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When everyone has a home

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Fiona King - Housing rights and choices: What are the options?

Fiona King is senior policy officer at Shelter Scotland and works on policy and legislation around homelessness, social housing, welfare and poverty based in the Edinburgh office.  Here, Fiona looks at the Housing Options model of homelessness advice, assistance and prevention and what this means in the Scottish context. 

Scotland’s homelessness legislation is recognised as some of the most progressive in the world.  Who can argue with the aspiration that everyone who is homeless through no fault of their own should have the basic human right to a home? While most people would agree with the sentiment, few governments would go as far as to enshrine this right into legislation.

Key proposals for changes to the test of statutory homelessness put in place as a result of the Homelessness Task Force recommendations became a catalyst for legislative change, service redesign and perhaps more importantly, culture change.  The unfair “priority” and “non-priority” rationing system for those going through the homeless system was finally removed from the statute book on the 31 December 2012.

This historic commitment was achieved by the Scottish Government, local authorities, housing providers and their voluntary agencies all working together to improve partnerships and ensure that services were fit for purpose.  Despite the enormity of the challenge laid down, anyone who is unintentionally homeless in Scotland now has a right to settled accommodation.

A changing world

So on the face of it there is much to celebrate.  At Shelter Scotland we were involved in the Homelessness Task Force and campaigned to ensure that the ‘2012 Commitment’ was remained a priority on the political agenda. 

But over the past 10 years there have been some fundamental changes to the social, political and financial contexts we are all working in.  While there was always the will to meet the 2012 commitment, with housing across all tenures in critically short supply, the real challenge now is the ongoing delivery of that promise.

Across Scotland there are in the region of 200,000 households on the social housing waiting lists (the Scottish Government estimate it as high as 400,000). And we know people are being forced to stay in temporary accommodation for longer because of the lack of permanent lets available for people to move in to.  This has meant that, as well as delivering crisis services to homeless people in need, in the past few years there has been increasing emphasis on the prevention of homelessness.

Housing Options advice

This is why Housing Options and prevention advice has been introduced by local authorities across Scotland, to provide a better customer service and potentially deliver better housing outcomes focusing on sustaining tenancies wherever possible.  Local authorities have recalibrated their services in an attempt to tackle housing and related issues further upstream.  ‘Housing Options’ interviews are now less about what rights you have and services you are eligible for, and more about what options are available to you and best suit your current needs and aspirations.  This might mean considering a private let in the area you need to live in, getting a referral for family mediation, sorting out welfare and benefits issues or making a homeless application and accessing temporary accommodation.

The Housing Options approach relies heavily on partnerships with housing providers, support services, social work, money and debt advice, benefits teams, private landlords and health departments.  While each local authority across Scotland is at a different stage in their development, the emphasis on prevention is certainly contributing to a reduction in homelessness applications across Scotland over the past few years.

So a housing advice service that aims to make better use of housing, meet people’s needs more effectively and work better with a range of local partners has a lot of potential.  Shelter Scotland has been working with clients, practitioners and housing providers to understand this recalibration of services and at this stage there is a lot to be positive about, you can read our full report here

For this approach to work, it is critical that people’s right to housing is protected and those who need emergency homeless housing and support receive the best possible service.  We must ensure that people get information about all the options they have and are empowered to make choices that are right for them. 

The approach of course, relies on there being genuine and viable options available. The triple threat of ongoing recession, welfare changes and lack of supply, means getting people good quality, impartial information on their widest range of options is more important than ever.  But balancing choices and rights remains an ongoing challenge for all involved.

The challenge now is to safeguard people’s rights despite the hurdles afoot.

Why not read Fiona King's 3 housing wishes?

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This article was written on 28 January 2014. It should not be relied on as a statement of the current law or policy position. For help with housing issues please contact our helpline on 028 9024 5640 or use our online chat service at www.housingadviceNI.org.