Surviving temporary accommodation

8 March 2023
John photo

Ahead of his appearance on Scotland Tonight to discuss homelessness and temporary accommodation, Cyrenians Peer Support Worker John Conway discusses his lived experience in the homelessness system, and the ongoing crisis we're facing.

For decades, I lived out of black bags, between temporary accommodation and sleeping rough. Now I’m in my own home and working to support others through crisis – but from where I’m standing, the state of temporary accommodation hasn’t improved much since I was moving through it 25 years ago. 

Working in crisis support, I know I’m not alone in this frustration. Housing officers and support workers see the same people come back through the door day after day, desperate for help, and we have to turn them away, because there just isn’t anything we can offer. It’s crushing for everyone – it takes so much from people to reach out for help, and to be unable to offer a permanent solution is a massive blow. The reality is that there just isn’t enough affordable housing in Edinburgh for us to be able to get people into homes they’ll be able to afford to keep. 

Right now in Edinburgh alone, there’s over 3,371 households living in temporary accommodation – that's more than twice as many as there were before the pandemic in 2019. That doesn’t even include the thousands more living in “hidden homelessness” - staying with friends, renting hotels, or trying to survive in homes that are no longer safe – the real extent of which we’ll never know. 

There’s this idea that ‘solving homelessness’ just means putting a roof over people’s heads for the night. But I know from experience that temporary accommodation isn’t a permanent solution – in fact, when I was homeless, I often chose to sleep rough rather than face temporary accommodation. 

For me, temporary accommodation – hostels, B&Bs and the like – were grinding.

You’re already not doing well in yourself, and then you’re put in a room on your own and left to fester. You can’t speak to anyone – often, you’d get kicked out if you went over the hall to knock on someone’s door. It feels like being forgotten about – in the 15 or 20 years I was in and out of temporary accommodation, I don’t think anyone ever came by to see if I was ok. Add to that all the restrictions it comes with, like no common spaces, or getting locked in (or out) by was dehumanising. At least on the street I could go where I wanted, see other people, and not be treated like a child. 

It’s such a missed opportunity – you get people off the street, then just forget about them? It isn’t right, and there are thousands of people right now sitting in limbo waiting for things to change, not knowing how long they’ll be able to stay where they are, not knowing when or if they’ll have somewhere permanent to go, and no support with the issues that pushed them into homelessness to begin with. 

At Cyrenians we’ve said for years that the problem goes deeper than homelessness. Homelessness is what happens when all sorts of other problems go unsupported – addiction, poverty, trauma, loneliness, and so on. But the truth is, it’s hard to handle any of those issues without the safety, warmth and stability of a home. 

We’ve had a homelessness crisis in Edinburgh for a long time now. Thousands on thousands of people are suffering, and a lot of the time, it seems like the people in power don’t want to know. During Covid, the council and the government treated homelessness like the crisis it is – the lockdown hit and within a fortnight all but 7 people who had been sleeping rough in the city had long-term shelter. People who had been waiting years for support suddenly found things moving forward – I benefitted from that too; the pandemic was the push that it took to get me moved into a permanent home.  

But now the Covid crisis response is over, we’re “back to normal”. And normal isn’t good enough.

It’s the same as it was, if not worse, for people in homelessness. People are dying daily. It’s not a game – behind every single one of these numbers is a real, human person getting knocked back again and again, someone who just needs to be heard and supported and treated like a person. 

Home makes all the difference, and I know that from experience. I’ve been in my flat now for two and a half years, and it’s my actual home. I’ve got a space that’s really mine. All the things you don’t get in temporary accommodation, I have here – I’ve got my own kitchen, I can have friends round for a cuppa, I can spread out, and I get to live on my own terms finally.  

I hadn’t had peace for a long, long time, but now after a long day I can come home and relax – I'm not keeping my bags packed in case I have to move on early, and I can sleep through the night without being woken up by someone pounding on my door trying to get in.  

Everything I do stems from this place, from the warmth and stability it gives me – I won’t ever take it for granted, because I know what it means to not have that. 

For my kids, too, it’s made a world of difference – like the 2.5 thousand other kids in Edinburgh’s temporary accommodation, they spent years being shuffled between schools and from one place to another, and now they have a stable home, they’ve got the space to put down roots. 

It hasn’t always been easy. When you get a home, that’s when a lot of the real work starts – learning the skills to look after yourself and to start healing. I’ve been lucky enough to have an amazing support system – not everyone’s that lucky. But I’m living proof that things can change, if we can just make sure people get the support they need on their own terms.  

I was a ghost for twenty years – sofa surfing or sleeping rough, no support and no stability. I hated people, and a lot of the time when I did ask for help, I faced rejection again and again. It’s been a hard road, but change really is possible. Now I’m working alongside the same professionals who were supporting me a few years ago. I have hope in my life, and I didn’t for over 30 years, and with Cyrenians I’m doing what I can to help others get the same. 

If we want to end the homelessness crisis, we have to offer more than temporary solutions. We need to invest in getting people permanently housed and make sure we’re offering real, lasting support. Homelessness isn’t a numbers game – it's thousands of people, like me, who need the space, safety and community to heal and open up.

And with thousands of people in this city living without stable homes, you can’t just ignore a crisis of this scale – it's right in front of our faces, and it's time we gave it the attention and resources it deserves.