The City of Edinburgh Council has broken the law 466 times in the last year by placing homeless families in bed and breakfast (B&B) accommodation for more than seven days.
Figures obtained by The Ferret under freedom of information law show that 598 families were put in B&Bs – many of which have been criticised as substandard, over-crowded and unsuitable for children – from September 2017 to September 2018. This is despite laws saying local authorities should only do so in emergency circumstances.
As many as 466 families – 79 per cent of the total – spent eight days or more in B&B accommodation. The law states homeless families with children or pregnant women must be moved from B&Bs within seven days.
Almost a third spent more than a month in B&Bs and one in five were there for over six weeks. Eight families were not moved by the council for more than three months.
Charities and lawyers said often the only way to force the council to move families was to threaten legal action, which was done on a “frequent” basis.
The figures also revealed that the council has failed to keep promises to stop using B&B accommodation for families from June this year.
In January it issued a press release announcing the “bold outcome” of a decision by its homelessness task force. However figures show that 199 families were accommodated in B&Bs in the period from June to September.
Of those 70 per cent – 139 families – were there for more than the seven-day legal limit. Almost one in five were there for more than a month.
Edinburgh council is in the midst of a housing crisis with spending on temporary accommodation the highest in Scotland at over £190m over the last five years. £145m was spent on private providers.
The council spent £15million on substandard accommodation provided by the Akbar Mir family. Homeless B&Bs run by the family include the Almond Lodge, a run-down former backpackers hostel in Silverknowes, where homeless people have complained of dirty and stained bedding, alleged rooms are invested with bed bugs and raised concerns about the lack of cooking facilities.
In Edinburgh the number of people in temporary accommodation rose 89 per cent from 661 households in 2010 to 1,246 in 2017, the highest rise by far in Scotland. Almost a third of households in temporary accommodation were in hostels or B&Bs in March 2017, according to a recent report by Heriot-Watt University.
Edinburgh council has acknowledged the crisis and claims it is struggling to address problems due to the combined pressures of rising rents, intense demand and the introduction of the benefit cap in January – meaning parents could claim a maximum of £384.62 per week.
It said it was making some progress with only 17 families in B&Bs as of 23 November, and the average wait to be moved reducing steadily from six weeks.
But Pauline Bowie, of Lower Income Families Together (LIFT) – a grassroots charity in Muirhouse – said she and her staff were frustrated by the pace of change.
She said she has worked with single mothers asked to find an extra £94 a week and women forced to cut the hours of minimum-wage evening jobs because they couldn’t get home in time to meet B&B curfews. Others had to trek across town on buses to get to school every morning because they have been placed miles from their communities, Bowie claimed.
She is enraged that families she works with are given a two-month notice to quit. Her charity reports that to the housing department immediately, but nothing is done until the first day they find themselves homeless, she said.
“Nothing that they promised us back in June has really changed. The figures are shocking, but unfortunately not surprising,” she added.
“They were saying this morning there are only 17 families in B&Bs at the moment but it seems difficult to believe. We will continue to fight until they do everything that they have promised. The Scottish Government needs to step in. This can’t go on – the accommodation is totally unsuitable.”
Children shouldn’t be left to pay the price for the decades of under-investment in affordable housing in Scotland. Graeme Brown, Shelter Scotland
Graeme Brown, director of Shelter Scotland, agreed that faster progress was needed: “Children shouldn’t be left to pay the price for the decades of under-investment in affordable housing in Scotland which has led to a national housing crisis,” he said.
“The legislation states that B&Bs should only be used for children and pregnant women in emergency situations and it is clear from these figures that it is routine for families who have lost their homes to be placed in this unsuitable form of accommodation in Edinburgh.
“Shelter Scotland recognises the City of Edinburgh Council’s commitment to rectify the situation but it is not happening quickly enough for the capital’s families.”
Recent research by homeless charity Crisis found that 88 per cent of those in temporary accommodation were depressed as a result of their living situation and 45 per cent had no access to a kitchen, with many skipping meals as a result.
Chief executive, Jon Sparkes, who also chaired the Scottish Government’s action group on homelessness and rough sleeping, said such conditions were “damaging and demoralising” for families.
In March Crisis put forward a raft of recommendations suggesting that B&B use should be phased out. The group is calling for the seven-day limit to apply to all homeless people, with proper scrutiny put in place to ensure local authorities uphold the law.
“It is simply unacceptable that so many families in Edinburgh are spending weeks and even months in unsuitable B&B accommodation,” Sparks said. “Access to housing is a human right and these long term stays in B&Bs are simply not an adequate housing solution.”
SNP councillor Kate Campbell, housing convener for City of Edinburgh Council, said she found the knowledge that it had failed to end B&B use for families “heart-breaking”.
“We made a pledge of having no families in bed and breakfasts by the time the task force reported because there is no number we could aim for other than zero,” she added. “We haven’t managed to meet that pledge yet but we will keep working towards it.”
The council has increased funding for a private sector leasing scheme and brought on 30 more council flats to use as temporary accommodation for families, with more available in coming weeks, she claimed.
It is also working to provide more mid-market rent homes, 50 per cent of which will be prioritised for homeless families. The council is also negotiating with registered social landlords to identify more options.
“Ultimately though we need more homes,” Campbell said, adding that it plans to build 20,000 over 10 years. “We are attacking this from every angle but, because of the extremely pressured housing market, the cost of privately rented homes and the shortage of social housing in the city it’s very difficult.
“The number of families, and the length of time they are spending in B&B, has come down. We won’t give up until that number is zero.”
Scottish housing minister, Kevin Stewart MSP, said the Scottish Government had regular discussions with Edinburgh Council in its aim to ensure no families spent more than seven days in B&Bs.
He added: “We are working with all local authorities as we recognise that some of them face particular challenges in providing appropriate housing for homeless families, which is why we provided an additional £23.5 million for rapid rehousing and Housing First.”
Life in a B&B
“There’s hair in the shower, dead bugs and mousetraps all over the building,” says one working mother who found herself homeless five weeks ago. She’s asked to be known as Joanna, to protect her identity.
We’re calling her 13-year-old daughter Hannah. She has been eating cereal bars for breakfast on the bus for over a month because her school is so far away they have to leave before it is served in their dirty and run down B&B.
“Between the unsanitary conditions and the house rules I feel like I’m being made to feel second rate to the rest of society,” says Joanna.
She feels unsafe. It’s been several years since she left an abusive relationship but she finds the predominantly male environment of the B&B hotel intimidating as she still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
There is an oppressive atmosphere and its placing a lot of strain on her relationship with Hannah, with whom she has been sharing a room for five weeks.
It’s more like a prison than a place to live. Joanna
“It’s more like a prison than a place to live,” she says. “There are no cooking facilities, you aren’t allowed visitors, you have to be in at 11pm and we have to share the bathroom with everyone else.
“There’s CCTV in the hallways which is supposed to be for safety but I find it uncomfortable knowing that Hannah is being watched when she goes down the hallway to use the bathroom or take a shower.
“It’s so stressful. It’s had a really, negative impact on my mental health. I felt really unwell for a while.”
But hope is on the horizon. Though she wasn’t told her rights when she sought help from the council, she contacted Shelter Scotland who explained the seven-day limit and advocated on her behalf. Due to their intervention was hoping to be moved on 23 November.
“Christmas is coming up and it was just heart-breaking to think we wouldn’t have a place to call home by then,” she said. “Shelter Scotland have been speaking to the council on my behalf and we are due to move today after yet another delay. The new flat is still the other side of the city from Hannah’s school but at least we’ll have our own space, our own bathroom and be able to cook at home.”
Freedom of information response from City of Edinburgh Council
This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.