Why can we not end rough sleeping forever?

An immediate end to rough sleeping would cost the Scottish Government less than it spends transporting logs. We should ensure rough sleeping is eradicated immediately and permanently.

The problem with the left is that we are on the defensive all too often. At the very moment when the most people support the most state intervention, we find ourselves spending more time defending the lockdown against the likes of Alison Pearson and Toby Young than setting the agenda for our post-Covid world. Neo-liberalism and authoritarian populism – the two right-wing movements that have dominated my lifetime – both built their success on setting the agenda. The debate was always one which sought to answer their questions: ‘Why should people not be able to buy their council house?’ ‘Why should the United States not build a wall with Mexico?’

We should never find ourselves defending the rotten order yet, all too often, we do. It is easy to, when defending the European Union, end up making arguments that are neo-liberal. The economic case for immigration usually ends up reducing the value of human beings to numbers. Yet, it is my experience that most progressive people – myself included – make these mistakes all the time.

Instead, we need to seize the agenda with specific demands which we can rigorously evidence but which also challenge the established order that we loathe. Our window of opportunity has come. Yesterday, the First Minister wrote in The Herald:

“When things come apart – when the kaleidoscope of our lives is shaken – there is an opportunity to see them put back together differently, and see a new way of doing things.”

The question then is what will allow us to seize the agenda. I don’t have an exhaustive list. However, I am certain that ‘Why should we not end rough sleeping in Scotland immediately and permanently?’ should feature. Why? The ease and speed with which the authorities have ended rough sleeping shows that there was never any need for it to exist in the first place.

The Scottish Government has arranged for 140 people to sleep in hotels during the lockdown. Charities are now anxious that they will be asked to leave when the lockdown finishes. Surely it is incumbent on the First Minister to ensure that our “new normal” does not feature people sleeping outdoors in cardboard boxes: that was never normal anyway.

Like me, perhaps you were always vaguely aware that ‘yeah, but we could solve homelessness, but tax-dodgers, Airbnb owners and Tories mean we can’t’. This vagueness is not good enough – it impedes a solution by making it sound more difficult than it is.

We need to realise just how easily this problem can be solved. The Scottish Government needed to provide accommodation for a mere 140 people to achieve this. Assuming we paid for rooms at a rate of £100 per night (it’s unlikely to be that high, but let’s overestimate the cost), that means continuing the intervention would cost £5.11 million per annum. To put that in perspective, Scotland spends £7 million per annum on timber transport. Do we care about logs more than people?

Of course, that is only one initiative. According to The Scottish Public Health Observatory, 700 people sleep rough on a typical night. So that would put the cost of my spectacularly-overpriced scheme at just over £25 million. That is nothing compared with what is spent on first time buyers. Not that I begrudge first time buyers, but it is important to have a sense of perspective. The point is that ending rough sleeping would be relatively inexpensive.

So why haven’t the Scottish Government done it before?

Some progress has been made over the past decade, but it is fair to say that a sense of urgency has just not been there. Scotland’s Housing First scheme is laudable and aims to end rough sleeping in 3 to 5 years. However, this crisis has shown that the demand should be immediate.

It is important to be mindful of the progress, however. Numbers of rough sleepers are falling and Scotland’s approach to rough sleeping is considered to be kinder than that of the rest of the UK. Nonetheless, the eradication of rough sleeping during the lockdown has shown that this should have been treated as a more urgent issue.

The point of this urgency is not just to end rough sleeping. It is to force the avaricious property speculators, landlords and evasive local authorities on to the defensive. These are the groups we must confront if we are to address the larger and more complex problem of homelessness. In case the distinction is lost on you, homelessness means you have no permanent address but are not necessarily sleeping rough. Over 36,000 Scots are homeless, 50x the number sleeping rough. Solving that problem is going to involve confronting a lot of landlords and building a lot of houses.

Thankfully, the time for the former has arrived. I am sure that many people were guilty of schadenfreude when reading reports of Airbnb landlords in Edinburgh struggling financially. The landlords will no doubt approach the Scottish Government with the begging bowl soon enough: those who condemn help given to others are usually the first to demand it for themselves. They will be joined by many hoteliers and B&B owners; groups who are more deserving of sympathy.

A new set of criteria, along the lines of those proposed by Mike Small, will need to be established for whether industries or businesses are saved or repurposed: “is this socially useful; future-focused; culturally important; and able to be ‘produced’ with zero carbon impact?” If the answer is no, my argument is that they should be repurposed.

We should aim towards a policy of taking these failing businesses into public ownership while their price is low. This might also ameliorate the worst effects of a recession as creditors will be paid. This would be possible to do under devolution and might even be cheaper than a house building programme. The Scottish Government has a capital borrowing limit of £3 billion per annum. Surely it is not too much to suggest that some of it could be used for a programme of renovations that turn the detritus of the era of over-tourism into much-needed social housing?

This article does not aim to convince you that rough sleeping can be ended. You already know that it can. However, it is one thing to be abstractly aware of the point and another to be willing to push it. We must adopt an insistent tone on this issue. Progressive pro-independence parties – SNP, Greens, various socialist parties – should each make this a headline pledge in their manifesto.

This is as much about shifting public discourse as it is about the individual policy. Less popular but more important initiatives – support for recovering addicts and offenders – will be easier to support in the new climate.

If Nicola Sturgeon wants a “better Scotland” and a “new normal” it cannot be one in which wealthy Airbnb landlords step over rough sleepers on their way to Michelin starred restaurants. All progressive Scots should adopt an urgent and uncompromising tone on rough sleeping: it must end now.



Comments (13)

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  1. Daniel Raphael says:

    Excellent article, great suggestions, and holds the key insight that we can and must *set the agenda* by the kinds of questions we actively promote.

  2. Roland says:

    Is transporting timber something you know anything about?

    1. Gillarious Doggaryen says:

      Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the logs?!

  3. Dougie Blackwood says:

    Another fine objective. Unfortunately, using empty accommodation is OK in the short term but will not do indefinitely.

    There are a lot of people in our society that need help. Many of them end up as homeless or sleeping on the streets. In our present setup those with drug addiction, with mental health issues, gamblers and alcoholics very often fall through the cracks of welfare and do not get the help they need; these people are left on the side. Many of those in prison fall into these categories and we must look for holistic solutions. That does not mean having endless case conferences and wringing our hands. They need real help and perhaps tough love. Set up, fund, and properly staff something better, maybe based on the old Model Lodging Houses, where anyone can go to get a bed and a meal. Make them a hub for support services to deal with the various problems those needing them are prone to.

    Back up the needs of those at the bottom of our society with a basic income for all, sufficient to get by on; give everyone the opportunity to work to increase that income using the state as the employer of last resort. Our NHS is drowning in people who are well enough to be discharged but there is not enough support outside for them. We have set up an emergency hospital for virus afflicted that looks as though it may not be needed. Use that or something similar as convalescent hospitals or care homes for those that need it. Take in those on the mend or needing help rather than medical attention and ease the burden on our front line NHS.

    Sorry to ramble on but there are many problems that are not being addressed and unless we make radical changes our system will collapse.

  4. Charles L. Gallagher says:

    James, no matter how much you do/provide there will still be a hard-core who do not want help or are just plain incapable of accepting it. I’ve got no answers, have you, short of locking them up?

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      In the early days of the Scottish Parliament, c1999, the then Minister in the Lab/LibDem coalition, Ms Wendy Alexander, made a strong attempt to ensure that no-one was sleeping rough. Her actions had support from almost all MSPs and, subsequent efforts have been made at Holyrood to try to end it. As you acknowledge, there have been improvements over the years, but ,as we can all see, there is still a fair number of rough sleepers.

      As Dougie Blackwood sets out below, this is a complex issue and many, perhaps most, have a number of mental health issues. The callous welfare policies of Westminster since 2010 have certainly not helped and, but for the limited ameliorations Holyrood has been able to effect within its resources, the numbers might well have become higher.

      It does require political will, which I think is there in large measure in our MSPs, but because of the limits on the powers of Holyrood, not least the financial ones, mean it is always going to be operating at the fringes as long as the current Westminster mindset towards ‘welfare’ continues.

      Local authorities, supported by charitable organisations are the most appropriate bodies for tackling the issue, but, they have a shrunken workforce. As an aside, had they had more staff and had there been a proper strategy for Covid-19, then they could have managed much of the test, trace and isolate that is required. So, with regard to rough sleepers they could have had staff to get people off the streets and into temporary accommodation, where the appropriate mental health and other supports could be utilised.

      1. Alex Kashko says:

        “many, perhaps most, have a number of mental health issues.”

        In some cases, perhaps most the mental health issues are caused by being homeless and sleeping rough.

        We need to be able to predict who is likely to become homeless and prevent that happening. That will need a lot of data and be an expensive investment.

        We also need to treat the current generation of rough sleepers who have these issues.

        It’s a complex problem, perhaps a “wicked problem”.

  5. Alex Kashko says:

    “The point of this urgency is not just to end rough sleeping. It is to force the avaricious property speculators, landlords and evasive local authorities on to the defensive.”

    1. Not all landlords are large.
    2. Not all own their properties outright: I suspect many are using other people’s money or, in the case of smaller landlords, mortgages.
    3. Debt repayment plus maintenance and other costs puts a floor on what can be charged for rent.
    4. Neoliberalism says you should charge whatever people are willing to pay with no moral considerations involved.
    5. Large landlords, those with more than say 30 properties, face, as individuals, pressure to allow for tenant difficulties, but as businesses they face pressure not to make such allowances.

    I would argue the problem is partly at least, avaricious financial institutions and government. Doubtless these have justifications for what they are doing (“borrow short, lend long”) but I tent to be sceptical of these.

    Behind every hard hearted avaricious business is a hard hearted avaricious bank or other financial institution.

    Make sure you allocate blame properly

  6. Alex Kashko says:

    “A new set of criteria, along the lines of those proposed by Mike Small, will need to be established for whether industries or businesses are saved or repurposed: “is this socially useful; future-focused; culturally important; and able to be ‘produced’ with zero carbon impact?” If the answer is no, my argument is that they should be repurposed.”

    I suspect 99% of all businesses, large or small would fail these ( very vaguely worded) tests. Including investment banks.

    The resulting implosion would ruin the economy.

    If a business needs repurposing help and advice should be given to repurpose it: most business would have no idea how to start.

    1. Hi Alex
      you write “I suspect 99% of all businesses, large or small would fail these ( very vaguely worded) tests” – I’m sure they would. But I’m not sure that’s proof that the set of tests is wrong?
      That seems like some strange logic?

      1. Alex Kashko says:

        Well if you want the collateral damage if such firms close down….

        I am not saying the tests are wrong, though from the few words in the article they are very vague (socially useful, culturally important) which is a bad sign, like condemning capitalism without an agreed and hopefully rigorous definition of Capitalism.

        If these tests capture 95% of the official economy they either too broad or indicate something severely wring with society. At the moment I tend to the latter view.

        1. I’d love to hear your definition of ‘collateral damage’
          ‘ condemning capitalism’ is also hilarious, is there another option?

  7. Stuart Clark says:

    As someone who spent 6 months sleeping rough in South London back in the 80’s I feel qualified to comment on your contribution.

    I can appreciate your sympathy for people, but question your knowledge of rough sleepers and your solution.
    also not sure of the relevance of “money spent on transporting logs”.

    Presumably logs need moving and if by doing so it was improving the life’s of Scotland’s working class, you would no doubt support it.

    Homeless people are nearly always addicts /Alcoholics with mental health issues .

    Housing them in a £100 a night hotel is fine (so long as the Hotels are owned by the SG, or at very least Independence supporters)

    Failing that Scotland’s Farmers have always 4 berth caravans on their lands to house the 25k temporary workers we import, these are off course unused when the harvest is done, so the SG could organise something to get the Homeless housed in the countryside and give them a chance to rehabilitate ?

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