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April 8, 2022

Why we must change the way we talk and think about homelessness

Wendy Chamberlain

When asked to think about homelessness, it’s easy to conjure up a mental image of a man, sleeping in a doorway, somewhere in the centre of a big city. When the media report on homelessness, that’s the stock photo. 

But the reality can be very different as I know from people who contact my office and that of my colleague in the Scottish Parliament. People who experience homelessness are all genders; families as well as single people; spanning all backgrounds. And homelessness is a problem in rural communities as much as it is in large, urban areas. 

The reflex image that so many people have of homelessness is perhaps understandable. Street homelessness is the most visible and the most extreme form of homelessness while many other forms of homelessness are hidden from sight: people ‘sofa surfing’; families living in temporary accommodation because they have nowhere else to go; people staying in hostels or night shelters.

During the Covid-19 pandemic large numbers of people experiencing or at risk of homelessness were, commendably, offered hotel rooms via local authorities. A safe, albeit temporary, home. 

However, the above stereotyping of homelessness is a profound problem. It clouds public understanding of the nature and true scale of homelessness in the United Kingdom. And it acts as a barrier to directing attention and resources towards the most proven and effective ways of preventing homelessness in the first place. 

This problem applies particularly to homelessness in rural areas, such as the constituency I represent.

Beyond the principal towns of St Andrews, Cupar and parts of Leven, North East Fife is a rural constituency with a variety of small towns, villages and hamlets. High house prices and rents mean that housing affordability is a challenge for many local people and homelessness is a pressing issue.

The problem of “hidden homelessness” can be very acute in my constituency. The Fife Health and Social Care Partnership has calculated that only 1% of people living in North East Fife live in one of the top 20% most deprived areas in Scotland compared with 15% of people across Fife as a whole. But contrast that with the statistic that 12% of people in North East Fife are classed as being in “housing deprivation” compared with 4% of people across Fife as a whole.

Whilst, thankfully, street homelessness in Fife has fallen from 50.2 households per 100,000 in 2018-19 to 28.7 per 100,000 in 2019/20 the granular, locality based data can demonstrate significant geographical variations. This is equally true of the number of households in temporary accommodation, which has similarly fallen in Fife from 317.4 per 100,000 to 310.2 per 100,000 in the same timeframe. With housing availability at a premium in North East Fife, particularly for those seeking small (i.e. 1-bedroom) and large (4 bedroom+) homes, the geographical discrepancies can, again, paint a very noteworthy picture, particularly where families are trapped for extended periods of time in temporary or unfit accommodation.

My casework often deals with families at risk of homelessness who have been housed in ‘scatter flats’ across the area. The quality of these flats used as temporary accommodation is of regular complaint to my office and concerns me deeply. We know that poor quality accommodation can worsen the health of people with underlying illnesses or conditions. The temporary nature of the accommodation prevents children from settling in school. The inability to put down roots can impact on mental health. 

More must be done. While Fife Council has recorded a modest reduction in people living in temporary accommodation, figures in Scotland rose from 443.6 per 100,000 in 2018-19 to 467.4 per 100,000 in 2019/20. This is the highest rate since 2011-12 (475.9 per 100,000) and is the second highest rate recorded since devolution. Rural areas, such as the Highlands and Shetland in particular, have recorded some of the highest rates outwith major cities. 

Ambition to do more must be matched by action. However, that action must be undertaken with a view towards change and doing things that are proven to work, and not by simply continuing with old methods that have not succeeded in ending homelessness for good in the past. 

We have a unique opportunity to build upon successful measures that were implemented in response to the pandemic that helped to relieve some people from the pressures of homelessness. It is imperative that we learn from what was successful and make every effort to adapt those policies into long term, achievable projects that will help bring an end to homelessness, once and for all.  

And that includes how we think and talk about homelessness. I am convinced that to achieve a lasting end to homelessness we must fully understand and explain the problem. We must explain that homelessness blights the lives of families in rural areas such as North East Fife as well as those of people in cities.

Furthermore, we must shed the stereotyping and stigma too often associated with homelessness. We must face up to the fact that individuals who experience homelessness are people like us, with personal stories, hopes and dreams. Too often they have been let down by services or systems that should have been there to support them and prevent such a personal tragedy. They deserve our respect.

That’s why I have agreed to become an ambassador to the End It With Evidence campaign run by the Centre for Homelessness Impact, to press for evidence-led change to improve the lives of people who experience or are at risk of homelessness.

Wendy Chamberlain is Liberal Democrat MP for North East Fife.

Find out more about the campaign and sign the pledge.
This blog post was originally published on The Times news website on Thursday 7 April.

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