Last month, the government published its Rough Sleeper Strategy. Aside from redirecting money towards services for rough sleepers, the strategy promises a review of the legislation that regulates homelessness. However, just north of the border, Scotland has been bringing in changes to homelessness legislation since 2002. According to Shelter, Scotland has the “best homelessness laws in Europe”.
There are stark differences between the legislation in Scotland and England. These work to make the Scottish system far more sympathetic to the struggle of homeless people.
The key difference is that, since 2012, Scotland no longer tests the vulnerability of homeless applicants before giving them accommodation. In England, if you are homeless and approach a local authority for support, before gaining access to emergency accommodation, the local authority will investigate your vulnerability. As a single homeless person, you must prove that mental or physical health makes you vulnerable when homeless, giving you a priority need of accommodation. If you are not deemed vulnerable there is no duty to accommodate you. In Scotland, legally all applicants should be accommodated, regardless of vulnerability.
In practice, testing vulnerability allows stretched authorities to find reasons not to house people. The psychological impact on people applying for housing support should not be underestimated. As an advice worker, I had many conversations with distraught rough sleepers who had been denied housing. One person, having been told he was not vulnerable enough to get into emergency accommodation and that he would have to wait for housing, asked: “How am I not vulnerable? I’m sleeping outside, it’s wet and freezing.”
The very notion of having your vulnerability assessed automatically makes people feel unsupported when they are already struggling without a settled home. Instead, people feel they are bullied as part of an inquisition. Scottish law in contrast operates on the ethos that anyone without a settled home is a priority for accommodation.
A further difference between the English and Scottish system is the test for intentionality. In England, even if you can demonstrate you are in priority need, you must also prove that you are not homeless intentionally. This requires further investigations from authorities to determine if you can be blamed for becoming homeless. If this is the case, the support you are entitled to, even if you are vulnerable, is limited. In Scotland, it is at the local authorities’ discretion to investigate intentionality. There are also plans to change how intentional homelessness is dealt with; it intends to introduce legislation offering intentionally homeless people a tenancy with support to give them another chance of creating a secure home.
I don’t want to suggest that the Scottish system is in any way perfect. Offering support to more people has led to a drastic rise in the numbers of people in temporary accommodation. The charity Crisis has pointed out that more needs to be done in Scotland to reduce the time that people are waiting in this insecure and often poor-quality accommodation. The changes also took a lot of planning, taking nearly 10 years to be fully implemented. However, the evidence strongly suggests that this legislation has reduced rough sleeping since 2003.
England has made some changes to homelessness laws. The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 now means that homeless people not in priority need should get more support to find somewhere to live. Unlike Scotland, this legislation does not guarantee homeless people accommodation, and their chances of being given somewhere very much depend on the local housing conditions.
Surely then, following Scotland’s lead, it is right to abolish the vulnerability test and evaluate rules about intentional homelessness. While wider changes must be made to properly address rough sleeping, having a legislative system that guarantees accommodation for all must be the starting point to make wider systematic changes. We need to change the ethos of the laws that govern homelessness, and make accommodation a priority for all.
Joe Barson is a political caseworker in Manchester (firstname.lastname@example.org)