Social Bite’s homeless village plan labelled ‘well-intentioned but ineffective’

Dr Beth Watts
Dr Beth Watts

Homelessness policy experts have criticised a charity’s plan to build Scotland’s first homeless village as well-intentioned but likely to be ineffective in helping rough sleepers.

Josh Littlejohn, the entrepreneur and philanthropist behind the Social Bite sandwich social enterprise chain, plans to create a cluster of eco-homes in Granton providing temporary accommodation and support for up to 20 homeless people.

Among those to back the proposal are First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who visited Social Bite’s new venture, the restaurant Home, in November.

Concerns have been raised, however, that creating a homeless-only community may actually hinder rather than help the residents. Beth Watts, a research fellow at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University who specialises in homelessness policy, believes that the project, which is earmarked for Granton in the north of the city, is flawed.

“One of the reasons it has received so much praise is the idea that it is very innovative,” she told The Times. “But while it is innovative in some ways, it replicates things that have been going on for many years — namely concentrating people together on the edge of the city in an institutional environment.

“Temporary accommodation and hostels have been concentrating homeless people together for decades, which can hinder recovery from poor mental health or addiction.

“Evidence from around the world increasingly suggests that homeless people should instead be moved directly to permanent accommodation in mainstream neighbourhoods.”

Dr Watts added: “This project has got celebrity endorsements but actually within the sector, the research community and housing providers, there is a lot of scepticism about it because the evidence points in a different direction. We know a lot about what works and we have to take heed of those lessons. Good intentions are not enough, altruism must also be effective.”

Her stance was backed by the Rock Trust, an Edinburgh-based homelessness charity.

Chief executive Kate Polson said: “I can understand why something like the village seems more appealing because it means more beds, but the problem is what happens after.

“If there are no flats to move on to, people could end up being stuck for such a long time that it becomes a very unhealthy place. It would be interesting to look at how much the village is costing and if there are more effective ways the money could be spent.

“The goal has to be to house people within communities and support them to live there.”

Mr Littlejohn, who co-founded the restaurant Home in Edinburgh to help homeless people, issued a robust defence of the new project.

He said: “The plan to build a village for the homeless is based on our five years of experience in working with the homeless in the context of providing food, employment opportunities and support.

“Many of the people involved have worked in the sector for a lifetime.”

The project would create a highly supported environment, aimed at breaking the cycle of homelessness, Mr Littlejohn said. “Far from being isolated it will provide integrated links into mainstream employment and support into traditional housing after a 15-month period.”

The entrepreneur, who was awarded an MBE for his charity work in the New Year’s honours list, added: “We agree fully about the need to take best practice from around the world and input it to the project, which we plan to do.”

He said that a Christmas sleep-out in Edinburgh city centre, attended by influential Scots, raised £500,000.

The event was supported by Ms Sturgeon, who said: “The money raised will go towards Social Bite’s groundbreaking new homeless village which will help break the cycle of homelessness.”

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