Scotland the brave
Nine years ago Scotland made a bold commitment to end homelessness by 2012. As its deadline approaches, Emily Rogers reports on the progress so far
Wayne Teale finally has the secure base he needs to get his life back on track. The unemployed 40-year-old now has a temporary home in the Scottish Borders town of Kelso and has been awarded a ‘gold pass’, giving him first refusal over the social homes he bids for.
Mr Teale was given the temporary home as soon as he presented himself to the council’s housing office in Jedburgh at the beginning of February.
This was not the first time he’d approached the local authority though. Fifteen months ago, during a visit to the same office, he was given a very different answer. This was immediately after he became homeless following the breakdown of his marriage. Back then, the council told him he was not in priority need and would have to wait, so he slept on friends’ floors for around nine months.
He describes his life now as ‘a lot better than 15 months ago’. ‘At least I’ve got a roof over my head and can claim benefits because I have a fixed address. Before, I couldn’t.’
Mr Teale is one of the people who have already been given a more stable footing thanks to Scotland’s 2012 homelessness commitment, a landmark piece of legislation, introduced in 2003, which places a duty on every council to provide every homeless person with a settled home.
This means that by the end of this year, councils need to have abolished the distinction between priority and non-priority need, extending the same right to all unintentionally homeless households. Scottish Borders, Mr Teale’s local authority, reached this point by July last year.
But are all councils making similarly good progress when it comes to hitting the target - and, if so, does it really mean the end of homelessness as we know it in Scotland?
Within touching distance
Figures released by the Scottish Government last month show Scottish Borders is one of nine of the country’s 32 councils already assessing all unintentionally homeless households as ‘priority need’. Scotland’s housing minister Keith Brown says this shows his country as being ‘within touching distance’ of meeting this long-awaited commitment.
While this is clearly progress, it should be noted that there has also been a drop in the actual numbers of ‘priority need’ cases as the 2012 target approaches - from 20,000 between April and September 2010 to 17,000 in the same period last year. This is against a backdrop of a headline-grabbing 20 per cent drop in homelessness applications across the country - from 29,796 to 23,796 - between the same periods of 2010 and 2011, with decreases recorded by 28 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities.
Councils are attributing these drops to a widespread and recent overhaul of their homelessness departments, which has involved setting up new teams of ‘housing options’ staff offering all applicants for homeless status alternatives where possible. This could involve mediation with other household members or with landlords to help them return to their home. Other options include finding them sustainable alternatives in the private rented sector.
This increasingly widespread preventative approach is helping councils to free up more homes for the expanded proportion of households they have a duty to house.
Some observers, though, are concerned. ‘To me, it represents good sense, but there has to be a fear that it takes over from being a genuine assessment of options to just a way of gatekeeping homelessness [stopping people from making applications],’ warns Alastair Cameron, chief executive of the charity Scottish Churches Housing Action.
A report to the Scottish Parliament’s infrastructure and capital spending committee in January by Citizens’ Advice Scotland suggests that Mr Cameron may have grounds to be concerned.
The document reports a 19 per cent increase in 2010 - from around 1,600 to 1,900 - on the previous year in people approaching bureaux who had issues with council homelessness services.
Encouraged to sofa surf
Of these, an increasing number were claiming councils were discouraging them from applying as homeless. One of the examples given was of a client in northern Scotland who was encouraged by a council to continue sofa surfing as an alternative to making a formal application.
There are also fears about the impact that this expanded entitlement for homeless people could have on those who are not homeless but on waiting lists because of other housing need. ‘The proportion of social housing lets going to homeless people is increasing pretty steadily in Scotland,’ says David Bookbinder, head of policy at the Chartered Institute of Housing, Scotland.
An unintended consequence of all of this could be an increase in homelessness applications as people begin to understand the implications of the new system, he adds.
‘Could we get to a situation where people start going down the homelessness route and getting mum and dad to lock them out, because that is the only way they’ll get a home?’ he says.
Lewis Hannah, principal housing officer for homelessness prevention at Highland Council, argues for more legislation in the private rented sector, and to place a requirement on applicants to consider alternatives to social housing. At the moment some people would rather wait until they are made homeless than take private rented homes, he suggests.
The councils that have met the 2012 homelessness commitment all insist their preventative approach - providing housing applicants with a variety of options - is empowering individuals rather than removing their rights.
‘What we’ve now discovered is that for the majority of people, tenure is far less important than the area they are staying in,’ says Janeine Barrett, principal officer for homelessness at North Ayrshire Council. ‘They’d rather stay in their community than move out of their own town, and that makes sense. We’re taking tenure out of the equation and saying: How can we get you what you want?’
All six local authorities Inside Housing spoke to for this article that have met the target of assessing 100 per cent of applicants as ‘priorty need’ are quick to stress there is still a big step to take between acknowledging they have a duty towards a person who does apply as homeless and finding him or her a permanent home. It is this which will become the major challenge facing councils from next year.
Jill Stewart, head of housing and property at Moray Council, which will build 178 new affordable homes in 2011/12, acknowledges there are ‘absolutely not’ enough homes for all those it has a duty to house.
‘The housing needs and demand assessment produced last year for Moray indicated we needed 424 new affordable homes every year for the next 10 years,’ she says. ‘We don’t know what the budget will be for affordable housing next year. But I would say it is unlikely we would achieve that level of completions between ourselves and registered social landlords.’
Single people hit hardest
Carol Hamilton, tenants and homelessness services manager at Stirling Council, echoes Ms Stewart by saying there are ‘definitely not’ enough permanent homes for the 300 homeless households in her area, currently waiting in temporary housing. ‘For single people, we don’t have enough one-bedroom accommodation,’ she says. ‘Single people now can expect to spend two-and-a-half years in temporary housing. Previously it was about two years.’
Above all, it is the UK government’s controversial programme of welfare reform that is widely viewed by Scottish councils as the biggest threat to efforts to house their homeless. There is widespread fear that planned measures such as the controversial ‘bedroom tax’, which fines tenants for under-occupying social homes, will trigger an influx of fresh homelessness cases through town hall doors.
A Scottish Government impact assessment on housing benefit cuts, published in January last year, says almost all ‘have the potential to impact adversely on the 2012 homelessness commitment, by both increasing the number of homelessness presentations and reducing the options available to councils for preventing homelessness or securing settled outcomes’.
And there are still some local authorities likely to miss the target anyway. Councils are reluctant to admit publicly that they will not meet the 2012 commitment, because it is a legislative requirement. But the authority that appears least likely to be hit is East Lothian, which is still only
managing to give priority need status to 66 per cent of homelessness applications.
A council spokesperson says she cannot comment on the authority’s likelihood of meeting the 2012 target by the end of the year. Instead, she forwards by email the outline of a housing needs assessment published three years ago. The assessment for the local authority says that, ‘in terms of meeting the obligations which the legislative changes to 2012 will place on the council, the prognosis is not optimistic on the basis of analysis of the past five years’.
In a statement, Stuart Currie, the council’s cabinet member for housing and community safety, says the authority has held several meetings with ministers over the past two years and that they have acknowledged ‘East Lothian’s unique position in relation to the number of people presenting as homeless in our area and the lack of affordable housing stock’. Between 1,500 and 1,600 people apply for the 400 to 450 homes which become available in the area each year.
A statement from the Scottish Government does not comment on whether the 2012 homelessness target will be met - but a spokerperson does reaffirm the government’s commitment to it.
Meanwhile, when asked what action the Scottish Housing Regulator would take against councils not meeting the 2012 commitment by the end of this year, a spokesperson says the watchdog would have a ‘range of new scrutiny powers’ from April, enabling it to hold landlords to account for their housing and homelessness services. She added that these powers would be set out in its new regulatory framework.
Alastair Cameron, chief executive of Scottish Churches Housing Action, is pushing for a ‘strong steer’ from the Scottish Government to keep councils on track beyond this year. ‘Nobody is saying that the 2012 target means an end to homelessness,’ he says. ‘New homelessness will continue to be created, because families will continue to break down and people will continue to become unemployed. So there needs to be a continued effort by councils, having had some success in reducing homelessness, to keep it down.’
- Nine councils managed to assess all unintentionally homeless households as priority need between July and September last year: Angus, Dundee City, Moray, North Ayrshire, Orkney, Renfrewshire, Scottish Borders, Stirling and West Dunbartonshire A 11 managed to assess more than 90 per cent as such: East Renfrewshire, Inverclyde, Glasgow City, Dumfries and Galloway, Falkirk, Clackmannshire, Perth and Kinross, South Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire, Shetland and Midlothian
- Eight managed between 80 and 90 per cent: Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire, East Ayrshire, East Dunbartonshire, Edinburgh, Fife, West Lothian, and Argyll and Bute
- Three assessed between 60 and 70 per cent as priority need: Highland (79 per cent) North Lanarkshire (78 per cent) and Eilean Siar (74 per cent)
- East Lothian awarded priority need to 66 per cent of homeless households
More legislation needed?
Lewis Hannah, principal housing officer for homelessness prevention at Highland Council, says housing options officials can help alleviate the shortage of social homes by working with private landlords to make their stock ‘almost part of our stock and make it more attractive to our service users’.
But he believes legislative change is needed to increase the minimum length of tenancies in private rented homes beyond six months, to make people’s level of security more comparable with that in social housing.
Mr Hannah would also like to see legislative changes placing a requirement on homeless applicants to engage with councils’ housing options work by considering reasonable alternative solutions to a social home. ‘Some service users will come to see us and their objective is to get a social tenancy,’ he says. ‘Some people will try to restrict the housing options approach and sit tight, waiting for homelessness.’