THE right to shelter, to a safe, secure place to live, is one of the most fundamental of basic human rights. It can often be the difference between life and death. Yet, in Scotland and across the UK, among the wealthiest countries in the world, homelessness continues to affect the lives of thousands.

According to housing charity Shelter, more than 32,000 households in Scotland were assessed as being homeless or threatened with homelessness last year. More than 16,000 children were part of such households – an increase of 10% compared with the previous year.

Worst of all, these statistics only count those who have been assessed by the local authorities, masking the reality that many of those facing homelessness aren’t registered as such with councils. Homelessness can present itself in many different ways, whether through rough sleeping, living in temporary accommodation or sofa surfing.

Many of those who sofa-surf – meaning living with different people, often family and friends, who can put you up while you have nowhere to live – won’t register as homeless, meaning they won’t count towards many of the statistics.

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One group this is particularly true for is students. Two separate pieces of research conducted by the National Union of Students (NUS) in Scotland in 2021 and 2022 both found that 12% of students across Scotland have experienced homelessness at some point in their studies. This is a horrifying statistic.

How can we expect students from widening access backgrounds to get the grades they deserve at college or university when almost one in eight hasn’t had somewhere to live for part of their studies? How can the poverty-related attainment gap ever close in tertiary education when the poorest students are sofa surfing, using food banks and spending more time working part-time jobs to pay the rent than they are studying for their courses?

Suella Braverman, whose abject cruelty seemingly knows no bounds, last week announced she wanted to ban the use of tents by rough sleepers and described homelessness as a “lifestyle choice”.

It’s a rarity for me to agree with Keir Starmer but in his response, he told Braverman and Rishi Sunak that “homelessness is a choice – it’s a political choice”, and in a country where there are more empty homes than there are homeless households, it’s clear that he is right.

The National: PCC Donna Jones, Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak

But – perhaps with the sole exception of Jeremy Corbyn, who revealed that announcing the end of homelessness would have been his opening move if he became prime minister – no major politician in the UK in recent years has shown any real ambition to change that.

The Scottish Government is taking positive steps forward towards making housing more affordable and penalising the ownership of second homes, and we can be proud of the difference this will make in reducing homelessness.

But until the long-awaited Housing Bill is published, I will reserve judgment on whether this government truly has the ambition to end homelessness.

The headline policy in this upcoming bill is the introduction of long-term rent controls in the private rented sector, meaning rent levels are set and maintained by government rather than at the whim of landlords and their profit margins.

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This differs from the current rent cap, which restricts rent increases to 3% during a tenancy, but allows unlimited rent increases during any change in tenancy, including changes to joint tenancies.

This is a hugely positive change and comes thanks to some excellent campaigning by Living Rent, the country’s national tenants’ union, but the devil will be in the detail and I have some serious concerns – shared by Living Rent – regarding what might or might not be included in the final legislation.

Firstly, will rent controls bring the cost of rent down, or will it just fix it at already unaffordable levels? For far too long, landlords have been able to use the basic human right of housing to make a profit and line their pockets, and landlord greed has seen rents artificially increased to levels that so many simply cannot afford.

If rent controls don’t take action to undo this and bring rent down to affordable and reasonable levels, it’s difficult to see how much of an impact they’ll make to those who need them the most.

Secondly, will rent controls also cover purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA)?

As mentioned above, students are far more likely to experience homelessness than the general population, but the PBSA sector currently lacks even the minimal regulation and tenancy rights that currently exist in the private rented sector. Tenants in PBSA have no right to leave early, and poor conditions and disproportionate rents often go entirely unchecked.

The National: Students

These types of tenancies follow a substantially different legal model to the private rented sector, leading to fears they won’t be included in the Scottish Government’s system of rent controls.

If true, this would be a grave mistake which would have a hugely negative impact not just on students but also on the wider population.

Not only would some of those in society most vulnerable to homelessness remain subject to the wild west of unregulated, uncontrolled rent levels, it would also create a huge disparity between students living in PBSA and those in the private rented sector.

PBSA landlords would still be able to charge sky-high rent, knowing that students unable to find somewhere to live in the private sector will be forced to sign on the dotted line or else face homelessness.

And the disparity in cost will only drive up student demand for private rented sector homes, driving down the availability for the general population and exacerbating the housing crisis for everyone.

My third and final concern around the legislation is the timescales.

The bill isn’t likely to be published until the new year, and won’t be implemented for quite some time.

The emergency legislation enabling the current rent cap and eviction ban comes to an end this coming March. That means tenants are quickly approaching a cliff edge, where rents are almost guaranteed to skyrocket and evictions will be happening left, right and centre.

Without serious intervention (such as new emergency legislation), the Scottish Government could be about to have an even worse crisis on its hands, and one entirely of its own making.

The Scottish Government is undeniably constrained by the confines of devolution and, even in this case, international law.

But is it also constrained by a lack of ambition? Only time will tell but for the thousands of households in Scotland currently facing homelessness, every second of delay or hesitance is a second too long. The time to end homelessness is now.