Preventing homelessness better is at the top of the policy and practice agenda in Scotland. The work of the Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group in 2018 highlighted that more – and more effective – prevention has a central role to play in improving responses to homelessness. The Scottish Government’s plan to end homelessness (PDF) and recent progress update specify a series of steps currently being taken towards this end.
For a wide range of reasons this preventative focus is the right one. Most importantly, it will avoid some of the painful experiences and harmful consequences of homelessness for people at risk of it, their families and their communities. It will also spare public sector services from having to deal with the costly consequences of homelessness ‘downstream’, including its negative impacts on people’s physical and mental health.
But while this preventative focus is wholly justified and absolutely necessary, it is not without its challenges. One such challenge concerns translating evidence on homelessness into practicable policies, although this has been foundational to the Scottish Governments approach (PDF) so far. Another is implementing those policies effectively, which requires considerable change in frontline working culture, management practices, and data collection and monitoring. A third challenge is shifting attitudes on homelessness among the general public and professionals who play a key role in preventing it but are not homelessness experts.
According to the Frameworks Institute there is an “engrained pessimism about the likelihood of preventing and reducing homelessness” (PDF), with non-experts struggling to grasp exactly how homelessness can be prevented, thus falling back on the idea that crisis responses like the provision of more shelters or temporary accommodation are the solution. But we know unequivocally that they aren’t, and Scotland is taking these lessons very seriously in the adoption of the Housing First model and the pursuit of Rapid Rehousing Transition Plans.
Part of the way forward then might involve better communication about what homelessness prevention looks like in practice and the myriad, evidence-informed and tangible forms it can take. Useful here is a typology of homelessness prevention developed in England (see here, here and here) and now beginning to frame discussions about how to prioritise prevention in Scotland. The framework helps clarify the possible breadth of prevention work and distinguishes between universal, targeted, crisis, emergency and recovery prevention.
Universal prevention seeks to prevent homelessness among an entire or specific population, for example via broad based national – or potentially city-wide – poverty reduction strategies or affordable housing programmes. National government (in Westminster and Holyrood) has a key role to play here in constructing a housing market context, labour market and welfare safety net that minimises rather than drives homelessness.
Targeted prevention focuses on at risk-groups and transition points, and includes providing services for people at risk or with experience of domestic violence and ensuring that young people unable to stay in the family home have acceptable alternative accommodation options that they can sustain and flourish within. There is a very clear focus on this kind of prevention within the Scottish Government’s Action Plan and subsequent work. The development of a young people’s homelessness prevention strategy is an important example, in part inspired by the St Basils pathway developed in England which has had considerable impact on local authority practice and commissioning. We have recently seen the release of a homelessness prevention pathway for care leavers, developed by CELCIS and A Way Home Scotland.
Crisis prevention focuses on preventing homelessness when risk is imminent. In England and Wales, legal changes now require local authorities to seek to prevent homelessness in these circumstances and in challenging contexts, these legal changes have begun to bear fruit (see here and here). This kind of crisis prevention work has been encouraged in Scotland since the early 2010s, but there is now a consensus that the ‘informal’ approach pursued so far needs broadening, deepening and strengthening.
A new legal duty is now being developed by the Prevention Review Group that will require public bodies to prevent homelessness, and is set to go further than England and Wales have done in sharing the responsibility for homelessness prevention across those in a position to do so. Homeless Network Scotland’s Change Team of frontline workers and people with direct experience of homelessness have recently proposed a Duty to Ask people at risk “what needs to happen to prevent you from becoming homeless?” as one ‘people-first’ way of improving this kind of prevention, to be complemented by a subsequent Duty to Act.
Emergency prevention focuses on avoiding homelessness for those at immediate risk and with nowhere safe to stay that night. While Scotland’s robust legal safety for those experiencing homelessness already plays a vital role in preventing rough sleeping, not all those at risk access the support this legal safety net is intended to provide, either because of local-level barriers meaning accommodation is not provided (a well recognised problem in Glasgow), or because service responses or accommodation options are failing to meet people’s needs. This is particular problem for those sleeping rough and with complex needs and underpins the current focus on empowering frontline workers to offer flexible and personalised support and accommodation to those for whom the barriers to accessing and engaging with help are the highest.
Finally, recovery prevention, seeks to minimise repeat homelessness among those who have experienced it. This is a key component of the Housing First model now being implemented across Scotland for those who experience homelessness alongside other severe and multiple needs and disadvantages. Whether individuals with less severe and complex needs have access to the help they may need to sustain mainstream housing and avoid homelessness remains an exceedingly important question in Scotland, and will become increasingly important as current policy changes are implemented and more ‘at risk’ households access mainstream housing quickly and remain in it even when challenges hit.
If 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 described here, 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.