• About 100 million people worldwide are homeless.
  • But homelessness could be prevented with early action to help people keep their homes, according to a new report in Scotland.
  • Getting public organizations to work together would be key to keeping people off the streets.
  • The report recommends staff from hospitals to the courts routinely ask people about their accommodation situation.

Homelessness is a global problem of staggering proportions, with about 100 million people homeless around the world, according to the United Nations.

Now Scotland is considering tackling the issue by stopping people losing their homes in the first place.

A report for the Scottish government by a team of experts, convened by homeless charity Crisis, says all public organizations need to work together to prevent homelessness at least six months before someone is likely to lose their home.

The best way to end homelessness permanently, the study suggests, is to tackle the causes of the problem. That means asking people about their housing situation when they come into contact with any public body, including the police and the courts.

Health and social care staff have a key role to play and should as a matter of routine ask anyone using their services about their housing circumstances, the report says. They then need to work with other agencies to prevent that person becoming homeless.

a flow chart showing the different ways homelessness can be resolved
With the right steps, homelessness can be resolved.
Image: Crisis

A global issue

Globally, the UN says that in addition to the 100 million people with no home at all, 1.6 billion people live in inadequate housing worldwide and 15 million are forcibly evicted from their homes every year.

Anyone living in an emergency shelter, prisoners and long-term hospital patients, mobile home and shanty town dwellers and those forced to move in with family and friends should all be considered homeless, according to the OECD.

Homes first

The Crisis report says 8% of people in Scotland have experienced some form of homelessness during their lifetimes.

Separate Scottish research, published in 2018, found that increased interactions with health services preceded people becoming homeless. Homeless people, and those at risk of becoming homeless, were found to be hospitalized at a rate three times higher than the general population.

They were also up to three times more likely to attend accident and emergency wards, 20 times more likely to need mental health treatments and up to 132 times more likely to need drug treatment services.

Acknowledging the close connection between homelessness and health, other countries have prioritized finding people a home ahead of tackling health issues. Finland’s Housing First policy, for example, is credited with reducing homelessness by more than a third.

Finland’s success was built on reversing the usual approach of seeking to solve people’s problems before permanently housing them. Its first step is instead to offer people a permanent home before tackling problems like addiction.

Preventative measures

Scotland wants to act even earlier, when people’s problems are likely to cause them to become homeless. The new proposals build on laws in other parts of the United Kingdom that already require public bodies to work together with housing professionals to prevent homeless.

In Wales, improved collaboration between public bodies following the introduction of new laws in 2014 has prevented two-thirds of those who approached homelessness services from becoming homeless, the report notes.

But it adds that Scotland needs to go further by adopting an approach in which housing is central to all interactions between public bodies and the people they serve, including the justice system. It recommends asking about people’s housing situations to identify any issues at an early stage, acting when a problem is identified, and working with other bodies to prevent homelessness wherever possible.

It also says there should be a new duty on social landlords to take all reasonable steps to avoid making people homeless, and that local councils should ensure that anyone needing housing is provided with suitable accommodation for at least 12 months.

Temporary pandemic measures to protect private tenants from eviction, including support with rent arrears, should be made permanent, the report recommends. Councils should also have the power to delay eviction orders where a landlord has not cooperated with them.

Suitable housing

Under existing Scottish law, a person can be treated as being homeless even if they have accommodation if it would not be reasonable for them to continue living there. The Crisis report says ending homeless altogether means finding homeless people permanent, suitable accommodation.

The hope is that by tackling the causes of homelessness before people actually lose their homes, the number of homeless people can be significantly reduced.

“Scotland has laid down some of the strongest protections anywhere in the world for people facing a homelessness crisis,” said Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick of Heriot-Watt University who led the group that wrote the report.

“The work in this report sets out the next step, to prevent people having to face these crises in the first place,” she added.