This week I was invited by Holyrood Communications to speak at their annual Homelessness Event about the important issue of scaling up Housing First in Scotland. But why Housing First? And why now?
If you don’t work in Scotland you may be forgiven for not knowing that it was in Glasgow, back in 2010, that Housing First was first introduced in the UK.
I’d just finished helping Sarah Johnsen at Heriot-Watt on the first review of Housing First in the UK – then a promising new intervention from the US. So it was exciting to learn that Turning Point Scotland were doing a Housing First pilot. I never imagined that, ten years on, we’d be so close to introducing it on a grand scale across the country.
So, What Next for Housing First in Scotland? It seems to me that this question is at the heart of the most important challenge of our age in Scotland: ending homelessness for good.
But we must acknowledge what’s been achieved under incredibly difficult circumstances.
Between 2010 when Housing First was first introduced and 2018, less than 100 Housing First tenancies were created. Since 2019 Scotland’s Housing First Pathfinder has created almost 400. Housing First has long formed a vital plank in the homelessness strategies of a number of countries – including the US, Finland, Denmark and Canada – and now, thanks to the leadership of many of the people and organisations who spoke at yesterday’s event, it’s being introduced at scale in Scotland.
And in light of the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, as well as the fact that even before the pandemic homelessness levels and spending were rising, talking about “what next” seems to me all the more important.
The insights shared at the event, coupled with Centre for Homelessness Impact’s work to date, suggest that three things will make a huge difference as we move forward:
The first is to point out that we must not be shy to say that Housing First is not a silver bullet. No single housing option is.
We should also start learning from the evaluation of the Housing First pathfinder at the earliest opportunity and pivot as required.
It may also be desirable to use insights from recent studies in other countries to anticipate some possible challenges, and respond appropriately. For example recent evaluation of the Housing First initiative in Charlotte, North Carolina, suggests people might have more difficulty accessing food once they gain housing, perhaps because they don’t have transport to the places they previously went to for free food, or because they now live in an area that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food. This is just an example of the type of insight that can be used to refine plans in Scotland.
The other consideration as we think about the future is funding. Housing First relies on providing permanent access to accommodation and support. This requires long-term funding and, potentially, a steady availability of appropriate housing. International projects have experienced problems in delivering these elements; and some of these issues will be particularly acute in some parts of Scotland. It is crucial that these considerations are built into long term planning.
At the Centre for Homelessness Impact, we are working with East Ayrshire and will soon start working with Glasgow, Aberdeen and Highland Councils. We look forward to learning about their experiences, and to working with them and other councils in Scotland to help them develop and implement their plans effectively.
This brings me to my second point: it will be important to ensure that we put just as much effort into prevention and driving down the numbers of people in Temporary Accommodation. We would like to see these issues tackled in an even more prominent way in future Rapid Rehousing Transition Plans.
Also relevant in this context are calls for £3.5 billion for investment in Social Housing in next 5 years. In Victoria, Australia (a state of 6 million people) they are investing $5.3 billion into building over 12,000 homes in 4 years to tackle homelessness and create construction jobs (including 10% for apprenticeships, traineeships and roles for Aboriginal Victorians and social housing tenants). We must also consider the private rented sector, which can be a good option for many.
Finally, let’s ensure we think about the role of communities in all this: Providing someone with a home does not end their experience of isolation; that is the baseline. But unless your neighbours welcome you, let you know how you can get involved in the community, and include you in local events, you are still at risk of feeling lonely and isolated, and at a deep and persistent risk of becoming homeless again. Communities can help keep people housed.
There are huge structural inequalities at play that drive homelessness rates in Scotland. I think we all know that. So investment in interventions like Housing First must always be put in a wider context. There are also ways in which each of us can intervene, and show solidarity and friendship, which are often ignored when we talk about homelessness. This needs to change because homelessness is about those big structural issues, but it is also deeply personal.
Scotland’s Housing First Pathfinder has made possible something that was deemed impossible back in 2018. Thanks to the vision and leadership of many of the people and organisations here today, the lives of many people experiencing homelessness are likely to improve significantly. With the crisis still deepening around us this work is just as vital as it was before the pandemic, perhaps even more so.
There is no doubt that there is still a lot of work to do and big challenges to face, but we are heading in the right direction, and with continued support and collaboration across all levels we know that we can continue on the evidence-led road to ending homelessness for good in Scotland.
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