Changing the conversation

30 October 2020
food sorting

Ewan Aitken, CEO, writes on the need to change the conversation around poverty.

This week Cyrenians launched our new website.

Although our old one is only 5 years old, it was already “out of date” in what it could offer and the way those who visited it could interact with it: our new presence will make it so much easier for people to find support and to support our work tackling homelessness.

Such speedily obsolescence is a sign of the rapidity of the digital world, and one of the many challenges for those who find themselves on the edge of life. Covid has exposed the true extent of the “digital divide” – how so much of the opportunities of the world are now digital and how many folk are now excluded because of this.

Like many other charities, we have been taking part in the Scottish Government’s Connecting Scotland Initiative. We’ve given out around 50 or so devices to folk whose isolation due to Covid would otherwise have seen them largely cut off from family, friends and other support. This has been people of all ages and in a wide variety of circumstances. It’s provided a means for people in crisis to be able to reach out for help, but it’s also potentially prevented many other crises from happening in the first place: by providing those families in conflict with access to mediation, young people a means to connect with their support staff, and older people a way to connect with each other - and so very much more.

Covid’s exposure of the digital divide is closely connected with its uncovering of the levels of poverty across our nation. This was extremely well articulated by the recently published Edinburgh Poverty Commission “A Just Capital” which called for the right support in the places people work and live, fair work that provides dignity and security, a decent home people can afford to live in, income security that provides a real safety net, opportunities that drive justice and boost prospects, and connections in a city that belongs to its citizens and equality in health and wellbeing. I was glad to see the City Council to do all it could to make these eminently achievable ambitions a reality, and Cyrenians will do all we can to support this work.

Unfortunately, sometimes the biggest battle to changing the system is shifting the conversation and what is said, often by those in power. The ongoing debacle at Westminster over the provision of free school meals, with one MP arguing the money will be used for crack and prostitution whilst others implying poverty is peoples’ own fault, shows how hard it can be.

As well as highlighting the existing inequalities in society, Covid has shone a light on how interdependent we all are. Those facing poverty continue to do so because the barriers out of their situation are too huge, at a huge cost to both individuals and families and to the wider community.

Our collective response to poverty in our communities should be evidence-led, and rooted in compassion and respect. Our response, as was the case with the footballer Marcus Rashford whose commitment to those in need inspired the school meals campaign, should be to treat others as we would want to be treated were we in the same situation.

Originally published in the Edinburgh Evening News