Last week Glasgow became home to a new sculpture, ‘Homeless Jesus’. Designed by Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz, it depicts Jesus as a homeless person, sleeping on a park bench. It was brought here thanks to a local fundraising campaign and it is hoped the sculpture will help raise awareness of homelessness and rough sleeping.
It sends a powerful message – that homelessness could affect any of us at any given time of our lives. What is equally significant about this particular piece of art is that there are now over 75 of these statues worldwide, from India to Australia and even in the Vatican, demonstrating that homelessness is not just a challenge for a few countries – it is a truly global issue which requires all of our attention.
In Scotland, we have a good record on tackling homelessness and rough sleeping. We have the strongest rights for homeless people in the world, and in recent years have seen a continuing fall in homelessness applications. In addition over the past 10 years we have built social housing at a faster rate than any of the other nations of the UK.
This is good progress – and we should pay tribute to all who have helped achieve it. But we should not rest in our laurels – instead, now is the right time to take stock of our achievements, refocus our efforts and refresh our agenda.
That is exactly why the Scottish Government has made it a national objective to end rough sleeping and backed that commitment with new investment of £50 million – money that will help address the causes of homelessness and bring about lasting change. This is on top of our pledge to deliver 50,000 affordable homes and invest an additional £20 million investment in alcohol and drug services which will help to address some of the complex causes of rough sleeping.
We have also established a Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group to lead change over the next five years and identify what actions and services we need to end rough sleeping and transform the use of temporary accommodation.
The group draws on expertise from across a range of frontline organisations and crucially, it is informed by people who have first-hand experience of homelessness.
Despite only meeting for the first time a matter of weeks ago, we are already implementing its first set of recommendations, which are designed to tackle rough sleeping this winter.
Backed by an initial investment of over £300,000, these early measures include increasing emergency accommodation, greater support for the use of the emergency Nightstop service and making personal budgets available to frontline workers to help them meet the immediate housing needs of the people they are working to help.
As the cold weather hits, these recommendations and the investment to implement them will provide urgent support and more safe and warm places to stay for those who find themselves at risk of sleeping rough this winter.
It is of course much better for society and for individuals if we can stop people from becoming homeless in the first place.
Yet we have a Tory Government at Westminster – supported by Scottish Tory MPs – intent on imposing austerity and welfare cuts that are causing major hardship and housing insecurity for millions of people. The Tories are intent on pushing through their damaging policies, despite the clear and urgent warnings from across the political and social spectrums.
By 2020, Tory welfare cuts will have resulted in an overall reduction in annual welfare spending of £4 billion in Scotland. The disastrous rollout of Universal Credit, the Bedroom Tax and the removal of housing support for people under 21 are all part of the Westminster attack on the social security safety net.
In stark contrast the SNP Scottish Government is working hard to protect core universal services, rights and benefits for everyone in Scotland, including university tuition, prescriptions, early-learning and childcare, and personal care for the elderly. We are also mitigating the impact of the bedroom tax and providing emergency support for the most vulnerable through the Scottish Welfare Fund. As we take on more welfare powers, we will continue to look for ways to lift people out of poverty
As a result, every single person in Scotland is benefitting in some way from a social contract – giving people more security in planning their household budgets. This package is a unique benefit to those living in Scotland and is not found anywhere else in the UK.
This Thursday the Scottish Government will publish our Draft Budget for next year. Given the cuts to our budget as a result of Westminster decisions, it will involve hard decisions and tough choices. But it will demonstrate how we are determined to use our powers and resources to deliver fair and progressive policies, and build a fair, inclusive and more prosperous Scotland for everyone.
This article originally appeared in the Evening Times.