In 2014-15, over 65,000 different households in Scotland approached their local authority for help with housing, either through the housing options service (58,825 approaches) or the homelessness route (35,764 applications).

The headlines for the last few years have been that, since 2009, the number of people making homeless applications has gone down.  But what does this mean?  Data provided in the Scottish Government’s statistical datasets in the summer, and our full analysis in our recently published report shows that this reduction in homeless applications is most likely due to the introduction of housing options.  The level of ‘homeless need’ is actually the same as it was in 2009, it’s just showing itself in both the homeless and housing options systems.

In Scotland, there are two main routes for households to take if they require help with their housing from the council: the homelessness route, or the housing options service.  Housing options is a housing advice service that aims to prevent homelessness before it occurs, by looking at what choices a person in housing need might have. Though housing options has been happening since 2009, the first annual data on the service was published in June this year which covers the period April 2014 to March 2015.  This week, we published a report analysing this new data, alongside the usual annual homelessness statistics.

Some groups are clearly overrepresented in the two services: the rate of housing options approaches and homeless assessments for under 25s is over double the rate for over 25s.  For every 1,000 individuals under 25, there are 25.1 housing options approaches and 13.3 homeless assessments.

There were also a high number of people with vulnerabilities approaching both services, which raises questions over how the services take account of the needs of this group.  Shelter Scotland is currently doing research into the experiences of people with multiple and complex needs, which should be published early 2016 – so watch this space!

One of the major findings from our analysis was the large variation in housing options services around the country. In some areas, accessing the local rent deposit guarantee scheme to help gain access to housing was common, whilst in others households were more likely to be given money advice or the local authority was more likely to liaise with landlords on the household’s behalf.  The number and level of prevention activities provided by the local authority varied hugely, too:

  • In Falkirk and East Ayrshire, all of their activities were delivered at a type 1 (signposting, information and explanation) level.  This compared to East Lothian and North Ayrshire where almost all households were provided with a type 2 activity – i.e. some kind of casework.
  • Local authorities provided differing amounts of activities for each household: in 6 councils, over 90% of approaches received 1 prevention activity, whilst in 3 other councils, over 70% of approaches received 4 prevention activities.

The problem with this is that, for housing options, unlike for the homeless service, there is no statutory duty for local authorities to fulfil, making it hard to draw conclusions over the different design and delivery of housing options services.  The Scottish Government’s Housing Options Guidance should be published in the new year, and should result in a more consistent approach across Scotland, though this will have to be monitored during and after the bedding in process.

What happened to households after they’ve been through the two services?

Last year, 29,565 homeless applicants were assessed as homeless, including 1,834 who were assessed as intentionally homeless who were entitled to advice and assistance and temporary accommodation for a ‘reasonable period’.  57% of households assessed as unintentionally homeless were offered a social rented tenancy by their local authority, and accepted it, and 4% were offered and accepted a private rented tenancy.

For housing options, half of households going through the service made a homeless application, a fifth were helped to find alternative accommodation and just under a third remained in their current accommodation.

One concerning finding was that high numbers of long term roofless or sofa surfers (200 in total) were recorded as remaining in their current accommodation at the end of the housing options process (as well as not all recorded as having been informed of their homeless rights) – hardly an ideal outcome.

What next?

The introduction of housing options and the general move towards the prevention of homelessness is a welcome move and was designed in part to relieve pressure on homelessness services following the abolition of the priority need test.  This has worked: homeless applications have gone down, and this is in the context of a similar level of ‘homeless need’.

However, we now need to look critically at the new data to understand how housing options services are run, how housing options interacts with the statutory homelessness duties, whether this approach is providing positive outcomes, and whether local authorities are effectively and genuinely preventing homelessness.

Read our full report for more details, analysis, and recommendations.