Jon Sparkes: Let’s make this the beginning of the end of homelessness in Scotland

Jon Sparkes: Let’s make this the beginning of the end of homelessness in Scotland

Jon Sparkes

As the Scottish Government reconvenes its Homelessness & Rough Sleeping Action Group (HARSAG), its chair Jon Sparkes provides a summary of the first meeting.

Just under two years ago a small group of people finished their work as the Homelessness & Rough Sleeping Action Group, known as HARSAG. This group, which I had the privilege to chair, had spent nine months drawing together recommendations for Kevin Stewart MSP, Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning, on the following subjects:

  • Reducing rough sleeping in the winter of 2017/18
  • Ending rough sleeping
  • Transforming the use of temporary accommodation
  • Ending homelessness in Scotland

Over those nine months, we had received input from over 400 people with personal lived experience of homelessness and hundreds of frontline staff who work with people experiencing homelessness. We commissioned research, had toolkits designed for us, and spent many long hours in meetings coming up with proposals. We were delighted when the Scottish Government accepted all of our recommendations in principle, and went on to fulfil its promise of publishing jointly with COSLA Ending Homelessness Together, a high level action plan for ending homelessness in Scotland – backed by a £50m ending homelessness together transformation fund.

In the plan, First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP said

“With a concerted effort towards a person-centred approach that focuses on prevention, alongside joined-up planning, quick and effective responses and rapid rehousing, we will end homelessness.”

Never have these words seemed so important than in June 2020, with the coronavirus pandemic hitting people hard, especially those facing homelessness.

Thankfully, this action plan has not sat on a shelf gathering dust. Under the leadership of Kevin Stewart MSP and Cllr Elena Whitham, the plan is being implemented. The focus is on preventing homelessness and rapidly rehousing people at risk of homelessness, and it has been backed by legislation where necessary and a strong cross-government, cross-sector approach at all times – with everyone playing their part.

As everyone knows, the coronavirus pandemic has changed many things in our society and economy. One of the most inspiring things among all the difficulties of the outbreak has been the efforts across Scotland to ensure that people who were rough sleeping or staying in shelters or hostels with shared facilities have been made safe in self-contained emergency accommodation.

People experiencing homelessness were particularly hard hit, as they are very likely to have the underlying health conditions that make the coronavirus especially dangerous. They are also less likely to have access to sanitation facilities for handwashing or have the ability to self-isolate.

We’ve seen what can be done when we all come together, and there is a real determination now to ensure we don’t go back to where we are. A collective of 19 charities and academics have made clear their priorities for Everyone Home, calling for:

  • More homes for good health
  • No return to rough sleeping
  • No evictions into homelessness

The Scottish Government is developing a plan for the next phase, and Crisis and many other organisations will bring forward frameworks and proposals to support this.

So, I was very pleased to be asked by Housing Minister Kevin Stewart MSP, to reconvene HARSAG for a one-off project to review these plans and recommend the way forward to move on from the emergency response to the pandemic in a way that accelerates the ending of homelessness in Scotland.

Over the next few weeks, we will meet again as a group, consult with the Change Team, the Everyone Home collective, and others with expertise on homelessness and its causes and impact. We will consider and examine:

  • What needs to already be being done to continue the emergency response?
  • What needs to be done quickly to ensure that nobody is forced to return to rough sleeping or dangerous forms of temporary accommodation?
  • What should we be doing soon to accelerate the work to prevent homelessness and rough sleeping happening in the first place?

As with the original HARSAG, we don’t have all the answers. And, most of the solutions have already been thought of. But the group does have a very good cross-section of people with a great depth of experience in the causes and solutions of homelessness. We hope to give further impetus and energy to the need to move forwards and not backwards from the impact of the coronavirus crisis on people facing homelessness.

We will publish blogs frequently and hope that this stimulates discussion across the country. Please join the discussion – use the hashtag #HARSAG or #endinghomelessnesstogether on social media, or just email me or any member of the group to join the discussion.

The members of HARSAG are:

  • Jon Sparkes, Crisis (chair)
  • Russell Barr, Former Moderator, Church of Scotland
  • Maggie Brunjes, Homeless Network Scotland
  • Mike Dailly, Govan Law Centre
  • David Duke, Street Soccer
  • Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Heriot-Watt University
  • Josh Littlejohn, Social Bite
  • Lorraine McGrath, Simon Community/Streetwork
  • Susanne Millar, Glasgow City Health and Social Care Partnership
  • John Mills, Fife Council & ALACHO
  • Shona Stephen, Queens Cross Housing Association
  • Alison Watson, Shelter Scotland

Jon Sparkes is the chief executive of Crisis

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