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.