The Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group reconvenes

Jon Sparkes, Chief Executive

The Scottish Government’s Housing Minister, Kevin Stewart MSP, asked me to reconvene the Homelessness & Rough Sleeping Action Group (HARSAG) and within days we were able to bring everyone together. This is testament to the wider sector’s dedication to building on the swift action we have seen during this pandemic. It was great to see everyone again – two years after HARSAG last met – I only wish we could have been reunited in person.

HARSAG brings together experts from the housing and homelessness sector and beyond. You can read more about our membership here. The meeting began with reflections on the progress since our previous work together – and since the start of the outbreak - and sharing concerns over challenges we may see during the months ahead. Members spoke of the culture shift brought about by this outbreak – we’ve overcome previous barriers and the value to people affected by homelessness has been massive. Now we need to look at what happens next.

In recent months, people who were rough sleeping have been swiftly moved into hotels and other forms of self-contained accommodation. Homelessness has been transformed – the pandemic has shown that rough sleeping is not inevitable. Things we did not think were possible two years ago are now within reach.  Helping people off the streets and into safe accommodation sent a strong message – ‘You Matter.’

To ensure there’s no going backwards, we must plan for what should happen next.

Housing must be at the core to Scotland’s recovery from this pandemic

HARSAG members agreed that as we put together our recommendations for action to the Scottish Government, we must be bold and we must be ambitious. In our society, everyone should be supported to access and keep a home that suits their needs. We must aim high – no return to rough sleeping and no unsuitable temporary accommodation.

This is not to say there won’t be significant challenges ahead. There is growing concern of a surge in the numbers of people at risk of homelessness – but there are things we can do about it. Homelessness is preventable. Policies can be adopted to stop the predicted economic downturn leaving more people without a safe and stable home.

It is clear that we need to maximise available housing options for people. We heard that most Local Authorities are now allocating 90% or more of their properties to homeless households, which is very much welcome. However, the number of lets taking place has dramatically fallen due to restrictions around lockdown. Ramping up the letting of empty properties is essential and while guidance has been issued by COSLA and the Scottish Government, who have also written to all landlords highlighting the importance of this activity, we need to work across the rented sector to look at what more can be done to encourage and support this. The Group also considered how we can promote the good practice seen in some areas – for example, non-contact letting, and also pre-letting - so that people currently in hotels or temporary accommodation can look forward to somewhere stable once lockdown eases. There is also an opportunity to get more empty homes into the system by buying more properties. In the longer term, we need more homes to be built.

HARSAG members agreed that support must be offered to those with the most complex needs. Housing First has tremendous potential, as demonstrated by the Housing First Pathfinder. In one year, 252 tenancies have been created in Scotland and the tenancy sustainment rate is 92%. No one has been evicted from their Housing First tenancy. The evidence is clear – Housing First works, and we have a real opportunity to upscale it and roll the model out across Scotland.

As well as increasing housing supply, we need to do what we can to prevent more people from becoming homeless. This may include ensuring there are no evictions into homelessness, earlier intervention and offering people support and advice before they reach a financial cliff edge. The Prevention Review Group are already looking at how homelessness can be prevented, and we believe there is a real opportunity to build on their work so far to inform immediate prevention steps across the public sector as well as looking ahead to future legislation.

Cross-sector working is crucial to Scotland’s recovery from this pandemic. We need housing, health and justice to work together. Our work will reflect on how we can strengthen these links and look at what collaboration might mean from a services perspective so that people can benefit from a more holistic approach to tackling homelessness.

Next steps

HARSAG members considered the equality impact of our work and how we can consult people with lived experience of homelessness, the wider sector and equality groups. Over the weeks ahead, our members will be looking at how we can engage with the Change Team, people staying in the emergency hotel accommodation, those with No Recourse to Public Funds, women facing homelessness and those experiencing homelessness for the first time. We are also very aware that the scale and severity and impact of domestic abuse has grown during the pandemic, and this has increased the numbers of people experiencing and at risk of homelessness. Our recommendations must take the needs and concerns of all these groups into consideration.

Over the next few days, we will work to refine our recommendations for action, considering:

  • What needs to be already in place to support people in this emergency situation?
  • What needs to be done quickly to ensure that when people move of from emergency accommodation, they are not forced beck to rough sleeping?
  • How can we accelerate the pace of work to prevent homelessness? We know that the very best way to prevent rough sleeping is to prevent homelessness from happening in the first place
  • What else needs to change in the plan to end homelessness in Scotland to recognise the changing circumstances and a more ambitious view of what is now possible?

These questions and our initial responses will form the basis of our consultation with people with lived experience, the sector and wider equalities groups. I would particularly like to thank the tremendous effort taken by Homeless Network Scotland who have coordinated the ideas of 19 charities and academics under ‘Everyone Home.’ The collective has already published its framework, providing a solid foundation for HARSAG’s work. 

I hope to publish HARSAG’s draft recommendations for action within the next week and would greatly welcome your thoughts and contributions – so please do get in touch and feedback your comments. The minutes from our first meeting should also be published soon, so do keep an eye out for them.

At our next meeting in 2 weeks, we will look at what needs to be put in place, or continue to be in place, to ensure our recommendations work in practice.

Please join the discussion – use the hashtag #HARSAG or #endinghomelessnesstogether on social media, or just email me or any member of the group to join the discussion.

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