The Scottish Government has slashed the housing budget as homelessness reaches crisis point. The head of Scotland’s leading housing and homelessness charity vents her fury in a no-holds barred interview with our Writer at Large

ALISON Watson is angry. Her upset is understandable. She is, after all, the director of Shelter Scotland, the nation’s leading housing and homelessness charity.

As she sits down to talk to The Herald on Sunday about the housing crisis gripping Scotland, the SNP-Green government is putting its latest Budget through Parliament.

It slashed social housing funds, an act which will only make a dire situation worse, Watson says. Simultaneously, as cuts came, the government released its latest homelessness figures, statistics which shame Scotland, she believes.

“It’s getting evermore desperate,” Watson says. “We deliberately describe what’s happening as a housing emergency. That’s not empty words. What we’re seeing is exceptional.”


Alison Watson, director of Shelter Scotland pictured in Glasgow. Photograph by Colin Mearns 29 February 2024 For Herald on Sunday Big Read, interve by Neil Mackay

Alison Watson, director of Shelter Scotland pictured in Glasgow. Photograph by Colin Mearns 


On Tuesday, the government cut nearly £200 million from affordable housing – that’s 26%. Watson now describes Humza Yousaf’s claims that his government cares about housing and homelessness as “gaslighting”.

Cutting affordable, social housing simply creates more homelessness, Watson says.

Here are the latest statistics: nearly 10,000 children are in temporary accommodation – up 3% on last year. Temporary accommodation means families in B&Bs, or sleeping on friends’ floors. It’s a euphemism for any homelessness that’s not street homelessness. There are 15,625 households in temporary accommodation – the highest on record and a 4% increase.

There were 2,335 unsuitable accommodation order (UAOs) breaches – that’s a 19% increase.

UAOs are issued when councils fail to take homeless people, including families, out of B&Bs within seven days. There were 1,575 cases of councils failing to offer households even temporary accommodation – an astonishing 1,400% increase in six months.

Watson says the figures are “as shocking as they’re staggering. Councils now breach legal obligations on an industrial scale, as they increasingly struggle to find any accommodation for people they have statutory duties to house”.

There are 30,724 “open homeless cases” – up 4% in just six months. “Open homeless” means anyone deemed homeless but not in permanent accommodation. No figures exist for street deaths, but latest National Records of Scotland statistics show 244 homeless people dying in 2022.

When it comes to social housing – key to reducing homelessness – numbers of new homes completed in the year to September 2023 fell 2%; numbers of new social homes approved fell 18%; and numbers of new homes started fell 29%.

Around 132,000 households are waiting for social housing, Watson says.


“The government says it’s doing great things, but these are the facts and figures. That’s why I call it gaslighting,” Watson says, adding: “The First Minister has no credibility when it comes to child poverty given his Budget condemns 10,000 children to lives trapped in the homelessness system.

“His Budget cuts to social housing and local services wipe out any progress that policies such as the increase in the Scottish Child Payment can provide. This Budget has torn up the social contract the Scottish Government has with children whose only mistake was to expect Scottish public services to help them find a home.

“When it comes to housing and homelessness, this will be remembered as a lost Parliament, one which singularly failed to rise to the challenge of the housing emergency.

“It’s never been as serious or challenging as it now is.”

Lack of social housing means people increasingly turn to the private sector, where they often can’t afford rents. That leads to rising homelessness through debt.

“Rent controls will soon end and rents will soar,” Watson says. “Homelessness is already at an all-time high. People are stuck for longer and longer in temporary accommodation. If you’re a couple with children, you’re in temporary accommodation now for almost two years. We’re in danger of creating a lost generation of kids.”

Councils, Watson explains, are legally obliged to house homeless people. That’s part of “the progressive nature of Scotland’s housing rights”. However, those rights mean nothing for many people due to “shortages in social housing”.

As a result, many families now go into temporary accommodation. Often that means parents and children living in single hotel rooms.

“There are cheap hotels all over Scotland whose main business is accommodating homeless people. There are parents in one room with no cooking facilities. Scotland’s councils cannot provide even decent temporary accommodation let alone permanently house families.”

One family was told to use the hotel shower for drinking water. “It’s a disgrace,” Watson says.

Right to Buy legalisation laid the foundation for the crisis. “In Scotland, half a million homes were lost,” Watson points out.


GLASGOW, UNITED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 30: (Editor’s note – since these images were taken the street pictured has been demolished) Two young boys climb on a fence in a street in the Govan neighborhood on September 30, 2008 in Glasgow, Scotland.

 Two young boys climb on a fence in a street in Govan in a street which has since been demolished



THE Scottish Government has promised to build 77,000 social homes by 2032. “Addressing the housing emergency would be challenging even if those affordable housing targets were being met – which they’re not. Then factor in 26% budget cuts.”

The housing budget was slashed two years running, Watson says, meaning cumulative cuts of 37%. “Housing has faced exceptional cuts. Policy commitments to address housing and homelessness aren’t being translated into action.”

The Scottish Government’s affordable housebuilding programme “looks like a pipe dream. It cannot happen with 26% cuts. Again, that’s why I say it’s ‘gaslighting’. The First Minister says ‘we’re making good progress’ but there’s nearly 10,000 children in temporary accommodation”, says Watson, adding: “Every day another 45 children join them. Every 16 minutes another household becomes homeless. After this week’s Budget those statistics will get much worse.

“The government cannot throw up its hands and say we’re having to make 26% cuts to housing because of 4% cuts in our capital budget from Westminster – 4% cuts don’t mean they must cut housing so badly. It’s bad choices, wrong priorities.

“The impact of not enough social homes means record levels of homelessness – record levels of people in tents on the streets. Ministers are choosing to let that situation get worse.

“Inevitably, the housing emergency will become entrenched. They’re failing to recognise both the urgency and desperate nature of what’s happening. Scotland deserves better.

“The Scottish Government described the current Budget as ‘values led’, but those values allow homelessness to get worse.

“I’m really angry. It’s my 22nd year at Shelter. I passionately believe that a home is the fundamental foundation of health and happiness. Nobody thrives without safety and security. We’re in 2024 – how can things be getting worse? There are glaring gaps between rhetoric and reality. It’s flabbergasting.”

Watson says it’s not only Shelter “speaking out in such exceptional terms”.

Last year, she says, Scotland’s housing regulator “said there was a risk of systemic failure in Scotland’s homelessness services. Dial forward to December, the regulator said the risk is being realised”.


EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - FEBRUARY 28: First Minister Humza Yousaf holds a press conference at Drum Brae Library Hub on February 28, 2024 in Edinburgh, Scotland. The press conference addresses the Scottish Governments latest poverty modeling data. (Photo

First Minister Humza Yousaf came in for sharp criticism from Shelter Scotland



ONE-THIRD of councils have “red-rated themselves, saying ‘we’re unable to fulfil our statutory duties, we’re on the verge of declaring housing emergencies’. There’s systemic failure in Edinburgh and Glasgow, where housing emergencies have already been declared. More councils will follow. This hasn’t happened before”.

Despite Shelter, councils and the housing regulator being “united”, Watson says “all we get are cuts. It’s staggering”.

Shelter discovered that “homeless people are being sent to England for temporary accommodation by Scottish councils. Scotland is exporting homelessness. We’ve heard of families sent to Newcastle, Birmingham, and Oxford.

“We’re in a wholly different place to ever before – an extraordinary situation that the Scottish Government is making much worse.”

Last Monday, Shelter handed the government a letter signed by 10,000 people calling on Yousaf to “declare a housing emergency and get a plan in place”. When Watson handed the letter in to St Andrew’s House – the government’s HQ – there was no politician to greet her. She was told to “go round the back” to present the letter. A homeless woman, in temporary accommodation with her children, accompanied Watson.

“For a letter signed by 10,000 voters, this wasn’t the best reflection on Scottish democracy. For nobody to be there to receive us and then be told ‘go round the back’ – that hasn’t happened before. Yet the First Minister says we’re making good progress. You can understand why there’s this sense of ‘what the hell else can we do?’. There are real concerns this becomes some dreadful new normal.

“Rough sleeping is just the tip of this terrible iceberg.”

Nicola Sturgeon, she explains, made ending homelessness one of her pledges for government. Night shelters were rebranded “welcome shelters”. Many “are now run in hotels”. Edinburgh’s welcome centre “turned away 20 people each night this winter. They just don’t have room. In Glasgow, numbers sleeping rough are increasing”.

When the Scottish Government launched its “Housing First” project, intended to get homeless people housed as a priority – it tried to copy similar schemes in Finland. The Scottish project failed to meet targets. Finland succeeded, Watson explains, as the government built affordable, social housing. “You can’t achieve anything without enough homes.”


Alison Watson, director of Shelter Scotland pictured in Glasgow. Photograph by Colin Mearns 29 February 2024 For Herald on Sunday Big Read, interve by Neil Mackay

Alison Watson, director of Shelter Scotland pictured in Glasgow. Photograph by Colin Mearns 



IRONICALLY, the pandemic gave rough sleepers hope. Funds were found for accommodation. “That investment from the Scottish Government has gradually been withdrawn. You see the devastating consequences in Glasgow and Edinburgh.”

Glasgow City Council received £14 million during the pandemic to “buy hotel places. When that funding was withdrawn, Glasgow started talking of its own housing emergency”.

Scotland has now “gone back to in excess of pre-pandemic homelessness levels. For four consecutive years pre-pandemic, homelessness went up. So the only respite was during the pandemic as the Scottish Government felt compelled to do something that they’re no longer doing”.

Watson says it’s “horrific” so many are now reduced to sleeping in doorways in Scottish cities. “Every statistic is a human tragedy. Every statistic a person,” she adds.

Many rough sleepers have experienced addiction and prison. But many were also in care, effectively abandoned by the state aged 18.

Some 6% presenting as homeless “spent the previous night in jail”, Watson explains. “Staggering numbers of people deliberately commit crimes to get back into prison as that’s their best housing option. How have we got here in the 21st century? It’s chilling.”

However, it’s a myth, she adds, “that homelessness happens to other people”. Working people, and families once considered financially secure, are now entering temporary accommodation and spending months in B&Bs. The cost of living crisis brought many to their knees.

“People now come to us saying, ‘I never thought I’d rely on Shelter’. They’re struggling with rent, can’t keep up with their mortgages, their bills are soaring, and they’re facing the terrible consequence of losing the roof over their head,” says Watson.

“We’re seeing both increases in the number of people with complex needs [like addiction] falling through the net – as the net has huge holes in it – ending up rough sleeping, and also seeing people without those problems rough sleeping.”

Family breakdown and poverty are the main causes of homelessness, not addiction. No child should live in temporary accommodation, says Watson. “Families should be placed in furnished flats at least.”


THE moratorium on evictions ends this month. Private landlords will start increasing rents, Watson says. That means more homelessness. “However, we’d challenge whether there was ever truly a moratorium. Evictions still happened. Certainly, councils tell us that more of the homeless people they’re seeing are evicted from private tenancies.”

The “double whammy” of interest rate rises and big mortgage deposits left many homeowners with zero funds to weather the cost of living crisis. “So people are losing their mortgages,” Watson says. “They’ve no savings to rely on.”

Again, social housing is the answer, she adds. The Scottish Government’s “own economic adviser recommends investment in social housing to stimulate and sustain Scotland’s economy. Building homes creates jobs”. Good homes, she says, mean less mental and physical health problems, and better educational outcomes. Children in hotels can’t study or do homework.

The Scottish Government can “borrow to build”, Watson explains. Last year, she chaired a government task-force which recommended building more social homes to tackle the rise of families in temporary accommodation. “Twelve months later, they’ve still done nothing,” she says.

To increase the number of social homes, councils have “bought back the stock sold under Right to Buy. Let’s pause to recognise the irony”.

Councils want more social housing “but they need support from government to do that. All we get from the Scottish Government is warm words. The government claims it put £60m aside for a national acquisition programme – but that’s just £60m taken from the affordable housing programme. It’s not new money”.

Government promises of 77,000 social homes by 2032 are “meaningless”, says Watson. “It’s so very far away. The Scottish Government has refused to set targets for what they’ll build this Parliament.

“Political promises only exist on paper, they aren’t delivering for people. It’s that gap between rhetoric and policy. They say ‘we’re going to do all this stuff’, but it doesn’t get delivered. Meanwhile, life gets worse.”

Scottish Government rhetoric around its commitment to social housing and ending homelessness means “there’s a risk people think we’ve got the best legislation on Earth, that there’s this massive move to build social housing, that the Scottish Government has got this. There are real concerns about how we create accountability for political promises that have been broken”.

Watson adds: “How can you claim you’re committed to building 77,000 affordable homes by 2032 if you haven’t got plans in place and you’re taking money from the programme? This is happening while parents in cheap hotels with their kids are told to drink from the shower.”

As lack of social housing forces more people into the private sector, “supply and demand means rents go up”. That creates homelessness as some can’t afford costs.

Landlords are leaving the market due to rising mortgage costs. That means fewer homes and therefore more risk of homelessness. The holiday-let boom through Airbnb constricts housing supply. “It wouldn’t be a problem, though, if there was enough social homes,” Watson explains.

In 2018, the Scottish Government’s Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group found “you could take 100% of Edinburgh’s social housing stock, allocate it to homeless households, and it still wouldn’t be enough. Scotland’s housing emergency is most acute in the capital. Our housing system is broken”.

When it comes to councils, Shelter “holds their feet to the fire” for failing to meet legal obligations on homelessness. However, Watson adds: “We’re increasingly seeing councils struggle because of the council tax freeze. They haven’t funding to cope with rising demand and decreasing resources.”

Councils choose to spend on temporary accommodation as they have statutory duties to house people, rather than build social housing, which isn’t statutory.



Scotland is suffering from a major housing emergancy



Housing benefit is “pernicious and punitive”, Watson adds, and “doesn’t keep up with rising rents. It often doesn’t cover full rent costs”. Average private rent for a two-bedroom property in Edinburgh is £1,400 monthly. “That’s higher than many mortgages.”

Watson described one “Kafkaesque situation” where a university student became homeless after breaking up with her boyfriend. The cost of staying in a hostel was £220 weekly. She couldn’t afford that on her wages, but if she quit her job, benefits covered the bill. So she lost her relationship, her house, and had to quit her job to get a roof over her head temporarily. Imagine that to scale. It means people simply cannot live life and contribute to society.

Watson recognises that due to the UK Government, “Scotland has a constrained fiscal environment in which to make very difficult decisions”.

“We absolutely get that. But whether the pie is big or small, politicians decide how to carve it up,” she says.

“They’ve made decisions that are worsening the situation.

“Years of austerity policies have played their role. This is about Westminster, Holyrood and councils.”

In terms of how the rest of Britain fares, Watson says Wales “didn’t make the same cuts to social housing as Scotland”, and “despite Stormont not sitting, Northern Ireland’s housing executive kept pushing forward on social housing”.

England, she says, “doesn’t have the same progressive housing rights as Scotland and homelessness is worse”, but she makes two points: “First, comparing ourselves to England gets us nowhere. We should want Scotland to be the best it can. Telling Scottish kids in cheap hotels they should be grateful as it’s worse in England does nothing.

“Secondly, statistics only tell part of the story given we now know Scotland exports homelessness to England. I’m not sure it’s helpful or accurate to say ‘we’re better than England’.

“What’s particularly galling is the Scottish Government cutting the housing budget and then blaming Westminster for decisions it made. Why is the Scottish Government singling out the housing budget for savage cuts when homelessness is at an all-time high? The level of political dissonance is worrying.

“You can’t end homelessness on the cheap, or without more social housing.”

Scottish Government plans to “end homelessness cannot be considered as anything but an abject failure, as homelessness continues to rise”.

Watson speculates the Scottish Government cut the housing budget as it’s locked into spending commitments on ferries and dualling the A9 – issues now politically toxic. Other spending decisions baffle her. “Why spend £15m on play parks when there’s 10,000 kids in temporary accommodation? Surely, homes are the priority?”

Watson knows some SNP supporters will attack her for her comments, but she’s undeterred. “If we don’t speak out, homelessness will only get worse, and the effects on people are profound in terms of mental health, physical health, children’s education, and employment. It harms our economy. It damages Scotland. It puts strain on the NHS, police, and taxation.”

People are dying on the streets, she says – though lack of statistics means it’s impossible to say how many. “How miserable is that for this society, that some poor soul ends their life that way? We’re just getting used to this, used to the abuse people sleeping rough suffer – like being pissed on by some thug.

“These are human beings like you and I. Nobody wants to live like this and nobody should live like this. The government can change all that, if it really wants.”