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Scotland needs real-time rough sleeping count to save lives

The Salvation Army has warned a ‘serious data gap’ on the number of people sleeping rough on the streets and how people are dying in temporary accommodation is hampering attempts to eradicate homelessness in Scotland

rough sleeping and temporary accommodation in Scotland is under the spotlight on Buchanan Street in Glasgow

Rising homelessness in Glasgow led to the city declaring a housing emergency before the Scottish government sounded the national alarm recently. Image: Artur Kraft / Unsplash

A ‘serious data gap’ is hampering efforts to tackle rough sleeping and understand deaths in temporary accommodation in Scotland, The Salvation Army has warned.

The Scottish government declared a housing emergency last week with a record high number of people living in temporary accommodation and rising numbers on the streets.

The Salvation Army called for cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow to keep a real-time rough sleeping count like the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (Chain) figures operated in London.

The charity and church also said at least 600 people have died in temporary accommodation since 2019 according to freedom of information requests.

Just one third of Scottish Councils recorded cause of death data in those circumstances. The available data shows one fifth of deaths are drug related.

Colonel Sylvia Hinton, secretary for Scotland at The Salvation Army, said: “Every person’s homelessness journey is different. Our new report has found serious gaps in information gathering, which means that services are not always able to respond in a way that ensures people receive the right level of support for their circumstances, helping them to live independently and prevent a return to homelessness,” said colonel Hilton.

“Better data would not only assist in targeting resources it also supports progress towards eradicating rough sleeping and potentially saves lives.”

Currently, statistics on how many people are rough sleeping in Scotland are based on the Scottish government’s homelessness applications figures. These track how many households slept rough the night before or in the three months before they applied to a local authority for support.

The Salvation Army’s Breaking the Cycle report found this method gave a limited impression of how many people are actually experiencing street homelessness.

That’s because the method covers the household where at least one person has slept rough but does not keep track of how many people in the household are on the streets.

It also fails to cover where people were sleeping rough before the application to councils or how often they’ve been sleeping on the streets and whether this is their first time on the streets or they have returned.

Instead, cities in Scotland should look to London’s Chain network to provide a real-time count.

The quarterly count in London, which is commissioned and funded by the Greater London Authority and managed by Homeless Link, is widely considered to be the most accurate method of counting rough sleeping across the country.

It tracks the flow of rough sleeping over time with a database logging people seen rough sleeping by outreach teams across the English capital. It also keeps tabs on how many people are new to the streets and whether they were helped out of homelessness through projects like No Second Night Out.

Bringing the approach to Scotland is among a number of recommendations in the report, which is set to be presented to MSPs on Thursday.

The Salvation Army also called for all local authorities in Scotland to analyse the cause of death of any individual who dies while in temporary accommodation or a Housing First tenancy arranged by a local authority. 

Drug and alcohol policy should be treated predominantly as a public health issue, the charity added, with people in temporary accommodation and Housing First tenancies given priority access to specialist support for substance use and mental health.

“Scotland has some of the strongest policies around homelessness and for these to be effectively implemented and evaluated, reliable and robust data is essential,” said colonel Hilton

“From experience working with people sleeping rough in Scotland and in London we know that resources can be allocated most effectively when we have access to real-time information.

“There has been no country-wide or cross-council monitoring of rough sleeping in Scotland in recent years. That is why in this report we are calling for a Chain-type system similar to the one that operates in London designed to capture the number, nature and distribution of this preventable tragedy.”

In response to The Salvation Army’s report, housing minister Paul McLennan said: “We are committed to doing all we can to prevent homelessness from happening, and we are working with local authorities to ensure no one is turned away when they need help.

“Despite cuts to our budget from the UK government, we have made available record funding of more than £14bn to councils in 2024-25, which includes funding for homelessness.

“On top of this, we are investing £100m from our multi-year Ending Homelessness Together fund to transform homelessness services. I regularly meet with representatives from Scotland’s local authorities and have actively engaged with them to find solutions to help address housing pressures in their area.

“Scottish government officials regularly engage with frontline homelessness services to monitor the number of people sleeping rough, and to identify and respond to the needs of people experiencing the most acute form of homelessness.”

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The SNP government declared a housing emergency in Scotland just a week after John Swinney replaced Humza Yousaf as first minister.

The move was an acknowledgement that more needed to be done to tackle the housing crisis in the country but housing charities said the government must follow it up with concrete actions.

Swinney said on Wednesday that investment in housing” was an important part is bid to “build a fairer Scotland”.

Shelter Scotland director Alison Watson, said: “Politicians from across the political spectrum have recognised the reality of the housing emergency in Scotland, so they have a responsibility to work together to deliver the necessary solutions.  

“The upcoming Programme for Government can’t just be more of the same; an emergency situation absolutely demands an emergency response.”

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