Preventing Homelessness in Scotland

25 February 2021

This week, Ewan Aitken CEO responds to 'Preventing Homelessness in Scotland': a report from the Prevention Review Group containing recommendations for legal duties to prevent homelessness:

There are few folk more aware of what causes homelessness than Prof Suzanne Fitzpatrick. She has never feared challenging unhelpful myths like “we are all only two paycheques from homelessness” which divert us from the really systemic issues which cause homelessness. So it was no surprise she was asked to chair the Homeless Prevention Review Group which Crisis had been asked to convene by the Scottish Government.

The Report of the Group, published last week, did not disappoint. Clearly evidence and data led, it has the potential to radically change the face of the homelessness system in Scotland, moving us ever closer towards a situation where we can end homelessness for good.

It quickly states the challenge: “Research shows at least 8% of the Scottish population has experienced homelessness – a proportion that together we can and must reduce” and goes to say “[w]hile we have strong protections in place to help individuals and families when they are at imminent risk of losing their home, we have laid far less emphasis to date on effective work to prevent homelessness happening in the first place. This means it is all too common for someone to reach crisis point before they get the help they need.“   

We will never stop homelessness until we talk about prevention. To talk about prevention means not just stopping people falling through the cracks of the system as it is by either better joining up resources already in place and/or having more resources to respond to need, important as this is and which the report makes very clear.

Prevention means working in places seemingly unconnected to homelessness, like with young people, teaching them the skills of managing conflict because we know family breakdown is the most common reason for young people presenting as homeless. It means working with communities so those who struggle because of social isolation can find a place to belong, without it feeling like an ‘intervention’. It means having real options for affordable housing including whatever support is needed. It means not just alleviating the impact of poverty in ways which don’t stigmatise people, but getting rid of poverty in its entirely. It means understanding homelessness prevention isn’t just the job of housing officers and homelessness teams but every aspect of the public sector. And not just the public sector but communities and the organisations which are the building blocks of communities. As the report puts it very clearly, we need to much better ask, to act, and to work together – a more proactive, preventative approach, with better collaboration. 

Our hospital inreach team is a case in point of effective cross-sector collaboration; putting staff in wards to create relationships with those who are experiencing homelessness and in hospital, so the medical teams can concentrate on their part, and we support the journey back into the community into better accommodation, where recovery from whatever triggered being in hospital is more likely. The welcome hubs which have grown out of Covid are another example, as is Housing First. Cross sector work with a common task of compassion and creativity at their heart, with siloes broken down. Much of this focuses on the ‘sharp end’ of homelessness, when people have reached crisis point, or need support in their recovery. This next key step is moving way upstream.

The reports detailed work on legislative changes is core to this being much more possible, although, as the report itself acknowledges, it takes much more than legislative change to make this a reality. And changing legislation has its limitation as one change for the good can have another interpretation which causes others equally committed to the same cause to worry. None of the examples above needed legislation to happen but there is no doubt a collective duty of homeless prevention on the public sector make it more likely more of the same will happen. As Beth Watts wrote previously, “[i]f the national objective of ending homelessness is to be credible in Scotland, there must be a concerted and long term effort to pursue the full spectrum of possible preventative interventions [...], ranging from systemic changes to create a social context less conducive to homelessness risk, to the personalised and day to day support of those who have already experienced it.” 

The journey to ending homelessness is long and complex and will take time; but this report holds within it a very good guide map of the way ahead if we all are willing to walk it together.