Presiding Officer, thank you for the opportunity to set out our ambitious plans to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping.
We have made significant progress in recent years in preventing homelessness – helping people before they reach a crisis. Homelessness applications have fallen by more than a third since 2010, with fewer families in unsuitable temporary accommodation. But we cannot be complacent.
Everyone in this Chamber, and across Scotland, has seen the rise in the number of people sleeping rough. This is frankly unacceptable in a country as wealthy as ours. And we simply are not willing to accept this.
In our Programme for Government, the First Minister set a clear objective to eradicate rough sleeping. She also committed to renew and redouble our efforts in preventing and reducing homelessness by:
- establishing a Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group
- creating an 'Ending Homelessness Together' Fund of £50 million over a five-year period
- investing an additional £20 million in alcohol and drug services
One of the most important pieces of legislation this Parliament has passed was the Homelessness Act of 2003. I'm proud of the fact that Scotland has some of the strongest rights for homeless people in the world, helping many people who become homeless back into settled accommodation and a stable home life.
In the last few years much has been achieved – a 39% drop in homelessness applications since 2010 and fewer families in unsuitable temporary accommodation like bed and breakfasts.
This Government has also invested heavily to ensure Scotland has a new generation of affordable housing. With 69,000 affordable homes delivered, an end to Right To Buy, and more homes on the way. All this helps provide warm and affordable homes and reduces homelessness.
But more needs to be done to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. And we need to recognise the causes and address them too.
We know that the UK Government's programme of welfare cuts are making things worse. We have heard the evidence from homeless people, charities, and just last week from the UK's National Audit Office, who concluded that the rise in homelessness across the UK is linked to the UK Government's welfare cuts.
From the freeze on benefits to the benefit cap, from the changes to the local housing allowance to the imposition of the bedroom tax, we have seen a series of harsh cuts made to the support people on low incomes rely on to keep a roof over their heads. And the deliberate six-week delay before getting your first universal credit payment will make life even harder for people.
The choices – and they are choices – the UK Government has made aren't just morally wrong, they are also economically wrong. Pushing people into crisis, into homelessness, impacts on public and charitable services and serves as a barrier to those seeking to work or keep a permanent tenancy. We know that councils and third sector organisations provide life-saving and vital support. We want to do more to support what works and ensure the joined-up approach people need. So the time is right to build on our strengths and raise our ambitions. We must work together to ensure our homelessness services have good links to other services, particularly mental health and addiction services.
The £20 million announced in Programme for Government for drug and alcohol services will boost capacity in the system. Close joint working across housing, social care and health will be crucial in maximising these additional resources to ensure this supports people with some of the most acute need for joined-up support.
Also important is our commitment to transform the use of temporary accommodation, ensuring that this vital safety net works as well as possible for those who need it. We want our system to be a safety net that provides high-quality, safe – and temporary – accommodation to those who need it in a crisis situation.
To that end, from October, and following Parliamentary scrutiny, we will reduce the time spent in unsuitable accommodation for households with children and pregnant women.
Our commitment to deliver 50,000 affordable homes over the course of this Parliament will also play a significant part in reducing homelessness, but we know that housing itself is only part of the solution for many people.
To meet more complex needs all of our services must be better aligned. Ensuring stronger links between housing, mental health, justice, addictions, children's and young people's policy and the care system will all be essential to this endeavour. This is crucial to improve prevention, and deliver better outcomes for those that feel they are stuck in a cycle of homelessness and poverty.
To achieve our aims and ambitions, as stated in the Programme for Government, we are taking forward two major initiatives.
Firstly, we are creating an 'Ending Homelessness Together' Fund of £50 million over a five-year period to support homelessness prevention initiatives and pilot solutions to deliver results. This substantial increase in funding demonstrates our absolute determination to tackle homelessness as a crucial part of building a fairer Scotland. Secondly, we will establish a short-term Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group to lead change and improvement in this area. It will develop recommendations on the actions, services and any legislative changes required to end rough sleeping and transform the use of temporary accommodation.
I am pleased to announce today that the Chair of that Group will be Jon Sparkes, Chief Executive of the homelessness charity Crisis.
I recently met with Jon and we agreed that there are four questions for the Group to consider:
- What can we do to minimise rough sleeping this winter?
- What can we do to eradicate rough sleeping for good?
- What can we do to transform temporary accommodation?
- What can be done to end homelessness in Scotland?
This Group will first meet in early October, drawing its membership from the public sector, third sector, social enterprise and academic experts in this area. Jon and I are clear that this Group will be focused on solutions.
We will of course also ensure that the findings from the Local Government Committee's inquiry on homelessness are taken into account, both in the context of the rapid work to be undertaken by the Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group, and in the longer term work of the Homelessness Prevention and Strategy Group. The Committee's exploration of people's experiences of accessing homelessness services and the underlying issues that can contribute to housing problems will be valuable in developing the solutions needed to achieve our collective ambitions.
During my time as Minister I have spoken to people experiencing homelessness and housing professionals. It is clear to me that to achieve our aims we need services which really place the person at the centre and treat them with dignity and respect.
That is why I have asked Jon Sparkes to ensure that talking to people with direct, personal experience of homelessness is central to the Group's work.
The role of councils will also be crucial. Helping people access their rights needs commitment from all levels of Government, particularly against the background of austerity and welfare reform. So we will continue to work positively and closely with Councils, through the existing Homelessness Prevention and Strategy Group, jointly chaired by the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, to understand how we can support them to deliver their statutory duties on homelessness and go even further to realise our ambitions. Eradicating rough sleeping and tackling homelessness is about individuals. It is about their fears and challenges but also their hopes and aspirations. It's the right thing to do, both for those individuals, for our communities and for our future.
Building on our existing strengths, and learning from successes such as Housing First and multi-agency partnerships, provides a huge opportunity to take action, reduce homelessness and improve outcomes for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. It is an opportunity we must seize, channelling the determination, wealth of ideas and passion on this issue across Scotland to make lasting change.
Success will rely on all of us working together across the homelessness sector, and wider, to take focused action and drive relentless progress towards this ambition.
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