MINISTERS have refused to intervene over an outstanding debt incurred by the homeless for temporary accommodation in Scotland estimated at more than £33m.

Questions have been raised over the "scandalous" chasing of temporary homeless accommodation debt in Scotland, and whether local authorities are acting unlawfully over their handling of the affair.

Housing action bodies are concerned that local authorities are relying on debt collection agencies and the courts for what is owed.

The Scottish Tenants Organisation (STO) has called on the Scottish Government to step in and pay off the debt owed by the homeless saying that is "scandalous" that the poorest in society are being chased in 21st century Scotland.

Shelter Scotland has said in response to the call that changes in the financing of temporary accommodation is "overdue" saying that the current system can lead to inflated temporary accommodation charges which can act as a barrier to working households and those not eligible for housing benefit.

It says homelessness services should be "fully funded" and has called for the Scottish Government to conduct an audit of existing funding at both local and national levels so that potential funding gaps can be identified and money targeted in the right places, including on temporary accommodation.

"Action is needed to ensure people aren’t locked into a temporary accommodation system that makes them poorer or leaves people’s lives on hold by preventing them from finding work. The cost of temporary accommodation to individuals must be addressed to ensure that people’s housing and homelessness rights can be realised," they said.

But the Herald on Sunday has learned ministers have said it "has no plans to pay for homeless temporary accommodation nor waive the outstanding debt owed by homeless households to local authorities for temporary accommodation".

Instead, the Scottish Government said its "preferred approach" is to cut the use of temporary accommodation and has commissioned an expert group to work with them to "find solutions".

The STO said that the ministers response was "completely unacceptable", describing it as a "Scrooge-like statement that cruelly and callously washes their hands of the the poorest and most vulnerable people in our nation".

It comes as the number of children in temporary accommodation for the homeless in Scotland increased by 17% in the last year.

The Herald:

Protestors protested in October that there will be “body bags” on the streets if the soup kitchen they run can’t be provided with a suitable warm building to move the kitchen indoors this winter

The figures from the National Records of Scotland reveal that there were 8,635 under 18s in temporary homes in March 2022, up from 7,385 in March 2021 and 7,280 at 31 March 2020.

Alarmingly, households with children spend longer in temporary accommodation than those without, the analysis reveals.

Some 47% of households with children spent seven months or more in temporary accommodation compared to 38% of households without children.

Of the 46,964 people in the 28,882 homeless households recorded in 2021/22, 14,372 were children.

The number of adults increased by 6%, while the number of children increased by 17% compared to 2020/21.

A survey of housing and homelessness workers and volunteers across 16 local authorities conducted by Homeless Action Scotland at the end of last year found nearly half had experienced the practice of referring debts incurred by high rents in temporary accommodation for the homeless to debt enforcements firms which was "causing huge distress".

One worker said: "I supported one young person who was being pursued for rent arrears of several hundred pounds and with the support of Shelter some of the amount was written and some covered by discretionary housing benefit. This caused major stress and anxiety to the young person and medication had to be prescribed for several months along with counselling sessions."

Homeless Action Scotland were aware of cases where a working homeless family is asked to pay £300 per week for a flat for which their next-door neighbour, who is not homeless, is charged £70 per week.

"We cannot accept that people are being pursued by debt agencies and threated with legal action, because a local authority was charging them £300 per week for a flat that should have been £70," they said.

Nearly three out of four said they had experienced or worked with someone who was in paid employment and was advised that they would not he able to afford rent for homeless accommodation.

Nearly half of those said they or the person they were working with was then still able to access homeless acccommodation.

Experts believe that the practice by local authorities of failing to consider individual circumstances to ensure that any charges are affordable may be unlawful.

The study found that the prospect of incurring debt had put people off from accessing the homeless accommodation to which they were legally entitled. It also has prevented people they have supported from even presenting as homeless.

One volunteer said: "We have definitely had cases of clients living in their cars or vans, because it was too expensive to go homeless. I remember one was a window cleaner, another a care assistant."

According to a Legal Services Agency (LSA) examination practice of local authority practice, charging for temporary homeless accommodation varies across Scotland, resulting in a "postcode lottery" for individuals. The typical amount owed to the 30 local authorities who provided data was £1,286,067.

Reported outstanding debt last year ranged from £0 in East Lothian to £12.7m in Edinburgh.

Most local authorities do not currently take individual circumstances into account but do consider affordability when setting their charges, the LSA said.

The Herald:

The practical implications of the current system are that charges are unaffordable, leaving many people with high levels of personal debt, leading to considerable hardship for individuals who find themselves in this situation, as well as contributing to mental health issues, the LSA said.

Sean Clerkin, campaign co-ordinator for the STO said: "The dam has burst and all the talk about preventing homelessness is a red herring when we have thousands of families being chased through the courts by local authorities for the sky high charges for temporary accommodation.

"We have working homeless coming through this unworkable system who due to the high costs of temporary homeless accomodation are forced onto the streets, sofa surfing, and sleeping in cars or vans.

"The system is unworkable and broken now and our vulnerable people need help now and not through some working group that will just be looking at this issue in the future. Thousands of people need help immediately.

“The Scottish Government has no plans to pay for homeless temporary accommodation nor waive the outstanding debt owed by homeless households to local authorities for temporary accommodation.”

He told ministers: "Civil unrest is a real possibility in the days and months to come as you can only drive people so far."

The Scottish Government has also confirmed that provisions to prohibit local authorities from charging individuals for the provision of temporary homless accommodation have not been considered for inclusion in the Cost of Living (Tenant Protection) (Scotland) Bill 2022.

It said in response to the call for the debt to be wiped: "Temporary accommodation charges are a matter for individual councils and are based on local need.

"The Scottish Government encourages all local authorities to take a person-centred approach and to take individual circumstances into account when deciding how much to charge for temporary accommodation.

"The Scottish Government agrees that the cost of temporary accommodation – both to the household and local authorities – can be expensive.

The Herald:

"In line with Housing to 2040 commitments, we have established a short-life working group of stakeholders and experts from across the housing sector, including tenants and tenant groups, to develop a shared understanding of housing affordability to help us better understand the housing affordability problems experienced by particular groups. This group will consider the impact of charging practices on the use of temporary accommodation.

"On paying for temporary accommodation, the Scottish Government’s policy towards local authorities’ spending is to allow local authorities the financial freedom to operate independently.

"As such, the vast majority of homelessness funding provided to local authorities in the annual local government finance settlements has been included in the block grant.

"Following savings of £560 million announced on 7 September, the Deputy First Minister announced additional savings of £615 million as part of the Emergency Budget Review to support the urgent priorities of enhancing public sector pay and cost of living support while maintaining a route to complying with Ministers’ responsibility to balance the budget. This financial context places unprecedented pressure on the Scottish Budget for 2023-24, reducing its ability to commit to significant new programmes of expenditure."

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