Q&A with Graeme Brown, Gowrie Care area manager

You operate in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Angus. Do the demographics differ in the issues that cause homelessness?

Availability of suitable housing and prevention are key to dealing with the causes of homelessness. The level of preventative work required depends upon the nature of the underlying cause of actual or threatened homelessness. It could be a relatively straightforward issue about rent arrears where money advice can seek an early resolution.

More often than not the level of preventative work involves complex and often specialist work around mental illness and ill-health, addiction and deep routed emotional trauma. Service availability and accessibility varies across geographic areas and that impacts on the causes of homelessness.

The Scottish Government’s National Statistics published in June 2014 show some interesting comparisons. Local Authority and Housing Association letting statistics vary markedly across Scotland with lets to people who are homeless being around 60 per cent in Edinburgh and just over 30 per cent in Glasgow and Angus. The availability of temporary accommodation has reduced in Glasgow (-4 per cent) and Angus (-9 per cent) and increased in Edinburgh (+16 per cent). The number of people who slept rough immediately before applying for assistance was around 11 per cent in Edinburgh, 6.5 per cent in Glasgow and 2.5 per cent in Angus.

Glasgow is a huge city compared to Edinburgh and Angus and has a completely different semi-rural dimension. This causes issues around access to affordable housing as well as access to services. Edinburgh shows a higher instance of repeat homelessness (+10 per cent) than Glasgow (+6 per cent) and Angus (+3 per cent).

Some of your services are gender specific, are there particular homelessness challenges faced by men and women which are different?

Homelessness amongst women is far less visible than amongst men, particularly during the early stages where men are more likely to present at services. Some women will sofa surf and remain in situations which are injurious to their health and wellbeing. Many women (around 50 per cent) have experienced domestic violence prior to becoming homeless and women may be more vulnerable in homelessness services than men.

We have already stated that early preventative work is important and this can mean that the level and complexity of needs of women who present as homeless are significantly higher than those of men.  Women who are homeless tend to be more prone to predation and abusive relationships. Homeless women present with a higher percentage of mental health issues. Twice as many women (19 per cent) have suffered childhood sexual abuse than men.

The level and complexity of needs are far higher in our women’s services and the length of time it takes women to get to a stage where they are ready for more independent living is a longer process then for most men.  Women in a homeless situation tend to engage in more gender specific high risk behaviours than men.

What particular challenges are you faced with in your supported accommodation services?

The most pressing issue at present is dealing with the rise in the abuse of New Psychoactive Substances (Legal Highs). The level of intoxication through inexperienced users and affordable and ‘legal’ substances causes huge management difficulties and severe damage to the health of those using them. They are readily available and are as dangerous as traditional street drugs like heroin.

The lack of affordable move on accommodation is frequently causing people to remain in supported accommodation for longer than is necessary. We support people to access both the social and private rented sector.

One challenge is accessing appropriate support for people when they are making the transition to independent tenancies. A lack of adequate support to enable people to establish and thereafter sustain a tenancy is one of the main reasons for tenancy failure repeat homelessness.

What progress have you made so far?

Half of our support staff in our homelessness services have already been trained based on a harm reduction and information model with the remainder of staff training due for completion by April this year. We work closely with the police and landlords to manage this issue but it is an uphill struggle at present.

We have 12 months secured funding through the Hillcrest Group’s gift aid scheme to open a resource centre in Edinburgh to help bridge the gap for people managing the transition from supported accommodation to mainstream accommodation. This will include access to financial inclusion and employability services, practical life skills training and courses on health & nutrition.

How does being part of a housing association help your operations? Could housing associations/social landlords play a bigger role in tackling homelessness?

Hillcrest Housing Association Ltd. is the landlord for most of our accommodation based services. It provides us with access to expert housing options guidance and the Tenancy Sustainment Service where expert financial advice is on offer to all our service users to maximise entitlement to benefits, manage their income and deal with other financial inclusion issues.

We work closely with community housing officers to give advice on cases where tenancies look like they are at risk, and a collaborative approach to dealing with complex situations in temporary accommodation is used to get the best outcomes for service users. A failed tenancy can cost in excess of £15,000 and it is everyone’s interest to work together to avoid tenancy failure and repeat homelessness.

The Integration agenda is opening up new and exciting opportunities for housing and support providers to work together to further the prevention agenda and look at radical solutions to better meet the needs of people who are homeless.

The announcement that Universal Credit will be introduced in Edinburgh from February this year brings a new dimension to the homelessness agenda. It is not known how this will affect people already using homelessness services but there is grave concern about the impact this will have on people living in their own tenancies who may not be able to manage the challenge of monthly budgeting and taking responsibility for paying housing costs direct to the Association.

What role, if any, can the private rented sector (PRS) have?

It has been recently reported that 18 per cent of all homeless applications are coming from tenants living in the private sector. If people move on to employment then private rents can become unaffordable.

Given the lack of affordable housing, the PRS needs to be included in the range of housing options available for people experiencing homelessness but it will not work for everyone. Sadly a higher proportion of our service users accessing the PRS are unable to sustain their tenancies for longer than 12 months compared to those in social housing.

Do you believe that homelessness is high enough on the political agenda and how do you think it can be made more of a priority?

Homelessness has lost the interest of politicians across the political spectrum. Austerity measures and welfare benefit reform are ticking time bombs which will see the recent downward trend in homeless presentations start to rise dramatically in the near future. People who are homeless don’t have the same voice that others may have in advocating for what is needed and what will bring long term sustainable solutions. The cycle of elections and political budget setting continually fails to meet the longer term needs of those with the least political clout and it is only when people are out rough sleeping again in numbers that the politicians will be forced to respond.

What potential impact do you feel further powers for Scotland could have on your work or on homelessness in general?

Holding on to the approach that everyone who is unintentionally homeless is assessed as being in priority need in Scotland is important. However, the limitations of the Smith Commission in tackling poverty and entrenched inequality through the welfare benefit reform agenda being further rolled out will result in an increase in homelessness presentations in Scotland.

Further devolved powers which include Housing Benefit would enable the Scottish Government to link social welfare more closely with other areas of social strategy, e.g. employment, housing and health.

What would make your services more effective? Which one piece of policy would you change?

Having more ready access to affordable move on accommodation would free up the blockage in what should be temporary accommodation. Enabling service users to have support packages put in place before leaving temporary accommodation would enable more tenancies to be successfully established and thereafter sustained. If it happens, homelessness should be a temporary episode in someone’s life which is resolved at as early a stage as possible with safeguards built in to prevent its recurrence.

Welfare Benefit reform poses the single biggest challenge to homelessness services. It is likely to give rise to more tenancy failure, poses a significant financial risk to landlords and will make the private rented sector less viable as an option for homeless households.

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