Last week the Scottish Government released the quarterly update of the official homelessness statistics for Scotland. Unsurprisingly, as a homelessness charity working in Scotland, the publication of these stats always causes a flurry of interest and activity in the office (especially for the more geeky among us). The publication of these figures gives us information about why people find themselves in housing need and the scale of the housing problem so we can help play our part in fixing it.

The latest quarterly figures show a decrease in homelessness – both in the number of homeless applications made to local authorities and the numbers who are assessed as being homeless. This follows the downward trend we have seen from these statistics in the last 18 months or so. Taken at face value this is fantastic news.

In the last financial year there has been a 19% decrease in the number of people making homelessness applications and a 15% fall in the number of people found statutorily homeless. For some councils this drop in applications is even higher, with one local authority seeing a 56% drop in the numbers of people applying as homeless.

This is seems somewhat surprising considering the economy is currently in recession, there is rising youth unemployment and Shelter Scotland has seen an increase of 43% in calls to our helpline in the last three years.

These statistical surprises (another one – the average person has less than two legs – think about it…) remind us that it is always worth digging behind the numbers to see what is actually going on.  We need to look to changes within Scottish homelessness policy to really understand what is happening.

Local authorities across Scotland are now engaging in homelessness prevention activities known as the housing options’ approach, and at Shelter Scotland, we know that prevention works – it’s what we do every day.

Housing options done well should be about putting homeless people in the driving seat. Personalising the service they receive based on the help they need and supporting them to make decisions about their housing situation.

Housing options done badly however, can be a way of stopping people entering the homelessness system in the first place, funnelling people out of the system, off the books and out of the statistics.

Housing options may explain some of the drop in homeless applications. But what is happening to those who do not make homeless application? How many people are experiencing housing issues? What are these issues? Are these issues changing? Are councils seeing more or less people? We just don’t know.

If we don’t know then we need to find out before we hail this approach a success. Mandatory recording needs to take place of every person who approached the council for housing. Whether they go on to receive advice, make a homelessness application, get support to rent privately or even access low cost home-ownership  we need to know more to truly understand the scale of housing need.  As it stands right now, the official homeless statistics no longer give us this picture.

The Scottish Government has been working on producing a monitoring tool to centrally measure homelessness prevention activity in local authorities. This should give us a clear picture of the level of housing need by monitoring the numbers of people with housing issues and the reasons for finding themselves at the door of the housing service. This tool should be up and running by the middle of the year.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the information coming back shows a real reduction in housing need and that people’s housing problems are dealt with in a way that helps them to move into a long-term housing solution that’s right for them.

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