Make ending homelessness a priority for Scotland

4 September 2023
Ewan Programme for Government

In advance of the Scottish Government identifying its priorities for the coming year, Cyrenians CEO Ewan Aitken lays out what needs to happen to tackle Scotland's growing homelessness crisis.

Last week the Scottish Government released statistics showing a shocking rise in homelessness across the nation – homelessness has gone up by 10% in the past year, with over 15,000 households now living in temporary accommodation and thousands sleeping rough. 

This week the Scottish Government will set out its Programme for Government 2023-24, outlining their priorities for investment and legislation in the coming year.  

Now is the chance for the Scottish Government to commit to really tackling this homelessness crisis. 

Since Humza Yousaf stepped into the post of First Minister back in April, the government says it’s led by three key priorities – equality, a fair economy, and prioritising effective public services. Living up to these goals means taking urgent steps, right now, to deal with the homelessness crisis. 

In tomorrow’s announcement, the Scottish Government has the opportunity to set out clear steps to tackling homelessness, working in partnership with local government, statutory bodies and the third sector to create genuinely world-leading policy that makes Scotland a fairer, safer, kinder nation. 

Concrete actions we need to see the Government committing to in the coming year would include: 

Tackling the affordable housing crisis 

PfG priorities 2023-24 2: HousingMore people are staying in temporary accommodation than ever before, and the length of time they stay continues to grow – for one in three families, it’s now over a year.

While the Government’s work to prevent rough sleeping by offering temporary housing has been broadly successful, there just isn’t anywhere for people to move on to after that. 

Scotland’s supply of affordable homes and social housing is woefully inadequate – and dwindling rather than growing. If the Government can’t commit to changing that in the coming year, we’ll only see the number of people in the limbo of temporary accommodation continue to grow.

Housing is the most important thing we can do in the immediate term to tackle the spiralling levels of homelessness in Scotland.  

That means following through on the targets the Government already set, which it has repeatedly failed to meet – and that means money. We need to see large-scale investment across the country, and particularly in areas like Edinburgh which are under the most pressure, to build up social housing.  

The Government must be willing to invest, not just in building new social housing, but in repurposing unused housing stock. There must also be a commitment to fixing land use legislation, to make it easier and more affordable to build the homes we need. 

Everyone in Scotland deserves the opportunity of an affordable, suitable home. The Government has to act to make sure we can meet that need. 

Concrete policy that prioritises housing and homelessness 

PfG priorities 2023-24 1: HousingWe’re still waiting on the passing of the Housing Bill – and when it comes, it needs to offer a realistic pathway to achieve its goals.

Housing and homelessness need to be front and centre in the Scottish Government’s priorities for the coming year. 

This time last year, the Scottish Government announced its intention to introduce a new Housing Bill in the 2022-23 period, which among other things would improve tenants’ protections and introduce new obligations on public services to help prevent homelessness before it happens. As part of that, we, along with Crisis, were invited to co-chair a group which has spent the last year discussing how to make that prevention approach work effectively – the results of which I was privileged to launch with the new Housing Minister, Paul McLennan, just last week

The Minister’s appointment and a separate portfolio for Housing is an encouraging sign that this government is prioritising the homelessness emergency – as it should, given that last week’s statistics showed almost 1 in 100 Scots faced homelessness last year. 

People must also be supported to keep the homes they have. Emergency measures the government took in response to both Covid and the cost-of-living crisis – things like eviction moratoriums and rent freezes – have had an immediate impact, reducing the number of people becoming homeless from private lets. Strengthening tenants’ rights, reducing predatory renting practises, and safeguarding the right to a home will mean less pressure on new housing applications. 

The Scottish Government is asking the right questions about homelessness. But we’re in a crisis, and we need more than positive conversations. We need action, and we need it now. 

Legislation that works to stop homelessness before it starts

PfG priorities 2023-24 3: Prevention

As part of the proposed Housing Bill, the Government has proposed putting new duties on public services such as schools, prisons, hospitals and local authorities to “ask and act” if someone may be at risk of homelessness. That means all public services would be expected to ask people about their housing situation, and direct them towards help if required.  

We’re really excited about this – we're strong believers in the No Wrong Door approach, meaning when you reach out for support you should always be directed to somewhere you can get the help you need. But it’s not enough to demand this of people – it needs to come with the funding, training and resources to those already-stretched public services to make sure that they actually have the capacity to give people the support they deserve.  

Social care in general needs reform - we're hoping the much-anticipated National Care Service matches the vision and ambition set out in the 2020 Feeley review, which called for a care service that empowers people, led by an embedded human rights approach, and provided by a valued, expert workforce who are paid and resourced well. 

And, as our colleagues at the Poverty Alliance have pointed out, we need bold action to address poverty – one of the biggest primary and secondary causes of homelessness. In the short term and the long term, addressing poverty is key. 

The Government needs to be clear and specific about what’s expected of public services, and, crucially, living up to its ambitions for homelessness prevention means not just funding housing, but freeing up funding for all public services to make sure nobody’s falling through the cracks.

I believe that, with the will and the work, the Scottish Government can tackle the homelessness crisis, and live up to the ambition laid out back in April, to “use all the powers we have to tackle poverty and inequality, build a fairer Scotland, and support those most in need.” Tomorrow’s Programme for Government is a great opportunity to commit to making that change now, when it’s so urgently needed.  

We’ve had words – we need action.