The lives of vulnerable people with addictions to drugs and alcohol are being put at risk because they are forced to choose between attending potentially life-saving residential rehab and keeping their homes, it has emerged.
In one case a young man left rehab after being told he would otherwise lose his home in Stirling. Both his place at the rehab centre and tenancy were funded by housing benefit. He was told he could not claim for both and must choose.
On Christmas Day 2020, about three weeks after leaving Jericho House in Greenock, he was found dead.
Campaigners and charity Shelter Scotland have documented a further six cases of people who have been told they cannot claim housing benefit which is needed to pay for stays at residential rehab centres run by the voluntary sector.
They believe that a loophole – which sees people desperate for help with addiction having to chose between giving up their home to attend rehabs funded by housing benefit or keep hold of housing association tenancies – affects dozens more people.
Cases highlighted to The Ferret include that of a mother with two sons requested to go to Teen Challenge’s Benaiah centre in Aberdeenshire, the only residential that allows women to take children.
However, as it is funded through housing benefit she was advised she would have to make her family homeless in order to take up the place. She chose to keep her home, and was unable to access the rehab place.
The Ferret also spoke to two men, one who was unable to take up a place at rehab due to funding issues. Almost a year later he managed to get funding for a three-week detox centre, but says he feels lucky to alive after several near fatal incidents.
Shelter Scotland believes the case its team have intervened on are ‘the tip of the iceberg’, with many lives at risk.
In 2019 1,264 people died of drug overdoses, a record number of deaths for the sixth year in a row and the highest total since records began in 1996. Figures for last year are due to be published in July but assessments by Police Scotland suggest there were 1,346 suspected drug deaths in 2020 with a spike in December.
In January First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced an additional £250million would be allocated towards fighting the drug crisis, including £3m towards a “substantial increase” to the number of residential rehabilitation beds across the country.
Campaigners reacted with delighted but have since expressed concerns that the money is focussed on the support that those battling addition really want and need.
The Scottish Government claims a solution can only provided by the UK Government. However Shelter Scotland has written to the Scottish Government, calling for it to set up an emergency fund to address the issue.
It believes that denying vulnerable groups, such as single mothers, access to rehab may be discriminatory. The Ferret also spoke to one rehab manager who said a recent exemption had been agreed for someone in Inverclyde.
But many more are falling through the gaps. They including a man from Glasgow said he had been unable to go to Maxie Richards Foundation in Tighnabruaich because he was not willing to give up his flat.
He had been to the rehab previously in 2014 struggling with additions to various substances, including heroin. From there he was placed in the Arch supported accommodation in Glasgow and then secured a flat in the west end of the city, which has been his home since.
He told The Ferret: “I stayed off all substances for four years – I had nothing at all – and then I relapsed on holiday. I’ve struggled every since to be honest.’
He has been using most of his life and started taking drugs as a 12-year-old being moved around the care system. But it was in prison that he first took heroin and didn’t start using it regularly until he was in his thirties. “I lost everything, my marriage split up,” he said. “I was a mess until I got into rehab the first time.”
“After I relapsed I was really struggling. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done to come off drugs. About a year ago, I’d had enough. It was lockdown and I was still going into town – just putting my head down to get my heroin. I’d have walked all the way to get something to stop me going into cold turkey every morning.
“I tried to get back to Tighnabruaich but they couldn’t help me unless I was prepared to give up my house. So I didn’t go.
“In the last year I’ve ended up in hospital five times. I don’t even remember it. I was found in a ditch one time, another time I was found in my flat with a huge bit of glass in my leg and I needed 19 stitches.
“I feel I’m lucky to be here. I’ve really been through it, and dragged put my family through it as well. I really think that if I had been able to go to rehab a year ago I would have avoided all that.”
Things have improved for him – he’s been given a monthly buprenorphine injection, an alternative to methadone that’s recently been introduced in Scotland and four weeks ago completed a three-week detox programme to help him stop using street valium and alcohol.
“I’m just trying to take care of myself now, go to AA meetings and get some support,”he said. But he believes that policies need changed to allow others the chance to go to rehab. “Just think about all the people who have died,” he said.
Stuart, who asked to be known by his first name only, is currently a resident at the Maxie Richards centre but is facing £2,000 worth of housing arrears. He previously left the rehab unit early last year, because he was concerned he would lose his home.
He returned four months ago but faced the same problems, with letters and phone calls advising him of the rent arrears that were building up because his housing benefit allocation went towards paying for the rehab.
“I don’t want to lose my house – it’s special to me, maybe because it was where my mum stayed before me and that means something,” he said.
“But my drug and alcohol use has been a problem since I was about 21 and I’m 39 now. It’s taken a big toll on my mental health. I’ve tried to detox myself but it hasn’t worked. In here I now I’m changing a lot of things.
“I still struggling with depression but I’m less isolated, I have more confidence and I’m in better health too. I feel ok now I’m off everything and I can get to sleep without being intoxicated. I’m doing ok but I’ve got a way to go.
“So I’m trying to focus on my recovery. But at the same time I’m trying hard not to lose my home and it’s hard trying to deal with it. It’s really stressful.”
‘Drugs are killing people’
Rehab manager Patrick White added: “We feel that people are being discriminated against. We know some of the circumstances and some people are going through a horrific time. It is really horrible that they are getting to the point of phoning us for help and we can’t do anything for them.
“Drugs are killing people and something as simple as this should just be sorted and very quickly. Nobody should have to choose between giving up their home or not being able to get into recovery.
“We have guys who come here who have been referred by street teams, who’ve been begging or in been in hostels. If they’ve been fighting for a long time and finally got a house that they cherish, and then – as the next step in their journey – they want to get into recovery – there should not be any barriers to that.”
Stephen Wishart, of Shelter Scotland’s Time For Change project, believes it is impossible to say how many people may have been prevented from going to rehab because of the ruling.
He said: “We should never be putting anyone in a position where they have to chose between keeping their home and accessing healthcare.”
“We’ve come across seven cases in the last year, including one person who died just weeks after feeling he had no choice but to leave rehab.
“The issue is that many people don’t get funded to go to NHS rehab – they don’t fit the criteria. So they contact organisations where they can self refer and these are the places that are funded through housing benefit. But that’s when this issues arises and people are left with no options.
“We don’t know how many more people are in this situation. But if we made a fund available for anyone who needed it, and piloted that approach, then we’d have a clear figure.”
Alison Watson, director of the charity, added: “We have significant concerns about this issue and believe it requires urgent Scottish Ministerial action.”
The charity claims this gap in the provision will impact on the successful roll-out of the Housing First model in Scotland, which provides accommodation to people who need it first, and then provides all the wrap around support required. Voluntary sector rehab would not be available currently.
Michael Trail, manager of Jericho House in Greenock said: “We recently got funding for someone to come to rehab and keep their home in Inverclyde very recently so it shows exemptions can be made.”
But a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “This is an issue that we will bring to the attention of the UK Government, as housing benefit is entirely reserved to the UK Government and we would encourage stakeholders to do the same.
“We are absolutely clear that people should not be asked to choose between accessing residential rehabilitation facilities and keeping their home which is why most councils have arrangements in place to ensure this does not happen.
“Every death related to drug use is a tragedy and impacts on individuals families and communities across Scotland. We know there are not simple or quick solutions to the complex and longstanding issues related to drug use, but we’ve committed additional investment of £250 million over the next five years.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions, said: “Scotland has significant welfare powers and can top-up existing benefits, pay discretionary payments, and create entirely new benefits altogether.
“Anyone worried about losing their home should speak to their local council, which has a duty in law to help anyone threatened with, or experiencing, homelessness.”
Cover image thanks to iStock/KatarzynaBialasiewicz