing people experiencing or at risk of homelessness so that the default is a rapid return to settled housing, in contrast with the current default of a ‘stair case’ starting with emergency and temporary accommodation and eventually returning to settled housing. This is not a one fits all approach, but starting with the default view that everyone is capable of holding down settled housing with the right support and deviating from that by exception only. It cannot be right that 11,000 households are in temporary accommodation at any one time; there will always be a place for emergency or temporary accommodation, but based on the original idea of this being a stop-gap not being left in limbo for months or years on end.

        The Action Group recognises that this goes way beyond a few Housing First pilots and is effectively about re-wiring the commissioning system and economics of rehousing people who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk of homelessness. For this reason, the Group is considering seeking consultancy support to develop an implementation model and plan for such a paradigm shift. We will consider our options for this over the Christmas and New Year period and decide how to handle this work in January. The only similar piece of work we have seen is the feasibility study on Housing First and other rapid re-housing models in the Liverpool City Region conducted by Crisis earlier this year. If we do seek to commission such a consultancy assignment, Social Bite have kindly offered to consider funding the work from the funds raised at their recent event in Edinburgh.

        There is still work to be done to consider possible housing access options for those people considered under current policy to have ‘no recourse to public funds’ because of issues such as their migrant status. While this policy persists we will need to give further consideration to housing or accommodation solutions that do not require social security payments.

        We then looked at the work led by Lorraine McGrath (Simon Community Scotland and Streetwork) on the question of front-line support for people who are already sleeping rough. The work of this group builds on the solutions we are implementing for this winter, and we will ensure that we gather evidence this winter to assess the impact we could have. A key point is that when we talk about front-line workers we broaden our view to include outreach and day centre workers, health and social care workers, housing staff in local authorities, housing associations and the private rented sector, NHS, police and prison staff, community safety personnel, DWP staff including Job Centre Plus, and food access points.

        The key elements of front-line support we are developing are:

        • People who are sleeping rough are likely to be experiencing a range of complex support needs and we need to put trauma-informed solutions at the heart of any solution or intervention – whether implemented by homelessness outreach workers or anyone else working with this group
        • History and evidence shows us that assertive outreach approaches are important in moving people off the streets at the earliest opportunity, but this needs to be achieved at the same time as recognising the complexity of need that might be involved. So, we consider empowerment of front-line workers to be as important as assertive approaches, and therefore we are advocating personalised approaches including personal budgets
        • For people with complex needs we should be adopting a Housing First approach as the evidence tells us this is the key to both ending their rough sleeping and tackling the other needs they have at the same time. Again, this is not a one-fits-all approach, and there needs to be a range of low threshold or open access emergency accommodation options
        • Responses need to be prioritised based on need, so there needs to be a shared approach to assessing need and vulnerability, less use of concepts such as intentionality and local connection, and removal of benefits barriers to the provision that is needed to help extremely vulnerable people.
        • This workstream will now consider what it would take to make service provision based on these principles a reality in mainstream practice.

          The Group then considered a paper from Mike Dailly of Govan Law Centre, who is leading a workstream on the potential need for legislative change. Mike had produced an extensive paper covering many possible legal changes. The Action Group recommended Mike and his colleagues take the following approach:

          1. Put together the recommended principles for a prevention duty, building on the lessons learnt in Wales and England in recent years, and recommend how to change arrangements such as intentionality and local connection in a way that would help reduce rough sleeping specifically, and homelessness more broadly
          2. Produce an account of how current law is not being effectively implemented in practice in a way that is increasing rough sleeping, homelessness, and extensive use of unsuitable temporary accommodation, with recommendations on how to correct this situation
          3. Take a watching brief on the consultancy work mentioned previously and consider whether, if appropriate, there are legal changes that would enable and support the changes that consultancy work suggests. The Action Group has an open mind on whether such changes would require legal change, or a change that could be achieved through working practices, effective funding or culture change.
          4. The Group then discussed the 3rd of the 4 questions it has been created to consider; the question of how to transform the use of temporary accommodation. This question is probably the least well-defined of our questions, but we are clear on a few points:

            • 11,000 households in temporary accommodation cannot be acceptable, especially as the average time spent in temporary accommodation is 24 weeks (up from 18 weeks in 2014), and 12% of households spent over a year. It should be noted however that lengths of stay vary according to the nature of accommodation – 32 days in Bed & Breakfast, 135 days in local authority accommodation, and 212 days in housing association properties
            • The original concept of temporary accommodation as a short-term stop-gap is what we should be aspiring to
            • Regardless of length of stay and the nature of the temporary accommodation, issues such as quality, size and location are important, as is the nature of the community in which people spend this time
            • People with experience of homelessness tell us that, based on their experience, Bed & Breakfast accommodation is considered unsuitable
            • At this stage, the Action Group feels that it needs more data to determine the nature of the current situation. From absolutely unacceptable and poor quality Bed & Breakfast to a temporary tenure in a good quality housing association flat or house, the variety is huge. Over Christmas and New Year we will consider whether further research is needed to show where we are starting from, and therefore the scale and nature of the change we need to recommend in order to go back to temporary accommodation as a true stop-gap which provides a good quality, decent sized and well located option while permanent, settled housing is sorted out with an appropriate level of support.

              Finally, for this meeting, we started to think about the mechanisms and principles for the investment of the £50m Ending Homelessness Together funding. The following principles have been suggested, but further work is being done, alongside the Scottish Government and stakeholders, before our next meeting when we will make our recommendation:

              • The money is meant to be a catalyst for change, not to plug funding shortfalls or just expand capacity
              • People who are homeless or are at risk of homelessness are at the centre of any proposals to use the funding
              • The money is to fund work that will secure improvement, sustainability and replication of learning so new approaches are embedded
              • There must be a solid evidence base, whether through research or through the direct personal experience of people who are or have been homeless
              • We will need buy-in from partners and stakeholders
              • The pace of the work should continue so we act quickly even though we are looking for medium and long-term change
              • Work that is funded is most likely to be about quickly re-housing people and personalised rather than one-fits-all approaches
              • We will be doing more work on these principles before making a recommendation. We will also be working on the mechanism for funding. We are thinking there will be a certain, relatively small, portion of the money which is centrally invested in projects and initiatives that the Action Group recommends in order to achieve quick wins and good evidence; and then there will be opportunities to bid for longer-term funding (rather than simply year-on-year funding) that enables work to be piloted, evidenced and then grounded in permanent new ways of working. All of this is just emerging thinking and we need more time to consider this important aspect of the Ending Homelessness Together work.

                My apologies that is such a long blog, but after a busy meeting I wanted to tell you as much as I possibly can about the meeting. The meeting notes will be published in due course, but hopefully this blog gives a reasonable idea of the direction we are going in.

                A full Stakeholder Group session is being arranged at the end of January, and the work led by GHN to listen to the views of people with experience of homelessness will continue. We’re also looking at how we could do a meaningful consultation with front-line workers too and will provide an update on this shortly.

                Best wishes to you all for the Festive season and for 2018.

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