Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Home is...

Usually we say, home is where the heart is. But for the purposes of this post, it's something we take for granted - and probably shouldn't.

What's brought this on? A couple of things at work, that's what. I've spent most of the day preparing for a discussion on Homelessness tomorrow. I've been reminding myself of the legal aspects and learning up on the challenges that face agencies in trying to respond and prevent homelessness. It's easy to see it as a technical debate about supply of houses, housing demand and budgets.

But when you stop to think about it, you realise it's all about people. And people not lucky enough to have the one thing most of us just take for granted, a safe, secure, watertight roof over our heads. In 2010/11, there were just over 55,000 of them in Scotland alone - and that's a reduction of 5,000 since 2005/06. Actually, it's probably more people than that since those figures relate to applications, which can include families, as well as individuals.It's a scary statistic. In Scotland, if my maths is right, that means we have a 1 in 100 chance of becoming homeless.

Of course it's not that evenly spread. The majority of people who experience homelessness do so because of a variety of life circumstances - unemployment, relationship breakdown, violence and abuse, drug or alcohol problems, or offending behaviour. Many of them will have experienced tough lives already, and the homelessness is just one more kick in the guts from the life that they have. It's also true, however, that most of us are only ever a couple or three pay cheques from homelessness ourselves - just think how quickly rent arrears or mortgage payments can mount up, and if you don't have a good family support network in place, well those life changes are even less possible to weather.

So, what was the other thing? I had the great pleasure this morning of visiting a new social rented housing development in the area. It was the official opening and after the speeches and glad-handing was done, we were lucky enough to be invited in to see one of the new homes. It was lovely, a real quality development - both the houses and the street, and what was best about it was the space. The rooms were all well sized, the garden was more than just a postage stamp and the houses had gaps between them that you'd have been hard pressed to span with three, let alone one set of outstretched arms. In short, they were houses and an estate built the way we used before we all got greedy and saw houses as investments to make a fat profit from- either personally or commercially - rather than first and foremost as homes and places to live.

That was the good bit, the fun bit. The sobering bit was when the tenant showing us round was heaping praise on the design and thermal efficiency of the building. Why was that sobering? Because she said it was just as well it was such a well designed and well insulated house because she could only afford to spend £10 a week on heating and electricity and otherwise she and her two young children would have had to go cold.

Now, I complain about how cold my flat is, and how I wish it were warmer - but that's because the heating isn't very effective, not because I can't afford to use it. Again, something that I'm lucky enough to be able to take for granted. As I said, sobering!

So tomorrow, when I'm debating what we need to do to meet the 2012 Homelessness target, while I'll be talking for some of the time about supply of houses and numbers of applicants, I'll also be reminding everyone that it's about people and delivering positive outcomes. Tackling homelessness in a meaningful way is more than just putting people in houses. It's about understanding their needs, finding ways to support them, helping them with the stresses and strains of life that bring up the risk of homelessness in the first place, and by far, far the most effective and preferable response - doing all that we can to prevent homelessness happening in the first place.

And I'll be giving thanks that I don't have to worry about where I'm going to sleep that night.

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