Scotland should look to Finland for inspiration to tackle homelessness

Homelessness
Right Rev Dr Russell Barr

A new national strategy to tackle the “demoralising, degrading and dehumanising” blight of homelessness must be introduced in Scotland, a senior Kirk figure has said.

The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland Right Rev Dr Russell Barr said a “collective endeavour” partnership of local authorities, political parties, housing associations and the charity sector should be formed to try and end rough sleeping and reliance on temporary accommodation.

He said the model had been successfully developed in Finland - the only western European country to significantly reduce the number of homeless people in recent years.

Dr Barr, who has discussed the issue with political party leaders including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, said the number of people registered homeless in Scotland has not changed enough since he founded Edinburgh-based support charity Fresh Start in 1999.

Scottish Government figures for 2015/16 show 34,662 homeless applications were from households. And 17,822 children and young people under 18 are members of these households – a situation the Moderator described as “shocking and shameful”.

The application figure is not dissimilar to that from 1996, when there were 40,989 applications according to the housing charity, Shelter.

Rooted in poverty

The Moderator says anecdotal evidence suggests the current figures also underplay the true level of homelessness, as they do not capture the number of people who are ‘sofa surfing’ without registering themselves with their local council.

Dr Barr added that homelessness was merely being managed and warned that there will be “little hope” of resolving, let alone ending the scourge unless a joined up, integrated approach is taken.

The Moderator, who has raised his concerns about homelessness with Shelter Scotland, Communities Minister Angela Constance, Housing Minister Kevin Stewart and Edinburgh City Council, made a key note speech at a Kirk organised seminar in Edinburgh today.

He said a Scottish Government commitment to build 50,000 new affordable homes by 2021 was very welcome but it must go further and use new benefit and welfare powers being devolved to Holyrood to help alleviate poverty.

Dr Barr told the Scottish Churches Housing Action event at the church offices, which was attended by Bill Barron, head of housing support and homelessness at the Scottish Government, ending the policy of Right to Buy, changes to private tenancy law, a shortage of affordable homes, changing patterns of households, and Brexit/austerity have all contributed to homelessness, which is rooted in poverty in its widest sense.

He argued that support services must be improved to assist people who have been homeless long-term because many of them have complex needs.

Co-ordinated and targeted measures

Dr Barr said: “Finland is the only western European country which has been able to significantly reduce the number of people homeless in recent years.

“Based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the Finnish distinctive ‘housing first’ model has demonstrated it is always more cost-effective to end homelessness rather than manage it.

“This nationally agreed policy made it possible to establish a wide partnership of state authorities, local communities and non-governmental organisations.

“And because there were co-ordinated and targeted measures in the implementation of the policy, it is working.

“Collective endeavour – as expressed in a nationally agreed strategy appropriate for the Scottish context - could not be more urgent.

“A strategy which commands cross party and cross discipline support and a strategy which embraces local authorities, housing associations and the third sector including the various charities involved in supporting people who have been homeless.”

Homelessness pipeline blocked

Dr Barr said the current shortage of affordable housing was placing pressure on temporary accommodation and this in turn has a negative impact on emergency accommodation.

“And if access to emergency accommodation is difficult then the outcome is an increase in rough sleeping," he added.

“The homelessness ‘pipeline’ is effectively blocked at the exit point into affordable social housing and until that blockage is removed so the problem will continue to grow.”