2023: Easy Does It

Maggie Brunjes, Chief Executive of Homeless Network Scotland, on why we must commit to making it easier to end homelessness in Scotland.

Scotland is legally committed to everyone having a home to build and live their lives. But has so far lacked the systems – and in some places, resources – to achieve that. That’s the bottom line.

There can be few things in life as stressful as being homeless or at risk of losing your home. Some who experience it also encounter a system of services and information difficult to navigate, or even to locate.

All worsened by a pandemic, world events and a cost-of-living crisis creating global stress that will continue to impact at a local and personal level in ways that we probably still don’t fully understand. As 2022 was drawing to a close, the impact of this relentless stress on people who work in or around housing and homelessness was very clear.

When systems don’t work for people – they also severely affect the people working in the system.

So what needs to give?

To keep improving a system is to make it easier, better, faster, cheaper. And in that order.

That’s the accepted wisdom of world leading engineers adopted by experts on system improvement. The social sector, concerned with people and not products, is more complex, but we have plenty to gain from adopting a better method of improving local systems in ways that make it easier to put people first.

Specifically for the homelessness sector, we can recognise that starting at the end of this sequence – making it cheaper and faster – does not work, although we regularly see it attempted in ways that include:

  • The market that has been allowed to underpin health and social care services pushing services to drop prices, to compete for new contracts or hold on to existing ones. A zero-sum game; cheaper, but not always better or even easier.  
  • In some parts of the country, rough sleeping has been swapped for lives being lived out of hotel rooms or in unsuitable temporary accommodation. While the enormous efforts of local authority and third sector colleagues to hold firm significant reductions in rough sleeping should be lauded, we also know from experience that long periods in close quarters builds stress and fatigue, damages relationships and forces the hand around issues like risk and autonomy. And as a response, it’s neither easier, better, faster or cheaper.
  • The cost and private profit reaped at the expense of lives in limbo. Year after year, the go-to providers of temporary accommodation in some places remain so because of the corner we’re backed into, and the difficulty managing a safe transition. Not easier or better, or cheaper.
  • Uniformity. Poverty drives housing inequality and goes hand in hand with things like our age, our gender, our ethnicity. Increasing our collective knowledge and competence around equality, at policy, commissioning and practice level, can help us leave behind the blanket approaches that ultimately make lives harder. 

There is a constant call on the housing and homelessness sector to achieve ‘pace and scale’ to resolve the injustice of homelessness. Which is right – we do need pace, and we do need scale and across many fronts: in housing supply and access, in reducing the reliance on temporary accommodation.  In the responses that we know work, like rapid rehousing, Housing First, residential rehabilitation, cash-first autonomy. And we need pace and scale to resolve access to the services that are too hard to reach – like mental health services and to ensure no wrong door for people braving a range of challenges. Notably, we need pace and scale on all this because we understand these big actions to resolve homelessness will also prevent it, a virtuous cycle.

But it will take more than more houses to achieve pace and scale. To create the right conditions, we must also commit to making it easier for people working in the housing and homelessness sector.

How do we do that? Local Rapid Rehousing Transition Plans have been shown to be the right mechanism to chart a route away from over reliance on temporary accommodation, and towards earlier prevention. For 2023, we need to commit to:

Make it easier:

  • Reach across sectors on the big questions of supply and demand for housing and services. There’s much to learn from each other, and solidarity we can provide each other.
  • Prioritise and protect the time needed to build positive and trusted relationships – with people tapping into services, and across the range of professional relationships too.
  • Trust the decision-making competence of people who support people – those who do it well need higher reward in pay, profile and influence.
  • Call out when organisational self-interest and egotism is to the detriment of local outcomes. Those that are motivated for the wrong reasons are in the wrong place and will hold us back.
  • Rethink paperwork, assessments, sharing data and attitudes to risk.

And make it better:

  • Be guided by evidence and experience about what works and what matters most to people. Innovation is great, but the most evidenced and effective solutions to homelessness are intuitive and straightforward.
  • Value more structured and facilitated conversations – creating spaces for shared learning with tight feedback loops to close the gap between policy intentions and what actually happens on the ground. Committees, taskforces, groups and subgroups have their place, but there are better environments to really learn and deliver together.
  • Take collective responsibility to recognise and help the areas with the biggest challenges. How can we achieve cross authority approaches to better target knowledge, resources and infrastructure.

All things are difficult before they are easy. But combined, making our work easier and better provides the conditions for pace, scale and cost effectiveness.  From 2023, we must commit to making it easier to end homelessness and give each other a better chance of achieving progress at the pace and scale we want. By doing so, we will make it easier, better and faster for people facing a housing crisis too.

Remembering Marion Gibbs

Remembering Marion Gibbs who died on 7 December 2022

Marion was at the very centre of Scotland’s housing sector. For over 30 years, her life’s work was focused on those in the most housing need; people affected by homelessness, overcrowding and those in unsuitable, unsafe or temporary accommodation.  

Marion cared deeply for those issues, but heartily resisted any maudlin or sentiment around it. She was driven instead by a sense of equality and fairness, by what’s right. She was a leading champion for how good law and policy should be used to protect, defend and enable people.

Marion especially cherished her role at Scottish Government that she took up in 2009. It represented to her a position where she could best put to good use her culmination of experience and knowledge. She was not what you would call a typical civil servant. She knew so much yet wore that knowledge lightly. Her equal grasp of the strategic big picture combined with a grounded understanding of how things worked in the real world – all shared with clarity and warmth in equal measure – won the deep trust and respect of Ministers and colleagues alike. She so precisely articulated the responsibility of national and local government in ensuring everyone has a home and was also so pivotal within the structures to deliver on it.

Recently Marion contributed to a journal being published to mark a key policy milestone. It is no surprise that her article was about the importance of partnership and trust, on keeping momentum going and on working together. She was the sector’s go-to for information, advice and insight. She really shone as a regular and popular conference chair, keynote speaker and expert panellist within and beyond Scotland – leading debates and discussions in her deep Aberdonian brogue.

A life’s work involves not just advocating for progress but also defending against anything that takes us backwards. Marion did both persuasively, collaboratively and tirelessly and never shied away from speaking truth to power. There are less than a handful of people in Scotland who have been involved in such an important landscape and spanning such an important period. Marion was not just one of them, she was the lynchpin.

We owe her a lot and we’ll miss her.

***

Marion’s family are holding a private funeral service next week, while a bigger celebration will be held in Spring so that everyone who wants to will have the opportunity to come together and pay tribute. We hope to share more details of that event in the new year.

Lorna Gibbs has set up a charity fundraiser for Stonewall in loving memory of her partner which is welcoming donations here.

Blog: The Very Best of Intentions

Homeless Network Scotland launched the first of a series of conversations that will continue through 2023. The growing pressure of the ‘permacrisis’ mobilised a wide range of voluntary action, in city centres and communities, to help people most affected. But with no benchmark or guidelines on delivering this – how can we be sure that doing good, is good enough? ‘The very best of intentions: when does good do harm?’ is intended to create the space for those that want to explore together the dilemmas and opportunities. Grant Campbell, Head of Partnerships and Consulting, welcomed over 40 people to the first conversation last week and blogs about his starting point for this big conversation.

My morning waking up routine, for more years than I can remember, has been to switch on the telly and watch Breakfast news. While probably not as productive as yoga or a morning run, it’s my routine. I’ve always felt that at the start of each day I wanted to be sighted on the news and current affairs, particularly since it can have a profound impact on the work that I do.

However, over the last couple of months something changed in my routine. I felt a genuine sense of hopelessness watching the news. Story after story leaving me more frustrated and disheartened about society. From war in Europe to fuel poverty, food insecurity, broken economy, unions striking, all part of our ‘cost of living crisis.’

To keep my sanity, I’ve switched to Channel 4 in the morning where they have reruns of ‘Cheers’. It feels a bit dated and at times it wanders into humour which shouldn’t have been acceptable in the 80’s, but it was. Anyway, it’s my escape.

Most news channels look for that ‘happy’ news story they can share each morning, and particularly over Christmas there is a search for ‘heart-warming’ stories to remind us how good people really are. There’s a focus on charitable work, the impact it has for good and how the viewing public can support it.

Take the example of those that work in and around the issue of homelessness in Scotland. While I’d argue that there is a lot of work to be done and we won’t rest until it’s ended (that’s possible by the way, but a conversation for another blog) the landscape has improved considerably. Rough sleeping figures in Glasgow and Edinburgh significantly down; evidence led work such as ‘Housing First’ becoming the norm; a prevention focus with new prevention duties; and defining what ‘unsuitable’ accommodation is and removing it from the system. We’ve seen the shift away from the need for winter night shelters with mattresses on the floor and a move to emergency welcome centres. If you want a more in-depth read into what’s changed over the last ten years here’s a journal from contributors across Scotland.

What was learned over decades is that what works for people who are homeless is what works for everyone. We all want a safe and secure home to live in, we want enough income to live, whether that’s benefits or salary, we want to be able to live, not just survive. We want to be as healthy as we can be, both physically and mentally. Finally, we want positive and supportive relationships around us.

Yet sometimes, a different approach is proposed for people who are homeless – sometimes its delivered, and sometimes it is even supported by politicians, businesses, the general public. Our new conversation series is to help cast some light on why good intentions are not enough when responding to big social challenges like poverty, social isolation and homelessness. And why, without the right knowledge and partnerships, good intentions can even cause harm.

We had a lively first conversation, with inputs from colleagues from Heriot-Watt university, Simon Community Scotland, Transform Community Development in Dundee and Help the Homeless Glasgow. We scratched the surface of the following themes, and committed to further developing each of them during 2023:

  • Why is all ‘charity’ or voluntary action portrayed as positive, even those with low-bar standards?
  • What happens when we centre the motivations of ‘givers’ over the impact on people receiving?
  • Why do people use foodbanks, on-street soup kitchens or ask passers-by for money?  What are the alternatives?
  • What do politicians do that helps – and hinders?
  • How can the third sector lead on framing the issues to discourage the use of old tropes and stereotypes?
  • How can we help voluntary action to be pioneering and trailblazing, rather than resurrecting old practices?

I find hope looking at what’s changed and a focus on what works. I think the context in a cost-of-living crisis can make this all harder – but it also raises the stakes. What we heard at the first conversation is real intention to build on what works and what matters. I hope to see you 2023 as this vital conversation develops. Contact me at grant@homelessnetwork.scot to get involved.

Too Many, Too Young: Deaths while Homeless in Scotland

In November, the National Records of Scotland published the annual homeless death figures report, which estimates that 250 people died while experiencing homelessness in Scotland in 2021. This is at a similar level to 2020, but higher compared to 2017, when these statistics were first collected.

Most recorded deaths (81%) were among men. 72% of women who died were under 45, a higher proportion than men of whom 58% were under 45.

There were an estimated 127 deaths attributed to drug use among people experiencing homelessness. While this is a fall over the past year, drug use still accounts for 51% of all deaths while homeless. Suicide accounted for 9% and alcohol-specific deaths 7%. It is important to highlight there can be overlaps between suicides and drug-related deaths as a death can be counted as both.

There are 3 important points to highlight from the report that have been misreported in some places:

1. Deaths were not ‘on the streets’ but mainly in temporary accommodation. This matters because it reflects the reality of people’s experience of homelessness in Scotland, which is mostly not outdoors, but in temporary places waiting for a settled home.

2. This distinction also demonstrates where energy and resources need targeted to end homelessness in Scotland. More settled, affordable homes for people to build and live their lives. Less time waiting, with more 1:1 support for people to draw from.

3. Full focus should also be on the many missed opportunities. For those at the sharpest end, homelessness follows adversity and poor health – for some people, right back to childhood. People need rapid access to joined up services and a No Wrong Door approach.

You can read the full National Records of Scotland Report on Homeless Deaths 2021 by clicking here.

Go well, David Kidd

Homeless Network Scotland are today bidding the fondest farewell to David Kidd as he moves on to Scottish community justice organisation Sacro. David has been been an important and popular part of our team for over 12 years and so it provides us with some consolation that we’ll be able to continue to work together in a new way. Read David’s reflections below.

    “When I joined Homeless Network, or GHN as it was then known, as a fresh faced 20-something (with no grey hair…) back in 2010, I couldn’t have come close to predicting just how amazing an opportunity it would come to be.

    In the 12 and a half years since, I feel incredibly privileged to have been involved in countless projects and partnerships helping to give shape to a new approach to homelessness in Scotland that puts people at the centre. Whilst there is still lots of work to be done, and lots of highly capable people in the sector that I also feel privileged to be able to count as close friends and colleagues to do it, the time has come for me to move on.

    I’ll be forever grateful to everyone I have worked with over the years, both inside of Homeless Network and out, for everything – for their passion, their enthusiasm, their support and guidance, their occasional shoulder to cry on, but, most of all, for their friendship.

    Fortunately, I’m not going far, and I look forward to continuing to work with many of you in my new role as we continue to shape the future of social services in Scotland with people at the centre of them.”