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We must not turn a blind eye to the homelessness crisis

In these tempestuous days of political friction, with an indignant and bellicose Scotland never far from UK newscasters’ agendas, it is all too easy to buy in to the SNP’s slickly marketed image of the country. Like all effective myths, the notion that Scotland is a nation more open, tolerant, and progressive than its neighbours does have some grounding in reality.

As a corollary to the mythmaking process, the terrain of this reality is shrouded in mist. Those of us who live in and write about Scotland often fall victim to this myopia, and – our eyes being unable to determine those dark shapes which writhe in the obscure twilight – willingly bow our heads to the ground.

We churn out affirmation after affirmation of the different political culture here, serving as clerks and propagandists to the nation forming beneath our feet. But ignoring those dim shadows, which are reprehensible stains on Scotland’s conscience, is not the least bit beneficial to the country’s success. So we must take now a spotlight, and cast it onto the foremost spectre among them: the spectre of homelessness.

According to figures aggregated by Shelter Scotland, there were just over 34,000 homeless applications made to local authorities in 2015-16. That is 34,000 men, women, and children who, in an egregiously wealthy country, have nowhere to call home. 34,000 people whose right to housing, as enshrined in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has been abrogated by forces outwith their control. Of these, a significant number have nowhere else to go but the streets, with some 1976 sleeping rough in Edinburgh alone, according to a report covered by The Edinburgh Evening News.

Commissioned by the City Council, this report further highlights the inadequacy of current preventative action that had hitherto been lauded as a silver bullet. Damningly, the report also declares that 50 per cent of rough sleepers who approached the council to register as homeless (and thereby be eligible for housing) had their applications turned down.

Meanwhile, Scottish Government figures show that there are, coincidentally enough, 34,000 privately-owned properties which have been vacant for six months or longer. What this means is that we are in the absurd position of having people without homes at the same time as homes left to gather dust. In an attempt to rectify this, the government, working alongside charity Shelter, funds a special Empty Homes Partnership to track down owners of long-term vacant properties and offer incentives to bring them onto the market.

While this may go some way to ease the pressure on current housing stock, as a response from the centre to the very real crisis which thousands of people are facing, it is nothing short of pathetic. Even once returned to the market, the extortionate rent demanded places these properties well out of reach of those who would most profit by them.

The SNP once claimed to look to Scandinavia for all its ideas of civilisation; if it were serious about tackling homelessness, it would look at the success Finland has had with its so-called co-operative model. Pared down to its essentials, this is the radical idea that to solve homelessness it is necessary to give people a stable home.

Naturally, giving everyone a home costs money, and both Holyrood and the city Council are facing budget cuts. But the fact that Essential Edinburgh can spend £193,000 a year on removing chewing gum and vomit from the pavements of shopping districts shows that, were people valued as highly as business, as highly as profit, there would be no rough sleepers on our cities’ streets.

Image credit: Curtis Cronn

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