Hundreds of rough sleepers in Scotland to be offered homes

Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent
The Sleep in the Park fundraising event in Edinburgh, December 2017. Photograph: Jeff Holmes/PA

At least 600 of Scotland’s most vulnerable rough sleepers are to be provided with homes and the continuing support they need to sustain their tenancies, in the largest commitment of its kind in the UK.

The Scottish social enterprise Social Bite, which has previously attracted celebrity support from George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio, will take a minimum of 600 people out of homelessness over the next 18 months, alongside fully funded wrap-around support for clinical issues, such as mental ill-health and addiction, and more practical concerns such as finding furniture and arranging refuse collection.

Following the death of a homeless man in Westminster last Wednesday, the Social Bite co-founder Joshua Littlejohn said it was inevitable that more rough sleepers would die if the status quo continued, adding that he hoped that the project might have “significant lessons for the rest of the UK”.

Scotland, which had almost eliminated homelessness after pioneering legislation passed by Holyrood in 2003, has recently experienced an increase in rough sleeping as welfare cuts have tipped more people into domestic insecurity. According to Shelter Scotland, there are now an estimated 5,000 rough sleepers across the year. Rough sleeping in England has increased for seven consecutive years, with official figures showing 4,751 people slept outside overnight in 2017.

Littlejohn said: “The system at the moment doesn’t make sense in terms of compassion for individuals, like that man who died, in the most acute housing need. Nor does it make sense economically because the status quo is very expensive, and all the international evidence shows that we save money by getting these individuals into mainstream tenancies.”

From founding, in 2012, the Social Bite sandwich chain, which has formerly homeless people making up a quarter of its staff, Littlejohn has become a leading advocate for Housing First. This radical model places the most entrenched rough sleepers in permanent housing before they have dealt with their addiction, mental illness or other challenges. It works on the assumption that people make most progress when based in a stable home rather than a hostel or shared temporary accommodation.

Following success in the US and Finland, the Westminster government last November pledged £28m for pilots in the West Midlands, Manchester and Liverpool. A government-funded study in Liverpool concluded that Housing First could save £4m, compared with current homelessness services in the area.

Wheatley Housing Group’s Martin Armstrong, Social Bite’s Joshua Littlejohn and Suzanne Fitzpatrick, a professor at Heriot-Watt University. Photograph: Steve Welsh/PA

Littlejohn credited the Scottish government with a “new sense of urgency” after it announced a £50m fund to tackle rough sleeping last September. Since then, he has been working to bring local councils and chief executives of the largest housing associations on board with the plan, which was welcomed by Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, on Wednesday.

A combined total of 500 properties have been offered in Edinburgh by Edinburgh council and a range of housing associations, and in Glasgow and the Central Belt by the Wheatley Group. Dundee council has also pledged 100 homes with partner housing associations. The first homes will become available this spring, with around 33 properties being added each month up to September 2019.

The comprehensive support package for new residents will be funded mainly through money raised by Sleep in the Park, billed as the world’s largest sleep-out, which entailed more than 8,000 people braving freezing temperatures to sleep outside in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh last December.

Social Bite will invest £1.5m into funding these support costs over the first year of the project, and a further £1.5m over the second year alongside other funders. The intention is to collect sufficient evidence of positive outcomes – in terms of tenancy sustainment, mental health improvement, and cost savings – to convince the Scottish government and local authorities to mainstream the support funding after two years.