01 Apr 2022

Can a new duty prevent homelessness?

Preventing and reducing homelessness has been an ambition of every Government in post devolution Scotland. From Donald Dewar’s first administration that wanted to end rough sleeping by 2003 to the current commitment to rapid rehousing transition plans, stopping people from becoming homeless has been the approach of competing administrations and the hardest to realise.

The Scottish Government now plans to introduce a prevention duty, a legal requirement that all public bodies (not just housing and homeless services) assess if someone is at risk of homelessness. If required, they would mobilise support from across the public sector to try and prevent homelessness. Be that tenancy transfers, access to welfare and benefits support or anything else that could help secure someone’s home.

This prevention duty can transform how we tackle homelessness in Scotland. Health and care services, education departments, social work, courts, prison and the police service already engage with tenants and homeowners in a way that local authority housing services do not. Allowing them to assess for risk of homelessness could make a real difference.  

For example, if a court criminalises someone and it leads to the loss of their social tenancy; an individual leaves prison without a home to return to; a victim of domestic abuse accesses health services, or a child regularly fails to attend school, then these institutions would be well placed to identify if someone is at risk of becoming homeless. At a time, it can be prevented.

But the current outline of how a prevention duty will apply raises questions about its effectiveness and whether it will improve housing outcomes for those at risk of homelessness.

Will staff across the public sector be given the right training and support to ask about someone’s housing status sensitively, recognising that unless the right approach is taken, those at risk of homelessness may disengage from necessary health or care services?

Will the public sector be funded to take on these new duties? Over time delaying or stopping someone from becoming homeless may realise financial savings for the public sector. Still, the new duties and responsibilities will have to be resourced from somewhere in the short term. If no new money is made available, what is to be cut?

In addition, the suggestion of moving people into safe and suitable accommodation for a minimum of 12 months appears a regressive step for those who previously had the right to fixed permanent housing. As the Scottish Government looks to embed the right to adequate housing in law, one of the foundational aspects of this is no derogation of housing rights, and they are progressively realised. The introduction of stable accommodation for only 12 months undermines this principle.

A prevention duty can help transform our approach to homelessness. Still, its success will be determined by the depth of public sector duties applied and a commitment to resourcing and training to embed a new approach. Let’s not waste our time doing things by half.  

Written by Callum Chomczuk

Callum is the national director of CIH Scotland.