Maybe their family had grown or two families had amalgamated meaning a current property was too small. Maybe they'd had to take a private let, sacrificing their priority on the local authority list, but paying out more than they could afford in rent. Maybe a relationship had ended or they'd been put out by family. Maybe illness had meant that their current home was impossible for them. I remember returning once from holiday to the awful news that one person who'd been waiting for a long time to be rehoused had actually died.
The problem is, of course, that the supply of social housing has never recovered from Margaret Thatcher's "right to buy" policy. Forcing local authorities to sell houses at knock down prices and not letting them build any more has had horrendous consequences for people needing affordable housing today. There simply is not enough to go round.
In Scotland, the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition between 1999 and 2007 passed legislation aimed at ending homelessness by 2012. Figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament show that we are still some way from meeting that target.
It's horrifying to think that a minimum of 2000 families are living in temporary accommodation. This might, if they're lucky, be a flat, usually in the sort of area nobody would choose. However, they could be moved out of this to another part of their local authority area at any time. Imagine, for example, being made homeless in Dunfermline in the south west of Fife. You could be put in temporary accommodation in St Andrew's, a good hour away. How do you get your kids to school? How do you get to work if you do shifts at unsocial hours if you don't have a car? And you could be moved to another part of this pretty big kingdom at any time.
And that accommodation, like I said, might not be a flat. It might be bed and breakfast, in which case as a family you'd be expected to leave during the day. Where do you go? It might be a homeless hostel, where you have to share with strangers. Can you imagine how horrendously difficult it would be to live in those circumstances? Most people reading this will wake up in a warm house, with a washing machine to hand to clean their clothes and cooking facilities they can use when they feel like eating and space to rest and relax. There will doubtless be enough room for people to escape from each other when they've had a row. Imagine your whole life, your whole family in one room with possessions that you can carry. How would that affect a child?
Have a read of Shelter's article on what it's like to be homeless and you'll get an idea. The horror of the reality is being experienced now by far too many people and particularly children.
The Liberal Democrats' housing spokesman at Holyrood, Jim Hume, has today released the findings of his Freedom of Information requests to local authorities about the number of children and families in temporary housing. Glasgow, Aberdeenshire and South Lanarkshire aren't included, so this is a minimum figure. Basically we have 2073 families in temporary accommodation and this is at 1st October. 1271 had been there for more than 3 months and 779 for more than 6 months. By anyone's standards, that's just wrong.
Housing affects so much else, your health, your ability to work, your sense of security and it's vital that someone has the political will to sort it out. This is too important an issue for the SNP just to blame the coalition government for cuts or say that independence would sort everything out. They have £30 billion, the entire Scottish budget, to spend as they please. If they want to, they can build more houses with the powers they currently have rather than halve the budget and forget their pledge to build 6000 new houses every year. If they want to.
We need to have not just an intelligent debate, but actual action now to make sure that everyone in need has a roof over their head and a long term strategy in place to make sure it stays that way. It's not just about building new houses, it's about making better use of those we have. Ewan Hoyle has some ideas over at Lib Dem Voice about elderly people in larger houses sharing with younger people, maybe students, who help out with jobs around the place in a mutually convenient and non exploitative way.
It's not just homelessness we have to deal with, though, it's poor quality social housing with damp, condensation, leaky doors and windows and with appallingly bad energy efficiency so that they're difficult to keep warm. Something has to be done about them, too, and fast. There's no point in investing in education if kids haven't got somewhere warm to do their homework or they lie freezing in their beds at night.
I'll give the final word to Jim Hume:
“Thousands of families with children are facing a hard Christmas in temporary accommodation. We can only imagine how hard this is, especially for the 779 families that have been without a permanent home for over 6 months.
“January marks the beginning of the year in which Scotland’s homelessness commitment is due to be met. “The SNP Government must ensure that it’s fully committed to ending 2012 with every homeless person having access to a permanent home. “A good start will be looking again at its planned 50% cut to the affordable housing budget and Alex Neil needs to face up to his government’s U-turn on the 6000 new socially rented houses each year
“We also need to see a more innovative approach to tackling homelessness across Scotland. “We cannot afford to leave so many families out in the cold this Christmas.”