Martin Gavin: How the Programme for Government stacks up on homelessness

Martin Gavin from Homeless Network Scotland takes a closer look at the housing and homelessness elements in the Programme for Government, published on Tuesday.

‘A Fairer, Greener Scotland’ declares the bold white typeface set against blue sky in the striking cover photograph for the 2021/22 Programme for Government, published yesterday.

These overarching priorities for the new Government lead the reader into a 123-page document rooted in prevention and early intervention across the board and peppered with references to homelessness. It is the context of how and where that word appears that is key, affirming that not only have we learned lessons from the pandemic about inclusion, fairness and equality but that the Government’s continued commitment to the Ending Homelessness Together Plan after May’s election is convincing, with a strong showing on homelessness again in this year’s Programme for Government.

It appears in the First Minister’s introduction. “We will ensure that everyone has a safe, warm place to call home – taking forward an ambitious programme of affordable housebuilding, eradicating homelessness and rough sleeping.” This pledge from Nicola Sturgeon, which accompanies an additional £50m funding commitment, is something all of us in the sector welcome, along with specific commitments such as ensuring no return to communal night shelters after progress made during the winter of 2020/21. We will hold the Government to this pledge, while providing all possible engagement, encouragement and energy to help realise this shared ambition.

Other signs that homelessness is now increasingly recognised as emerging from system failure include mentions in section 5, titled Living Better: supporting thriving, resilient and diverse communities. It places the problem in a community setting alongside issues such as, ‘ensuring people have access to the services they need in their own neighbourhoods’ and ‘supporting inclusive communities’. This reflects work by Homeless Network Scotland and our partners taking place right now in Pollok and Gorbals, where Lottery funding is being directed to prevent homelessness by people who live and work in those areas through the ‘Staying In’ project.

As part of creating welcoming communities, the Programme for Government states: “No‑one should be made destitute because of their immigration status. We will do everything in our power to improve support for people at risk of destitution, delivering on our Ending Destitution Together strategy.” This is a critical tone of voice from government given that immigration is a reserved matter. Work to progress this is well underway by the Scottish Government and many other partners, including Homeless Network Scotland, deeply concerned by the lack of support for people in this position. Efforts to prevent homelessness and end rough sleeping will be undermined without concomitant measures to mitigate the impact of UK immigration policy that amounts to destitution by design. The intention by the Scottish Government included in the Programme for Government to ‘explore alternative ways to reduce migrant homelessness’ comes at a critical time, with pressure on the UK Government to reconsider its approach coming from charities, human rights advocates and politicians from all sides.

Finally, and deeply interconnected, are the vital scaling up of Housing First alongside well publicised commitments and funding from the Government to tackle drug deaths. A webinar this week hosted by Homeless Network Scotland explored the relationship between Housing First and harm reduction, with experts from across and beyond Scotland leading the debate. The Programme for Government mentions specific work to ‘scale up Housing First more rapidly’ plus the introduction of a new check up process that Homeless Network Scotland has been working on and consulted on over the summer. This will accompany the national roll out in most Scottish local authorities and is due to launch in the autumn.

In some respects the Programme for Government includes the commitments we in the sector had hoped for and expected. But it is also reassuring given the focus this Government must have on guiding Scotland out of a pandemic and into recovery. The references to homelessness – 15 in total – are placed with care, often alongside commitments and pledges to address broader social issues that we know often contribute to homelessness. Overall, this Programme for Government leaves us reassured that valuable progress will not be lost, existing promises stand and new commitments are on the record.