Wednesday, March 11, 2020

On the streets in Scotland

With twice as many deaths as elsewhere in Britain, Scotland is in the throes of a homelessness crisis. Some blame the system, while others point to rampant drug abuse. Whatever the cause, a solution is urgently needed. 

Scotland is a country caught in a homelessness crisis. Against a backdrop of austerity and biting cuts to local government budgets, the numbers of those lacking permanent accommodation  have crept up in recent years.

The Scottish Government has committed to ending homelessness for good, but new statistics paint a worrying picture. In 2018, there were almost 200 homeless fatalities, a year-on-year rise of 19%. The death rate in Scotland is now double that of England. The true number might be higher.

Several solutions have been mooted: decriminalizing personal possession to prevent the downward spiral of a prison sentence; introducing "safe consumption rooms'" so addicts can be professionally supervised while using; and increasing the prescription of substitute drugs like methadone.   

But the root causes go beyond that. Behind both substance abuse and homelessness, there is almost always personal trauma. "A lot of them need treatment for various things. A lot have mental health issues," says "Paul McMillan", a volunteer with See The Invisibles, a Glasgow-based community group.

Every week, he and a handful of others tour the streets with homeless provisions: clothes, food, sleeping bags. Providing protection from the elements is their primary aim, but by interacting with those they come across, the group offers relief from another enemy: isolation and loneliness.

"Folks just like that you treat them normal, that you treat them nice. A lot of them can't believe that you're wanting to hand out stuff and help them," McMillan says.

Kind gestures can only go so far, however. Getting rough-sleepers into accommodation is vitally important to prevent further deaths. While many do have access to temporary shelters provided by local authorities, these halfway houses can be treacherous places. Reports of violence, rampant drug use, and revolting conditions are widespread.  Genuinely "sheltered" accommodation has to be supplied. That means breaking the cycle of desperation and drug use by offering homes away from other addicts. Robust mental health support must also be available: a small but significant number of 2018's deaths — 12% — were due to suicide.

Scotland's housing laws are among the world's most progressive. Every rough-sleeper has the right to make a homelessness application, and while the paperwork is going through, they're entitled to temporary shelter.   Sadly, many people fall through the cracks.

For Shelter Scotland such cases are unforgivable. "It's a problem that there's no mechanism for the government to compel local authorities to follow the law. There needs to be a form of sanction against the local authorities," Graeme Brown, the group's director said.
Glasgow City Council admitted that its homelessness services "need to evolve" as demand increases. Accordingly, an alliance to end homelessness, made up of voluntary sector and private groups, has been launched. A 75% reduction in rough-sleeping by next year is the immediate goal, with a total end to homelessness by 2030.

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