Housing tends to be seen as a human right, but here’s something to make you pause this winter: very few countries give homeless people any entitlement to emergency shelter. Scotland goes further and gives virtually every homeless person a legal right to settled accommodation via their local authority.
What difference do these legal rights make in practice, though, and are homeless people’s experiences in Scotland actually better than elsewhere? In particular, do rights really empower those who are homeless in the way their advocates claim? These are some of the questions I’ve been exploring in my research by trying to unpack exactly what empowerment means in relation to homeless people and by comparing two very different policy approaches in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland.
In both countries, homelessness has been a major priority over the past 15 years. The two governments have reformed policies and directed substantial resources at improving homeless people’s access to settled accommodation. Scotland focused on expanding the group legally entitled to settled housing (in comparison to England, which gives a much weaker entitlement to a more restricted group of homeless people such as pregnant women and people with children.
Ireland saw creating a legal entitlement to any form of accommodation as legalistic and adversarial. Instead it prioritised building strong partnerships between statutory and voluntary agencies, agreeing common goals, monitoring progress and improving service delivery.
What we mean by empowerment
Before looking at the results of these approaches, it is worth considering what empowering homeless people is about. Traditionally, a person’s power has been understood as their capacity to make decisions in their own interests, particularly when these conflict with those of others.
A homeless person and their service provider don’t necessarily have the same interests. The service provider might be more interested in abiding by the rules; minimising stress and workload; or prioritising individuals they deem particularly deserving. Viewed in this way, you empower homeless people by reducing the service provider’s capacity to decide whether to meet their housing needs.
Some argue that people are not always conscious of their own interests, however. Their subjective preferences and “real interests” can diverge because their attitudes have been influenced by society and those in power. Depending on what someone has been encouraged to think or what those around them believe, for example, they might feel they deserve less than is reasonable.
On this “radical” view, which admittedly has controversial paternalistic repercussions, empowering homeless people involves bringing these subjective and real interests into line. This suggests it might sometimes be insufficient to purely expand the voice and choice of service users.
Scotland’s blunt framework of legal rights appears to empower those experiencing homelessness in both the “traditional” and “radical” senses. Local authority staff in Edinburgh and elsewhere have a clear and legally enforceable obligation to respond to those experiencing homelessness in a specific way. They have to secure settled accommodation for them, and temporary accommodation in the meantime. Any other objectives or priorities they might wish to pursue are crowded out.
In Dublin, a much wider set of considerations can play a role in service providers’ decisions. They are able to balance the formal policy aim of helping the homeless person access accommodation against whether they are deemed “ready” or deserve it yet, whether the area in which they would be rehoused already has too many ex-homeless people, and how local residents would react.
Dublin service providers therefore have much more discretion than their Edinburgh counterparts. The consequence is that those experiencing homelessness are in a far weaker position in pursuing their need for settled accommodation.
I also saw signs of a more subtle difference in the experiences of homeless men in Edinburgh and Dublin when I interviewed some of them. Homeless men in Edinburgh tended to feel a sense of entitlement to accommodation, to feel, as one hostel resident commented, that “everyone has a right to be housed.”
They felt impatient at being “stuck” in temporary accommodation: hostel residents were “champing at the bit, ready to go.” And not only did residents internalise their legal entitlements in this way, professionals working in the sector generally saw their assertiveness as a legitimate and positive force that was driving service standards higher.
In Dublin, the homeless men had starkly different outlooks. Far from seeing themselves as entitled rights-holders, they were grateful for receiving any assistance at all. They were often positive about temporary accommodation that was of an observably lower standard than in Edinburgh. This tended to be accompanied by a strong sense of culpability for being homeless and moving on from homelessness. After a long stay in one hostel, one Dublin man explained that he felt he’d “not been pushing it as hard as [he] should have.”
This sense of responsibility translated into substantial scepticism that people should have a legal right to housing, that instead “you should work towards it”. One hostel resident in Dublin described being in temporary accommodation as “sort of a trial … to see who’s worthy … who’s pulling their socks up and putting the effort in”. Far from prompting these men to fight to move on, these dynamics appeared to weigh them down, encouraging them to accept their lot.
In conclusion, clear and blunt legal rights to housing appear to empower homeless people. They minimise provider discretion and appear to make service users more assertive. Some might see such a sense of entitlement among those dependent on state support in wholly negative terms of course. But here’s a closing thought for those who think welfare is overstretched: by encouraging homeless people to aspire to settled housing and providing the means for them to access it, Scotland’s legal rights appear to make them more self-reliant than the highly discretionary Irish model.
A version of this article also appears here.