On May 28th I spoke in an Equal Opportunities Committee debate on “Having and keeping a home: steps to preventing homelessness among young people” at the Scottish Parliament, where I called on the Government to do everything in its power to tackle youth homelessness.
The debate followed an enquiry and report which aimed to explore the existing good practice in local authorities and other agencies in and beyond Scotland which are effective in preventing youth homelessness.
I heard evidence from young people across the country about the principle causes of youth homelessness, including family breakdowns, addiction issues and mental health problems. The report stated that homeless young people are being failed by a lack of support in overcoming inadequate life skills, compounded by substandard accommodation and isolation.
I am sure that everyone would agree that it is scandalous that young people who are already in a vulnerable position are subjected to such low levels of housing provision. It is not acceptable that young people who have been forced into homelessness are treated in that manner.
Finance is of course the biggest barrier to action being taken. I hope that the government will take seriously the points highlighted by many members and that it will do everything in its power to ensure that no young person is denied a home, an education or the support they desperately need in the future as a result of a lack of funds afforded to them.
Last week’s Scottish Parliament debate on the “2012 target” (the commitment, laid down in 2003 by the previous Labour Executive, to eradicate “unintentional” homelessness by 2012), was a largely constructive affair.
Whilst members of all parties acknowleged the bravery and ambition of the target, they also recognised that progress towards realising it has been uneven across local authority boundaries, with some councils assessing 90% of applications as priority, and others only around 80%. The spirit of the commitment demands that it is achieved throughout Scotland: there is no room for homelessness in a modern, civilized society, irregardless of what part of the country you happen to live.
There is another aspect to this debate, however, which members failed to give voice to. Although it is generally accepted that the coalition’s Welfare Reform Bill will have a deleterious impact upon the attempt to reach our homelessness target, it has also presented the SNP Government with an opportunity to amend grants and provisions which, under the terms of the bill, will be devolved to Scotland. One such is the Community Care Grant.
In its current form, the Grant provides financial support for vulnerable applicants entering a new tenancy, providing them with a small but essential fund to purchase essential goods.
There are a number of problems with the grant in its current form. At present, applications to the grant are not accepted until notice of housing is received, causing a wholly unecessary delay. Under the successor arrangements, applicants should receive the grant along with the keys to their property. In addition to this, eligibility criteria for the grant, along with the appeals process, must be made simpler and more transparent. This will cut down on the volume of unecessary appeals and allow support workers to provide more accurate advice to applicants.
Finally, the ridiculous rules excluding those in receipt of other benefits – such as incapacity benefit – from applying for the grant must be removed. The grant should go to the neediest, whatever their circumstances.
When I proposed these changes to the grant during a debate last december, Alex Neil, Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment, appeared receptive. I am anxious to learn what action has been taken in the interim.
I recently visited Seaforth House, home to the Falkirk branch of Ypeople. Ypeople, formerly Glasgow YMCA, provides supported accomodation for young people affected by homelessness, helping them to find their feet, offering guidance and advice across a range of issues, and working to improve their confidence and self-esteem.
I was extremely impressed by the passion and commitment of the staff, and by the courage of the young residents, many of whom have experienced difficult circumstances.
Talking to the staff and residents gave me a real insight into the problems that affect young homeless people, and the strains on organisations like Ypeople which endeavour to help and support them.
This week I was pleased to be able to welcome staff and residents to the Scottish Parliament for a screening of “Speak Out”, a film written, directed, acted and produced by residents of Seaforth House. It is a brutal yet moving piece of work, which portrays some of life’s harsh realities without ever losing its sense of empathy.
The turn out for the screening was very good, and I was glad that some of my fellow MSPs managed to come along. I will certainly be encouraging those who could not to watch the film.
I would like to thank the residents and staff for coming to the Parliament, and to congratulate them all on their remarkable achievements. I would also like to congratulate everybody associated with Falkirk Ypeople, which this year celebrate its 10th anniversary, in recognition of which I have tabled a Scottish Parliament Motion.
I was proud to sponsor a Shelter Scotland stall in the Scottish Parliament.
I could not agree more with the stall’s official slogan – Until there’s a home for everyone. Current economic difficulties notwithstanding, we remain an affluent 1st world society; it is therefore scandalous that anyone should be forced to live on the street, in hostels, or in cramped and inadequate temporary accomodation. Homelessness applications have risen dramatically over the last 10 years, with over 56,000 in 2010 alone. A considerable number of children and young people are afflicted by homelessness, and the Scottish Government is struggling to meet the legislative target of assessing all homelessness applications as priority, the deadline for which is this year.
There is no place for homelessness in the 21st century, and eradicating it should be a Scottish Government priority.
I recently spoke in a debate on housing in the Scottish Parliament. There are currently about 56,000 homeless people in Scotland, 10,000 more than in the mid 1990’s, whilst 36% of homeless households include people under the age of 24.
The problem is especially acute in West and Central Scotland: figures for 2009/10 show that, of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, South Lanarkshire had the 4th most homeless applications, with 3,054. North Lanarkshire was 5th, with 2,975, and Falkirk 7th, with 2,378. Meanwhile, over 169,000 Scottish households are on council house waiting lists, and 53% of social housing in Scotland is situated in the 15% most deprived areas.
Under the terms of the “2012 Commitment” all homelessness applications must be assessed as priority. In effect, this means all homeless applicants must be housed. Depending on which document you read, the SNP Government has either pledged to build 6000 socially rented homes or 6000 “affordable” homes in each year of the Scottish Parliament. However, SNP spending plans reveal that only 1550 socially rented homes will be built this year, along with 1000 for owner occupiers. This leaves a shortfall of over 3000. It is difficult to see how councils will clear their council house waiting lists, let alone meet the 2012 commitment.
I recently visited Barnado’s Youth Housing Support Service in North Lanarkshire, which provides crisis intervention and group work support to young people aged between 16-24 years. Many of these young people have suffered physical abuse, and problems with drug and alcohol addiction. Their need for a stable and supportive home cannot be overstated.
During the debate I called on the Scottish Government to reform the Community Care Grant to ensure that it is consistently and correctly applied across the country, and that everything is done to help vulnerable young people secure long term homes that are safe, warm, and fully furnished. I am pleased to report that Alex Neil, Cabinet Secretary for Capital Investment and Infrastructure, has pledged to ‘look seriously at these suggestions to see whether we can take them forward.’