Homeless crisis sparks call for Scotland to declare ‘national housing emergency’

Charities have called on the Scottish Government to declare a national housing emergency, claiming Scotland’s homeless system is at breaking point due to a worsening cost of living crisis and a new Home Office policy that puts refugees on the streets.

Campaigners said the Home Office should also urgently slow its current fast-tracked eviction of refugees from asylum accommodation. Local councils should reverse budget cuts and bring empty buildings back into use, they urged.

On Wednesday night 33 people slept rough in Edinburgh, where the city council declared a housing emergency on 2 November, despite the fact that the city’s Welcome Centre, offering emergency accommodation to prevent rough sleeping, was already open.

In Glasgow, 41 people slept rough on the same night, including 16 people who had been given refugee status, according to exclusive figures shared with The Ferret by Simon Community Scotland. By Friday lunchtime only three of these refugees and a handful of Scots had been provided with accommodation, the charity said.

Last week Glasgow City Council became the third Scottish council to declare a local housing emergency. It hopes the move will help it make the case for more funding and assist its negotiations with the Home Office, which is working on an accelerated plan to clear the backlog of asylum cases. 

The Ferret’s investigation into Scotland’s deepening housing crisis revealed people are sleeping in churches and mosques, shops, stairwells and on the floors of public buildings as well as on the streets of towns and cities across the country. 

One refugee spent four nights sleeping rough in a Glasgow park, while a family with four young children faced eviction from a Travelodge where they had been offered emergency accommodation. 

This is not a crisis caused by refugees. It’s caused by a housing system that has seen under-investment for decades.

Alison Watson, Shelter Scotland

Another man has been sleeping in a disused caravan without heating or electricity but was denied help by the local authority, while a 60-year-old refugee slept on the streets, then in his local Mosque for 11 days before getting emergency accommodation. One voluntary organisation claimed they had witnessed two suicide attempts by homeless people in recent weeks because the situation was so desperate. 

The Scottish Government said Holyrood migration and refugees minister Emma Roddick has written to the UK Government to request additional funding for local authorities to manage the pressure they were being put under.

The Home Office said it was “committed to ensuring asylum claims are considered without unnecessary delays”. But one driver of the escalating crisis is a change to Home Office policy. 

Previously refugees granted leave to remain were given 28 days’ notice to leave their asylum accommodation – provided by housing firm Mears in Scotland – giving the local authority time to find alternatives.

However in recent months Mears, acting on instruction from the Home Office, is giving as little as seven days notice. Asylum seekers are now often accommodated in hotels, allowing the provider to evict them by simply invalidating their room key card. The number of cases being processed – many of which the Home Office has ignored for months or years –  has accelerated rapidly since September.

Local authorities are now unable to cope. From the start of the year until 21 November, Glasgow City Council has received 1,000 referrals from Mears for refugees granted leave to remain, 132 of them in the first three weeks of last month.

Glasgow’s Welcome Centre – a charity run reception service with an open door policy for rough sleepers looking for assistance but no beds – only opened on Friday.

Homeless crisis sparks call for Scotland to declare ‘national housing emergency’ 1
Edinburgh City Council declared a housing emergency on 2 November, even though the city’s Welcome Centre, offering emergency accommodation to prevent rough sleeping, was already open. Image: urtimud.89

Alison Watson, chief executive of Shelter Scotland said that while the situation was most stark in Glasgow and Edinburgh, local authorities across Scotland were struggling. She expects other council areas to declare a housing emergency in coming months. 

In June, Argyll and Bute was the first council in Scotland to announce a housing emergency.  A month later a report by Solace, the representative body for council chief executives and managers, found that housing and homeless services were experiencing “unsustainable pressure” and a “critical lack of capacity”. 

“There is now a risk of systemic failure –  the housing system is at breaking point,” said Watson. “It’s extraordinary and I’ve never seen anything like it before. The Scottish Government now needs to declare a national housing emergency and put resources in to tackle this. It did so in the pandemic so why not now?”

In 2012 Scotland passed housing law that gave everyone who was homeless “through no fault of their own” the right to housing. But Watson claimed the “glaring gap between rhetoric and reality” meant local authorities had long been breaking the law by failing to accommodate people.

It was important to consider the wider causes of the crisis, she added. “This is not a crisis caused by refugees,” she said. “It’s caused by a housing system that has seen under-investment for decades and there simply hasn’t been enough affordable housing built. The housing system can’t take any shocks and this is a major one.”

In 2022-23 homelessness applications in Scotland rose to 39,006, an increase of nine percent when compared with 2021-22 and above pre-pandemic levels.

Colin McInnes, founder of Homeless Project Scotland, said that people were becoming increasingly desperate. Almost 300 people queue every night for hot food at the charity’s Broomielaw site in Glasgow and it is now taking hundreds of calls a week from those looking for help and homeless advice. The charity refers many of them to solicitors who will legally challenge the council’s refusal to accommodate.

“It used to be that you could raise a case with the council and people would be accommodated,” he said. “Now they are refusing and we’re having to fight with them for days while people are sleeping rough. It’s horrific.”

We’ve had cases of people who have been trafficked and though they are working are not being paid so they’ve been forced to steal just to eat.

McInnes says his volunteer team have had to intervene in suicide attempts made by people with nowhere to turn, including a man who had reportedly set himself on fire.

He is now setting up a 24-hour welfare centre and emergency night shelter in Glassford Street. “I am absolutely not prepared for my volunteers to have to continue to tell people that they cannot help them and they will have to sleep on the street,” he said. 

Refugee charities claimed that the Home Office must also act urgently, instructing Mears to reinstate the 28-day notice period and slowing evictions to a level that allowed local authorities to cope.

Glasgow-based Positive Action in Housing said it had offered 89 people housing support in November, 67 of whom were homeless or at imminent risk of eviction, including one man who on being granted asylum was evicted from his hotel and was unable to get help from the council. He had been sleeping in parks and on the streets for four nights when he approached the charity.

On Thursday Scottish Refugee Council said it had received 50 calls, with the majority from people in urgent need of somewhere to stay. “It’s extremely difficult”, said Wafa Shaheen, head of asylum, integration and resettlement. “Our staff fight the same battles day in day out, trying to find people a bed for the night, then doing it again the next day knowing that the underlying issue – making sure that person has a safe place to call home in the long-term –   is not always resolved.” 

The Home Office must invest in services in communities where people seeking asylum are living, including Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverclyde, she said, accusing the Home Office of  “what looks like the deliberate neglect of the system, allowing delays and backlogs in decision-making to build up to crisis point”.

About 1,800 people seeking asylum are currently being accommodated by Mears in hotels in 13 local authority areas including Aberdeen, Falkirk, Dumfries and Galloway, Inverclyde, North Lanarkshire and Stirling. Some, such as the Mutha Glasgow River Hotel in Erskine, have been targeted by far right groups.

Homeless crisis sparks call for Scotland to declare ‘national housing emergency’ 2
In Glasgow, 41 people slept rough on December 2nd, including 16 people who have been given refugee status. Image: Ross Sneddon

The Ferret understands several local authorities are looking into opening emergency shelters, while Glasgow City Council has prepared a “feasibility study” on using portacabins to create temporary housing for families.

One senior source from a local authority, which has not yet declared an emergency, said that homeless people there were waiting up to a week even to get an appointment with housing services.

“It’s really horrendous,” they added. “We are seeing some people sleeping rough but others who are sofa surfing – maybe putting other people at risk if they are in Mears accommodation where they do not have permission to have someone else to stay, or even in housing association flats where the same applies.”

The local authority was particularly concerned about what will happen to asylum seekers refused refugee status from the Home Office and so not entitled to housing. Though an immigration lawyer might be able to appeal a case and get them emergency housing as a result, legal firms are also overwhelmed – making appointments almost impossible to secure in some areas.  

“That’s a trafficker’s dream as people are left so vulnerable,” the source added. “We’ve had cases of people who have been trafficked and though they are working are not being paid so they’ve been forced to steal just to eat. We’re talking about people in the agricultural sector but also in cannabis cultivation and sexual exploitation.” 

“The Scottish Government has an ending destitution policy. But what’s the point of a policy if no money or resources have been allocated to it? We’ve seen them invest in supporting Ukrainian refugees so why not here?”. 

The source added: “Our fear is that this also will impact on people from Scotland looking for homeless accommodation and that just plays into the hands of the far right, who are trying to stoke division. It’s a huge concern.”

A spokesperson for Glasgow City Council said it had seen a “significant sustained reduction in rough sleeping” in recent years.

“The scale and nature of the decision by the Home Office has led to unprecedented challenges in meeting demands for emergency accommodation,” it said.

A Home Office spokesperson said charity Migrant Help could offer support to new refugees, and that it is “working with local authorities to help communities manage the impact of asylum decisions as the legacy backlog reduces”.

The Scottish Government’s Housing minister Paul McLennan said: “The recent decision by the Home Office to fast track the asylum backlog is poorly thought out and has left local authorities unable to plan – putting many people at risk of rough sleeping and destitution.

“The housing sector across the UK is feeling the impact of sky-high interest rates and inflation caused by the mini-budget and Brexit.”

Main image: Emmanuelle Firman/iStock

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