Burner phones and hotel rooms: Glasgow’s new approach to homelessness

Today’s Glasgow has come a long way from the city’s portrayal in popular culture. In 2021, the city will host the UN Climate Change Conference, it’s an international destination for business and tourists, and a world leader in the arts.

But one factor, homelessness, has been omnipresent. In the past 12 months, the city’s 12,000+ staff dedicated to community health and social care have responded to the significant impact of Covid-19 on their population. As part of this response, they have built on the existing homelessness strategy to put in place new approaches to homelessness, bringing together years of groundwork and confronting the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity for positive change.

Complex needs

Susanne Millar, Chief Officer for Glasgow’s health and social care partnership

“Glasgow has a long-standing history around homelessness,” says Susanne Millar, Chief Officer for Glasgow’s health and social care partnership. “We have the biggest percentage of people who present as homeless in Scotland. And a significant multiple and complex needs issue with that in terms of people whose homelessness is symptomatic of a range of other issues related to addiction, mental health, criminal justice and family breakdown.”

Glasgow has a long-standing history around homelessness
— Susanne Millar

Scotland currently has one of the most progressive legislative frameworks on homelessness globally, and Glasgow is a vanguard city for the Institute of Global Homelessness, which aims to eliminate rough sleeping.

With such high numbers of people presenting as homeless, however, the team that Millar leads has long realised the need to deal with complex needs via a multi-agency approach – a first step to this is encapsulated in the city’s rapid rehousing transition plan, an approach which aims to tackle the pace with which people were coming through the homelessness system.

Another aspect has been maintaining a positive relationship with the 68 Registered Social Landlords (RSLs, also known as housing associations), given that the city’s stock of social housing was fully transferred away from municipal ownership in 2003.

Bailie Annette Christie, Councillor for Glasgow City Council

“We have to work very closely with the Registered Social Landlords,” says Bailie Annette Christie, Councillor for Glasgow City Council. “Housing and homelessness obviously have to work together. A certain percentage of housing must go to homeless individuals, and these landlords work very closely with our team, and the council in general. Some of the challenges with that is obviously the housing supply. Housing First is fine, so long as you’ve got a home to put people in. Over the last three years we invested about £269 million on working with the RSLs on new builds, including on retrofitting of the old tenements.”

“Around 60% of those presenting as homeless in Glasgow will require financial and money advice, which might be linked to a single issue around family breakdown or losing a job, that kind of thing, but they don’t have any other issues,” adds Millar. “And then from the other 40% – around 2,400 cases in a year – you have a range of other issues, relating to addiction, mental health, etc. A subset of these cases will have maybe 4 issues and a chaotic history/background that has complicated their progression into housing. For example, there are around 500 people in Glasgow city centre who are regularly involved in public drug injection.”

“So, our rapid rehousing transition plan, our five-year strategy developed before Covid, aims to streamline all that, to get that 60% almost immediately into housing, and adopt a more multi-disciplinary approach with that 40%.

We now have a rough sleeping population, which, at any one time, is less than five people per night in the city centre
— Susanne Millar

“One of our biggest successes at this stage is that we now have a rough sleeping population, which, at any one time, is less than five people per night in the city centre. That’s a real measure of success for us, and it’s one that we’re keen to build on,” says Millar.

Great change and responsibility

“In the last year we were able to accelerate all of those building blocks we had in place – and we were able to implement a lot of new things very quickly – which has been really interesting from the public service point of view,” says Millar.

Indeed, in the first weeks following the lockdowns of March 2019, the city quickly established a new working relationship with the now vacant hotels, which were keen to pick up new business by providing temporary accommodation for the city’s homeless population.

“We also realised pretty quickly that this couldn’t just be about accommodation,” says Millar, “so we worked with street teams to actively reach out to homeless people by remobilising our physical health and mental health teams – which were previously building based – as outreach teams working in the hotels.”

At the height of this operation, the city had about 640 people in city centre hotels. Meanwhile, as the only asylum dispersal city in Scotland, there were nearly 400 asylum seekers in other city centre hotels.

“We realised pretty quickly that this was a unique opportunity to create change,” says Millar. “It has actually meant that during Covid, many of our staff have found their job much more enjoyable. Almost to a person, our staff have preferred this way of working. We’ve always had outreach teams in Glasgow, but this year we’ve been able to make it much more dynamic.”

“There’s a real civic element to it as well,” adds Millar. “I’m Glaswegian myself, and there’s a real sense of responsibility towards the city. It goes beyond being a social worker, it’s about what we contribute to Glasgow.”

“Everyone in Glasgow has responsibility for every other citizen,” adds Bailie Christie. “We have a city charter, which we’ll hopefully relaunch at the end of this year. If you see someone in trouble on the streets, we all have a duty to respond in some way.”

Everyone in Glasgow has responsibility for every other citizen
— Bailie Christie

“It’s also how we cooperate at city level – the Roof project is a good example, as well as Eurocities Inclusive Cities For All initiative.”

New horizons

“If you’re trying to treat someone’s wound from injecting issues, you need to be seeing them on a regular basis,” explains Millar.

To keep in touch with the new, hotel-based population, the city did something unique: purchasing burner phones.

If you’re trying to treat someone’s wound from injecting issues, you need to be seeing them on a regular basis
— Susanne Millar

“Suddenly, we were able to keep in touch with people who we previously struggled to engage with, and who hadn’t been coming in to use our services,” says Millar.

Over the past year the city outreach staff have used these phones for telephone consultations, to text clients to let them know when they are coming in to see them, and to make appointments.

There were other benefits too, according to Millar, “because these are people who have got all sorts of labels attached to them, they’re people who wouldn’t always have been trusted with that kind of thing before, so there was something about actually giving them an item unconditionally that established trust. The feedback from clients is that it was really appreciated.”

“We’re really keen to build on our experience of outreach, and our experience from this year,” concludes Millar.

Alex Godson Eurocities Writer