If you’ve been finding it hard to retain a sense of optimism in recent weeks, spare a thought for Alison Watson.
After 18 years working on the frontlines of homelessness with Shelter Scotland, Watson takes over the top role this week, stepping into the charity’s directorship at what is, to put it mildly, a challenging time. But if she’s feeling the pressure, you’d be hard pushed to tell. “It wouldn’t be the way I would want to take on a leadership role, not being able to go out and see people,” she shrugs, smiling. “But we’ll work around it.”
To say Watson is facing a complicated picture pushes understatement to new levels. While a huge amount has been achieved in recent weeks in terms of housing homeless people and banning evictions during lockdown, it’s a temporary fix with no current exit plan.
“Before this public health emergency, we had a housing emergency, in that we just don’t have enough safe, secure and affordable homes for people who need them,” Watson says. “I think the particular nature of this crisis – the need for people to stay at home and the idea that the safest place for people to be is in their home – highlights the plight of people who don’t have a secure home, or are in temporary housing with shared bathrooms, shared kitchens and conditions in which people can’t self-isolate. So, I think it’s actually raised awareness of some of the less visible forms of homelessness, and that’s a real positive.”
The emergency response has been a brilliant example of just how much can be achieved when political will is there, she says, but it’s the situation coming down the line that worries her the most. “We’ve got a set of very good protections in place to make sure that we’re not adding to the homelessness tally at the moment. But let’s not think that when the pandemic is over or we’re moving out of social distancing, it’s ok to remove these measures immediately.
“We’re seeing a lot of calls to our helpline from people concerned about money, unsurprisingly, as a result of being furloughed or seeing a loss of income. People are really starting to worry about keeping up with their housing costs, and while they’re protected from losing their home at the moment, our concern would be that if we remove that protection suddenly we could create a terrible cliff edge. So it’s a bit of a mixed picture.”
Housing as a women’s issue
One of the key challenges Watson’s sector faces is the perception that homelessness is a problem that impacts most on single men. That may be the case for visible homelessness and rough sleeping, but it is far from the whole picture.
“We always say that rough sleeping is the tip of a much, much bigger iceberg. A fairly reliable figure is that around 5,000 to 5,500 people a year have some experience of sleeping rough in Scotland, whether for one night or longer. But the number of people who are in the homelessness system is between 35,000 and 40,000. And that’s simply the people we can count, who come forward to their local authorities to say ‘I’m homeless, please help me.’
“Now, what we can’t count is the number of people who are homeless but never present to their local authorities. And that is particularly relevant when we look at how homelessness affects women. We’re talking about people who are living in very overcrowded conditions, people who are sofa surfing, camping out with friends or family, or who are in very insecure situations and are entitled to state intervention, but are not coming forward. And it’s very clear that women are over-represented in that population.”
But why? While the situation is complex, Watson says the evidence the charity has gathered suggests women are more likely to remain part of the ‘hidden homeless’, reaching out to friends and family for support in order to actively avoid presenting to the state. That is particularly the case when it comes to single parents, predominantly women.
“We’re struggling with that conditioning we all have as women, where we’re told we need to carry on and cope. There are also significant numbers of the women who are lone parents and fear some sort of intervention with their kids, so that’s a major part of the picture. The other very, very significant part of the picture is violence,” she sighs.
“That’s absolutely relevant at the moment, when the levels of domestic abuse are worryingly high. We’ve seen the deaths of a number of women, but we’re also looking at a picture of general violence, and that often includes children. It’s quite difficult to put a precise figure on the number of women who are homeless as a result of some form of violence, but from the research we’ve seen, it’s certainly no less than 40 per cent of women who are homeless, and possibly much higher than that.”
Shockingly, Watson also explains that, while figures on the scale of hidden homelessness are extremely hard to come by, around seven percent of people who present as sleeping rough are caring for children. That’s an estimated 350 children sleeping on Scotland’s streets each year.
Thousands of other children, however, are languishing in unsuitable temporary accommodation, often with shared facilities, while the country faces an extreme bottleneck caused by a lack of long-term social housing.
“The number of kids in temporary accommodation is at a ten-year high and increased year-on-year for the last four years. And that is a very strong indicator that a bottleneck exists. There just aren’t the homes to shift people onto,” Alison explains. “The absolute key to shifting these blockages in our system is to create more social housing. Otherwise, we’re trying to empty the bath with the tap still running.”
The picture might sound grim, but Alison’s sense of optimism is striking. Describing lockdown as a “once in a generation opportunity” to harness post-pandemic empathy and understanding, she insists the key now is to maintain political momentum towards answering key issues in our housing sector.
“We currently have emergency measures in place to stop evictions – let’s not make that temporary. How can we shift the position on evictions so that they become something that is only done in exceptional circumstances?
“We’ve got an election in Scotland next year, and we want to see cross-party commitment to a long-term social housebuilding programme, because this is not something that can be fixed in the lifecycle of one parliament. We probably need something like a ten to 20-year commitment.
“And I think we need to get to the point where we see social housing as the third pillar of our society along with universal access to education and healthcare. How do we get to the stage where people regard having enough social housing as a basic foundation of the society they want to live in? We need to view the provision of social housing as being politically untouchable, like we do the NHS and universal education.”
To do so, she says, public participation is key – and she’s confident that opinion is now, more than ever, on Shelter’s side.
“People want to help. We’re having different conversations now, and I think we need to look at how those conversations – about kindness, about compassion, about not othering people – can continue.
“We’re realising now that tragedy and homelessness are something that can happen to anyone. It’s quite esoteric in a way, but there’s something about this uniquely awful situation that has shifted the attitude that some people are more deserving than others. The work now is in making sure that doesn’t slip back.”
Whether you’re facing issues of homelessness, know someone who is, or want to support Shelter Scotland in its work to eradicate homelessness, you’ll find information and support on the charity’s website.