SNP leadership contest: Next First Minister must prioritise ending homelessness in Scotland – Ewan Aitken

As the SNP leadership contest moves towards its conclusion, many people are rightly questioning what priorities will shape the upcoming hustings and, eventually, parliamentary business.
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For those in the homelessness sector, we know how difficult the past 12 months have been on those we support. Many of you who have been around central Edinburgh and some places further away will have noticed an upsurge in rough-sleeping. The numbers rough-sleeping in the city during and just after lockdown dropped to less than ten, after being regularly over 100 prior to the pandemic.

Concerted efforts by several charities, including Cyrenians, in partnership with the city council and Scottish Government turned the challenge of lockdown into an opportunity for collaboration which saw literally hundreds of people, not just those rough-sleeping but others who had been homeless or on the edge of it for many years into much better accommodation. There are many unsung heroes who get enormous credit for making the opportunity created by a challenge a reality. It changes systems too. We no longer have a nightshelter in Edinburgh; instead, there are hotel rooms block booked by the council and run by our colleagues at Bethany with several other charities in support.

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But despite being a good thing, it’s not enough. Those rooms are already often full. The numbers tipping into homelessness are increasing because of the cost-of-living crisis and pandemic-related economic challenges, the removal of access to accommodation for people with no recourse to public funds, and a whole number of other pressures. It’s not one thing but many, which is why, despite huge efforts, those rough-sleeping numbers are creeping up to 30 or 40-plus a night.

It's also because there’s so little affordable accommodation to move into. Over 4500 people are in temporary accommodation in Edinburgh (around a third of Scotland’s total). The average length of time in temporary accommodation in Edinburgh is over 345 days; for some, it’s over two years. We have an extreme housing crisis, and it needs some extreme solutions, both immediately and in the form of significant numbers of new affordable housing.

The council has identified enough brownfield sites (rather than green space) to build the number of houses we need, a lot in council ownership. At present Edinburgh has 60 per cent of the demand for social housing in Scotland but only gets ten per cent of the money allocated. The irony is, if that extra money was given by the Scottish Government, it would end up saving the council money as people would be paying rent to the council and be in a better position to access work and other activities which they are much less able to do when homeless or even in temporary accommodation.

Ending homelessness is not just about keys to a home. It's about having the time and support to build new relationships and rebuild broken ones. It's about having the chance to work or volunteer. It’s about being part of a community again. But without a home, these things are very hard to achieve. The Scottish Government, whoever ends up as First Minister, needs to prioritise the people it serves and work with the sector to bring forwards real and tangible efforts to end homelessness to the benefit of all our communities.

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians

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