Time to change our attitude to homeless support

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by Iain McGill

The dumping of some of the most vulnerable members of our society into dingy B&Bs with minimal or no support is one the worst examples of our current Council’s attitude to our homeless population.

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see related article: Petition calls on Council to end abuse of homeless human rights

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It shows up the attitude coming from some that the solution to homelessness is to provide a roof over someone’s head, and a bed to sleep on. Housing ends homelessness, but support sustains housing, and community inclusion repairs isolation.

Never mind that in many of these B&Bs residents are not allowed to socialise within the building, that they have to be back in their building by 23.00, that they are not allowed to stay elsewhere overnight unless authorised by a council staff member for fear of losing their place & having to represent as homeless. These restrictions ride roughshod over these individuals human rights to live like adults, make their own choices and integrate into societal norms.

It completely ignores any necessary support that people experiencing homelessness in Edinburgh require to address the bigger issues in their lives, of which being homeless is often only a very obvious symptom.

To my mind Edinburgh has recently taken a backwards step with regards to supporting people with medium or complex support needs.

An out of sight, out of mind mindset seems to come from our civic leaders – parking people with severe and enduring mental health concerns, or addictions, in B&Bs ticks a housing box, but lets the individual down and stores up problems for our whole society.

I was employed as a support worker in Edinburgh a few years ago to visit the B&Bs, assess the residents, and signpost them onto the appropriate services in Edinburgh – generally, but not exclusively, specialists in mental health, addictions, family support/child protection or offending. Many of these specialist organisations are no longer providing services in Edinburgh as the focus has changed towards prevention and early intervention. The results from this prevention and early intervention are fantastic, and welcome. They should not, though, be coming at the expense of people currently struggling in the streets or in our B&Bs. Edinburgh needs to prioritise both equally.

We were barely scratching the surface, such were our staffing levels and the number of people requiring support, but unable or unwilling to articulate a clear support need to the relevant authorities. Despite being under capacity we have seen that team dwindle, and the support hours provided to B&Bs in Edinburgh drop, since the service was taken in-house by the council following their failed tendering of homelessness services in Edinburgh.

An increased demand and complexity of users for B&B spaces is anticipated with there being no night shelter accommodation provided in Edinburgh. The Council is still dragging it’s heels on providing services for EU8 despite them becoming eligible for access to public funds on April 1st. Deep budget cuts to residential homeless services (hostels) leads to redundancies that lead to less medium to high support needs accommodated in supportive environments.  It’s clear that people who find themselves homeless in Edinburgh today are being badly let down by their Council.

The solution is to keep funding prevention and early intervention – I note with concern that EHAP are in line for a 25% budget cut themselves – but also to fund the hostels properly so that they can provide support to the people that need it most. It is to fund the diverse range of services that can provide targeted, expert support to the most complex – and when I say fund I mean fund 3rd sector organisations – who provide a better, more flexible service at lower cost than the Council and also add additional social return on investment.

A minimum standard for B&B provision has to be a priority – as B&Bs are part of a solution. But they are truly not the whole solution. There is no clear Council policy on B&Bs – leaving them free to enforce their own arbitrary rules.

We also need further research and to react to it’s findings. There is more evidence than ever before of undiagnosed autistic spectrum conditions lying behind the addiction and homelessness in our most hard to reach adults, presenting complexity and challenge to providers. The answer from CEC? To force providers into competition, to enforce arbitrary proscribed tasks that limits the scope and efficacy of housing support and is contrary to the principle of person centered work. A climate that is toxic to a sustainable voluntary sector and deadly to the aspirations and life chances of individuals and communities.

It’s not to late for Councillors Edie and Work to start talking to, and listening to, the homeless people themselves.  For it is people who are homeless, not “the homeless”. Homelessness is a temporary state not a permanent attribute. Between the homeless people in Edinburgh and the voluntary organisations working so hard with them, there are solutions that will really make the difference.


Iain McGill is the Conservative Candidate for Edinburgh Central