Sleeping rough in the streets is no place to be especially during Christmas.
By Bill Heaney
Homelessness – rough sleeping in the streets – is always a major topic at Christmas because the story of the Nativity tells us that Mary and Joseph could find “no room at the inn” for her to give birth to the Baby Jesus.
He told MSPs: “During the first wave of the pandemic, a huge effort was made to reduce rough sleeping in Scotland. If we took urgent action then, we should take it now, although it should not take a virus for us to act. Covid remains a risk and, as we head into the coldest month of the year, the Government’s most recent homeless statistics show that nearly 2,500 people who made a homeless application had slept rough in the three months before.
“Nearly 1,500 had slept rough the night before applying. That is clearly an underestimation of the true numbers of people sleeping rough in Scotland. Will the First Minister guarantee that, as we head towards Christmas, no one will have to sleep on the streets this winter?”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told him: “The Government will certainly do everything in its power to ensure that that is the case. We are working with, and I pay tribute to the efforts of, organisations on the front line of the issue. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, one of those organisations made the point that the numbers of people rough sleeping in the city of Glasgow, which is home to Anas Sarwar and me, had reduced markedly, which is positive.
“However, many people are still at risk of homelessness and of rough sleeping. We have updated the ending homelessness together action plan and we are investing significantly in making sure that there are support services for people who face the risk of homelessness or rough sleeping. We will continue to do what we can and work with others to make sure that nobody is on the streets over this winter period.”
Anas Sarwar replied: “I welcome any reduction in rough sleeping, but those numbers are disputed. One person rough sleeping is one person too many. I hear what the First Minister says, but that still means that people will sleep rough this winter, and it does not need to be that way. We can eradicate rough sleeping now, but that means taking real action to end homelessness, too.
“Once people find their way into temporary accommodation, it should be just that—temporary. A home is more than four walls and a roof above your head; it is a basic human right. Too many people will spend this Christmas in temporary accommodation.
“The most recent Government statistics show that there are more than 3,500 households, with children or a pregnant woman, in temporary accommodation. On average, a couple with a child stay in temporary accommodation for 341 days, but in some parts of Scotland it is as many as 865 days. That is more than two years without a home to call your own.
“Scottish Labour has a housing strategy that includes new homes, fair rents and banning winter evictions. What is the Scottish Government doing about that?”
Anas Sarwar: asked the SNP/Green government for support for the Labour strategy.
The First Minister told Mr Sarwar: “I am certainly happy to look at any proposals that could help us collectively tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. The Scottish Government does not just have a strategy; we are implementing policies and proposals. We have funded record numbers of new affordable homes and we have investment plans to do more of that. We are investing in the housing first approach, which is an important way of making sure that those who have experienced homelessness or are at risk of homelessness move into settled accommodation and have support services around them, so that they can sustain that accommodation.”
Ms Sturgeon’s outlook on this appears to be out of line with the policies of the SNP administration led by Cllr Jonathan McColl at West Dunbartonshire Council who recently sold for £700,000 a piece of land in the centre of Alexandria for private housing despite the fact it was pointed out that if it was suitable for private housing then it was suitable for council housing, which was badly needed.
Ms Sturgeon said: “I agree with the point that temporary accommodation should be temporary. I know that local councils work very hard to move people from temporary to permanent settled accommodation. During the period of the pandemic, when the first priority has often been to get people off the streets and into accommodation, the numbers of people in temporary accommodation have risen.
Fire broke out recently in a flat at Ashton View in Westcliff and the family who were accommodated temporarily were rescued and treated in hiospital.
“Temporary accommodation is often of good quality, but that is not always the case, and it can take time for local authorities to find the right accommodation, particularly for families and for larger families. The principle of temporary meaning temporary is a very important one.
“This is an area of priority for the Government; even our critics would say that there is a lot of good work being done, but I am always open minded to other suggestions and proposals.”
But Mr Sarwar replied: “The problem has been getting worse year on year since 2013, long before the pandemic. The Government was on track to miss its housing target before Covid, which is why we need a coherent plan to end homelessness, but we must act to eradicate rough sleeping now.
“Organisations the length and breadth of the country will be working through Christmas and new year to support the most vulnerable. I visited one of them recently, the Homeless Project Scotland, to see its amazing work. I pay tribute to all the charities and each and every one of the volunteers. They should not have to do it, but thank goodness that they do.
“However, Government needs to do its job, too. To eradicate rough sleeping this Christmas, will the First Minister commit to outreach support during the night to help identify people sleeping rough on our streets and find them accommodation? Will she open up public buildings to allow volunteers to feed the most vulnerable in a safe, warm setting where support services are also present to help? Let us not deflect responsibility; let us act to end rough sleeping, because this is about who we are and what we are willing to tolerate.”
The First Minister denied this was the case. She told the Labour leader: “I do not think that anybody listening to me would have heard me deflect responsibility on to anyone. This is a collective challenge. Central Government has a leadership obligation, local government has a big obligation—I will come back to that in a second—but we work with fantastic charities and voluntary organisations that do most on the front line.
“In relation to affordable housing—this is a statement of fact—Scotland has led the way in the United Kingdom on the delivery of affordable housing. More than 105,000 affordable homes have been delivered since 2007, and more than 70,000 of those are for social rent, which is way in excess of anything that has been done elsewhere in the UK. However, it is about more than that, which is an important point to recognise; it is about the support that is provided to people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
“Through the ending homelessness together fund, we have already increased funding to enable those on the front line to much more rapidly help people and have access to the funding to do that. I am certainly happy to ask the housing minister to look at whether there is more that we can and need to do ahead of the festive period and into the winter.
“I am happy to explore the point about public buildings. Of course, many public buildings are in the ownership not of the Scottish Government, but of local authorities, and there are often issues that they have to deal with around that. We have seen that in Glasgow in recent times. We take all those issues really seriously and we are doing a significant and huge amount of work across all those strands.
“I agree that, for as long as one person is sleeping rough in our streets, there is more for all of us to do, which is why I will never close my mind to suggestions and proposals, no matter where they come from.”