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Homeless temporary accommodation – policy and statistics

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In September 2022 there were 14,458 households living in temporary accommodation, including 9,130 children.  The number has increased despite policies aimed at improving homelessness prevention and a move to ‘rapid rehousing’ for homeless people.

This blog looks at why the use of temporary accommodation has increased, councils’ duties to provide temporary accommodation to homeless people, and what councils and the Scottish Government are doing to reduce its use.

What is the scale of the use of temporary accommodation? 

Scottish Government statistics provide snapshot figures of the number of households in temporary accommodation. At 30 September 2022, there were 14,458 households in temporary accommodation, an increase of 1% from the previous year and an increase of 27% since September 2019, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Increasing numbers of children are also living in temporary accommodation. At 30 September 2022, 9,130 children lived in temporary accommodation, an increase of 10% from the previous year and 26% since 30 Sept 2019 (see figure below).

The time people spend living in temporary accommodation has also increased. The average number of days spent living in temporary accommodation was:  

  • 207 days in 2021-22
  • 204 days in 2020-21
  • 187 days in 2019-20

Larger households are more likely to have lived in temporary accommodation for more than a year.

Spending long periods of time in temporary accommodation can have a detrimental long-term impact on children’s wellbeing and on levels of child poverty in Scotland.

While these are Scotland wide average figures, the picture and pressures will vary amongst each council. 

Why has the use of temporary accommodation increased?

Partly, the increased use of temporary accommodation may be related to the legacy of the restrictions imposed, especially lockdowns, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Councils faced challenges limiting the ability to move households into permanent accommodation including difficulties carrying out necessary repairs, challenges conducting viewings and a lower level of lets.

It’s also related, in some areas, to councils not having a sufficient supply of suitable permanent homes. As the Scottish Housing Regulator’s recent thematic review into homelessness services stated:

“This fundamental mismatch between the demand for, and supply of, permanent, affordable housing is one of the reasons we are seeing an increase year on year in the number of people requiring, and the time spent in, temporary accommodation. Councils can make more temporary accommodation available, but this can take considerable resource and time, and can reduce the availability of accommodation to let on a permanent basis. Moreover, councils have obligations on the quality of temporary accommodation which can take time to get in place, and resource to sustain.”

Scottish Housing Regulator Homelessness Service in Scotland: A Thematic Review

In general, the Regulator recognised that the situation is challenging and some councils are making good efforts to deliver effective services. For some councils though, “there is an emerging risk of systemic failure in the provision of homelessness services, particularly in securing temporary and permanent accommodation.”

When do councils need to provide temporary accommodation?

Councils in Scotland have legal duties towards homeless people and those at risk of homelessness.

Councils should provide temporary accommodation to people when:

  • someone is awaiting a decision on their homelessness assessment, if the council has reason to believe that they are homeless and they have nowhere else to stay
  • someone is found to be ‘intentionally’ homeless, while they seek advice and assistance to help source and find other accommodation (councils don’t have to consider whether someone is intentionally homeless)
  • the council has a duty to find the homeless person settled housing, but they need to wait until a suitable home is found.

The Scottish Housing Regulator has found that not all councils always met their statutory duties to provide temporary accommodation (mostly in Edinburgh).  Advice agencies sometimes find examples of ‘gatekeeping’ i.e. people who are homeless are told by councils to try other housing alternatives before applying as homeless. This is not consistent with statutory requirements.

Anyone in this position might find it helpful to contact an advice agency such as Shelter Scotland.  

What type of temporary accommodation is used?

Each council decides their own approach to providing temporary accommodation in their areas. 

Most commonly, councils use their own council stock, either furnished or unfurnished, as temporary accommodation. Councils also have arrangements with local housing associations to use some of their homes as temporary accommodation. Other types of accommodation could include refuges, hostels and Bed and Breakfast accommodation.

Legislation restricts the use of ‘unsuitable’ temporary accommodation for seven days unless in exceptional circumstances. The definition of unsuitable accommodation would include, for example, B&B type accommodation.    There’s also advisory guidance on the standards that temporary accommodation should meet and the Scottish Government is considering whether, how and when temporary accommodation standards can be made legally enforceable

What are councils and the Scottish Government doing to reduce the use of temporary accommodation?

The Scottish Government has said that “the number of households, and particularly those with children, in temporary accommodation in some local authorities is unacceptably high” .

A “Temporary Accommodation Task and Finish Group”, chaired by Shelter Scotland and the Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officers, was asked to develop an action plan to reduce the numbers of people in temporary accommodation and the length of time that they spent there.

Their report, published on 31 March 2023, made fifteen recommendations grouped under three priorities:

Priority 1:  New supply of social homes means people experiencing homelessness will be able to move rapidly into a permanent home

Priority 2: Maximal use of existing housing stock increases the options for people to move to a permanent home.

Priority 3: Providing the support people need to move on

The group also made other recommendations for other Scottish Government working groups, particularly in relation to preventing homelessness and suggested further work on the cost and financing of temporary accommodation.

In its priorities for Scotland document, the Scottish Government has said that it will work with its partners to identify ways to reduce the number of people living in temporary accommodation, taking account of the task and finish groups’ report.

Longer term, there is continuing focus on the prevention of homelessness. The Scottish Government plans to introduce legislation to strengthen homelessness prevention based on the work carried out by the Scotland Homelessness Prevention Review Group

Kate Berry

Senior Researcher (Housing)