Life in Limbo: reform in temporary accommodation in Scotland

Lynn McMath, Former Communications and Policy Manager - Scotland

Temporary accommodation is an important first step in helping homeless people find a safe and secure home. But in parts of Scotland some people are being placed in unsuitable accommodation, such as unsupported hostels, lodging houses or B&Bs for months at a time without access to basic facilities such as a washing machine or cooking facilities.   Crisis clients in Edinburgh are regularly telling our team that bathroom facilities are often inadequate, they are told to leave their rooms during the day and meet strict curfews at night.

Jamie* was in an Edinburgh B&B for almost four months, he said: “There was about 30 people sharing three bathrooms, a dining room where you were supposed to eat your breakfast but no access to the kitchen at all, not even a microwave so you got your breakfast and then that was you for the day as far as they were concerned.”

Scotland has world-leading rights-based homelessness legislation with priority need abolished almost five years ago. The law currently protects families with children and pregnant women from enduring unsuitable temporary accommodation, with a time-limit of two weeks before they must be moved on. The SNP further committed in their 2016 manifesto to reduce the time limit on B&B accommodation for families down to one week and this will become law from next month.

However, there is no such time limit at all for single people and the experiences many people are having are woeful. It’s unacceptable that more than 1,100 people in Scotland are being left to live like this.

Frank* explains his experience: “There was quite a high turnover of people with addiction or mental health issues, or that had just come out of prison and the different comings and goings of people had a real impact on how I felt in myself. My mental health deteriorated due to the stress, every day I was waiting for a phone call from the Council about moving me on.”

Bed and breakfast accommodation is best suited for use in emergencies, giving people an immediate roof over their heads when nothing else is available.  But for long-term living without some of the basics needed for life, it does not work. Yet for too many people it has become their only option, in some extreme cases for years.

While many local authorities have taken great strides to either eliminate or significantly reduce their reliance on unsuitable temporary accommodation, in some parts of Scotland, including Edinburgh, East Lothian and Highland, councils are relying more and more on B&Bs to meet their legal duties.

A change in the law to apply the week-long time limit would be relatively easy to accomplish and would give equality to all homeless people, ensuring nobody is left to languish for prolonged periods in unsuitable temporary accommodation. Councils that rely heavily on its use may raise concerns about how else they house people presenting to them as homeless but then other councils such as Fife, North Lanarkshire and Scottish Borders, seem to have solved that issue.

There are other approaches available. Last year our Housing Coach in Edinburgh helped secure 47 people into tenancies in the private rented sector, at a cost of around £850 per person. If everyone currently housed in B&B in Edinburgh was supported into a private tenancy, by a housing coach, that would cost significantly less than £400,000.  In contrast Edinburgh Council currently spends over £6million annually on B&B accommodation. The current four-year contract shows that B&Bs are routinely being used for long-term placements rather than as an emergency. Of course, we know that not everyone would be suited to a private tenancy but the point is that the system can and should change to accommodate people’s needs rather than perpetuating the status quo.

This issue becomes increasingly urgent, as changes to the way the UK Government supports housing costs through the benefits system are set to leave a £40 million annual shortfall in funding for temporary accommodation across Scotland.

Crisis is calling on the Scottish Government to change the law to restrict the use of unsuitable temporary accommodation to seven days for all homeless people. We also want to see local authorities who are relying on this type of accommodation produce a plan to reduce its use longer term. Everyone deserves to have a home where they feel safe and secure and we will soon be publishing a report that exposes the reality of using this type of accommodation as part of a solution to homelessness. We intend to raise this with councils and the Scottish Government to make sure that the senseless financial and personal costs of using this type of accommodation as a long-term solution is stopped for good.

Only a legislative change can help support all parts of Scotland to achieve equal rights for all homeless people. Join our campaign to make it happen.

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