Homeless Action Scotland CEO Robert Aldridge talks about the organisation's focus on rough sleeping.
Those who are rough sleeping are exposed to a level of vulnerability that thankfully most of us will never face. People who rough sleep are vulnerable to being urinated on, robbed, kicked awake, threatened, assaulted, moved by police, set on fire and this is before the elements take any toll on their bodies.
One focus of work for 2015 for Homeless Action Scotland is tackling the problem of rough sleeping in Scotland looking at better prevention, and those who are presenting for homelessness assistance on multiple occasions in a short space of time. Over the past 14 years Scotland has seen vast improvements in both preventing and resolving homeless issues. However one aspect, which has been less prominent, has been the issue of rough sleeping.
The majority of those who sleep rough often have a history of addictions, poor mental health, sexual exploitation, criminal justice involvement, or having been in care. Not everyone who sleeps rough has these additional issues however it is safe to say that many do, and it is clear that sleeping rough makes all these other problems worse.
It is difficult to get an accurate picture of just how prevalent rough sleeping is, with no actual comprehensive count having taken place since 2003. Although these are national statistics the focus is on those approaching local authorities, therefore those who are not engaged with the system are missed from the statistics.
Some rough sleepers find it difficult to engage with local authorities. Often they feel that the system which is there to protect those who are in need, has let them down. In many cases this feeling is an accurate picture of their lives. This makes it difficult for local authorities to accurately collect information on people who are sleeping rough.
Very few people who rough sleep will do so on their first episode of homelessness. More commonly friends and family are used initially for somewhere to stay which is the very definition of hidden homeless. Sometimes addiction issues and/or mental health problems result in behaviours that are unacceptable to the friend or family who is putting them up, and so they are asked to leave or homeless people simply overstay their welcome. This can be repeated with various friends and family “sofa surfing”. No one deliberately sets out to rough sleep but at some point they feel that the only option left to them is to sleep on the street which is a necessity of circumstance rather than a rationale choice.
Many front line homelessness workers, police, nurses, addiction workers have heard people saying they would commit a crime rather than face another night on the street, that they feel they have spent too much time sleeping rough and don’t feel that they will be dealt with by their local authority, or else they will be forced in accommodation that they feel is unsafe. Some will even commit a crime in order to be incarcerated so that they do not have to sleep rough. For most people the idea of sleeping rough is scary and it should be. But for a small number of people within Scotland it is too often the only option that they feel they have left.
The problem of rough sleeping is a complex but Homeless Action Scotland believes that we can do more to tackle it efficiently. We would be dreaming if we were to say we wanted rough sleeping eradicated, as this would be impossibility; where there are people there is always be the possibility of rough sleeping.
Rough sleeping has a number of elements including people who are not entitled to use public funds. We can try to limit the barriers faced better joint working between prisons, addiction services, social work departments, health, orgs and anyone who works with those at risk of rough sleeping, would help to bring voluntary the numbers of those rough sleeping down. And a consistent means of dealing with destitute people who have no recourse to public funds.
Scotland’s homelessness legislation is the most progressive in the world and there is no structural reason as to why anyone in Scotland should be sleeping rough for any length of time. Homeless Action Scotland will be directing our efforts to ascertain what can be done to prevent rough sleeping and problematic sofa surfing.