No reverse gear on homelessness

Improvements in homelessness in Edinburgh can’t be allowed to go into reverse, argues Alison Johnstone.

Our capital city has a homelessness crisis. Well before the coronavirus pandemic struck, Edinburgh was struggling to cope with the consequences of decades of housing failure: toxic house price inflation; massive erosion of council housing numbers through the short-sighted (although now ended) Right to Buy scheme; the more recent loss of thousands of homes from residential uses to holiday lets. The benefit cap and delays to Universal Credit payments have also driven more people into crisis.

The result has been, at any one time, thousands of people stuck in high cost, poor quality temporary accommodation, for weeks, months, years on end. There’s a social cost to this, borne by families or vulnerable people struggling for support. But there’s a financial cost too: over £40m a year in Edinburgh’s case, simply to cover the costs of temporary housing: money which could otherwise be investing in good quality permanent social housing at rents people can afford.

Add to that the visible signs of people sleeping rough in this wealthiest city in Scotland and it’s clear that Edinburgh can do much more.

So when the coronavirus storm hit the city in March there were understandable fears that homeless people would be first in line to take the full impact. It’s hard to concentrate on social distancing or shielding when daily survival is at stake. To its credit Edinburgh has responded well. Homeless families have been moved out of squalid Bed and Breakfast hostels and people sleeping rough have been given a roof over the heads. People described coldly as “having no recourse to public funds” (usually enmeshed in the asylum system) have been housed.

It’s not perfect. There are cracks in the system where people fall through. But it’s a sign that mobilisation to improve services is possible.

So what now? The current arrangements are only a sticking plaster. Back on 9 July the council agreed to continue to house homeless people and to seek urgent Scottish Government support for the additional £1m needed until the end of the year. In August, councillors will be updated on how things have moved on.

That is welcome but not enough. Replacing a short-life sticking plaster with a slightly longer one is not the answer. It simply delays the crunch. Rather, the crisis response just now could be used as a springboard for a new approach to homelessness in Edinburgh.

One where there is a network of swift supported housing for people sleeping rough.

Where the explosion in holiday lets is reversed and much tighter regulations require owners return homes to residential uses.

Where the city’s 5,000 empty homes are brought back into use through a mixture of carrots and sticks.

And where the building of long-term affordable homes takes priority over trying to cram another hotel or commercial student block into every available gap site.

It’s often said that the best test of any policy is how it impacts on the most disadvantaged people in society. Creating a clean break from years of flawed homelessness services would be a prize worth winning.