Homelessness: policy context
Anyone in Scotland who applies to their local authority for help with homelessness is entitled to permanent accomodation (Housing Scotland Act 1987), as long as they have a connection to the local area and the local authority decides that they are not intentionally homeless. Permanent accommodation means a social tenancy, or a private tenancy lasting at least 12 months. Previously, a homeless applicant also had to be in ‘priority need’, for instance, due to age, parental responsibilities, or health conditions, but provisions set out in the 2003 Homelessness Act led to the abolition of this requirement in 2012. Priority need remains a condition for statutory homelessness support in other countries within the UK. Because of the widening of entitlement to homelessness support and a shortage of permanent housing, the number of people staying in temporary accommodation in Scotland has grown significantly, with around 10-11,000 people in temporary accommodation at any one time (Fitzpatrick et al 2015). People may remain there for many months (Shelter Scotland 2015).
"Housing Options" approach to preventing homelessness
In recent years local authorities have adopted an approach called Housing Options which aims to to improve support for people at risk of homelessness and reduce pressure on homelessness services. People who approach a local authority can receive help to identify the options available to them. This can involve proactive support, for example to negotiate with landlords or mediate within family situations. Initial data suggests that in most cases support consists of information giving and signposting, rather than more in depth work (Fitzpatrick et al 2015). In 2016, the Scottish Government and ALACHO (the Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officers) produced guidance (866Kb) for local authorities to support the use of Housing Options.
Changes to the benefits system
The benefits system is crucial to protecting people from homelessness, covering housing costs for people with low income and providing income when people are not working. However, major changes ("welfare reform") have reduced the protection available. Their impacts are discussed in a recent paper from ScotPHO entitled 'Pulling in different directions'.
- Benefit sanctions have serious implications for people’s capacity to avoid or move on from homelessness, as most people have no income for the period of the sanction. Sanctions can apply to claimants on Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA), Employment Support Allowance or Universal Credit. A first-time sanction on JSA usually lasts a month, but in some circumstances repeated breaches of conditions may lead to sanctions of up to three years. Homeless people are disproportionately likely to be affected by sanctions (Batty et al 2015). Some people may be eligible for hardship payments because they are particularly vulnerable or are on Employment Support Allowance, but in most cases income is reduced by at least half. In addition, an independent review (566KB) has noted that in some cases housing benefit may be inadvertently stopped.
- Young people have been severely affected by changes to the benefits system (Fitzpatrick et al 2015). Housing benefit has been restricted for most people under 35, who can now only receive enough housing benefit to pay for shared accommodation (the Shared Accommodation Rate).
- The UK Government plans to stop help with housing costs through Universal Credit for 18-21 year olds, as summarised in this briefing paper.
- A cap has been introduced on the amount of money a household can receive through benefits, irrespective of the number of children in the household or rent. From November 2016 this amount is £385 a week for couples and families with children.
- The ‘bedroom tax’ (also known as the under-occupancy penalty, or spare room subsidy) refers to a reduction in housing benefit for people living in social rented accommodation with a spare bedroom and was introduced in 2013.
- The Scottish Government has partially mitigated against cuts to housing and council tax benefits. It has also acted to extend support to the 18-21 year olds affected by the removal of housing benefit (through the Scottish Welfare Fund). Specifically the impact of the 'bedroom tax' has been largely mitigated by funding from the Scottish Government.
Health and homelessness
Homelessness is associated with poorer physical and mental health, and higher mortality rates (Hetherington & Hamlet 2015, Homeless Link 2014). Poor health can be both a cause and a consequence of homelessness. The Scottish Government issued Health and Homelessness Standards in 2005, which sought to support strategic leadership in health services to address homelessness. However, these are no longer being performance managed, so use and compliance varies across different NHS Board areas. The Scottish Public Health Network published a report in 2015, Restoring the Public Health Response to Homelessness (1.1Mb), which has provided a renewed focus on this area. A recent briefing from NHS Health Scotland on health and homelessness describes the impact of homelessness on health and wellbeing and identifies local and national actions to address the issue. In addition, NHS Health Scotland hosts a national Health and Homelessness Group which has broad membership from across health, local and national government, academia and the housing and voluntary sectors.