I went out last night with my colleague Nick Harrold, one of our Homeless Navigators. Nick is part of our Outreach team, working in Edinburgh city centre. Their job is to get to know rough sleepers and through the relationships they create, see if there is a way they can support those individuals out of their tough reality.
In the two hours we were out we spent time with several folk for whom bed that night would be the street, a tent in a graveyard or a hostel – though only if there was space available.
Each story I heard was different yet all carried at their heart the pain of human fragility and struggle shaped by experiences which had broken bodies and ground down souls. Often the system which is supposed to help did the worst of the grinding.
Take Jean and Tommy; grappling with addiction they had once had a house but not in Edinburgh. A move from temporary to permanent accommodation should have been the first step to a new life but because it involved a move to Universal Credit about which they were given very little guidance or support, rent arrears accrued. And the system said eviction; not how did you get into this situation and what can we do to help? They came to Edinburgh to seek support from family which was not available. So they presented here, in Scotland’s capital city. Because their eviction happened in a place outside Edinburgh, in other words, across a line drawn on a map, they have no local connection and may have to wait up to 6 months until Scotland’s capital city will help them. Six months sleeping rough; another example of system gatekeeping not giving help. Home now is a tent in a graveyard. All we could give them was the two donated jackets we’d brought out as the rain began to fall. Nick promised to see them again tomorrow with food, clothes and sanitary products.
We met Bobby outside a supermarket. He had a place in a B&B but, he said, the staff there looked down on him, were patronising and rude. It was clear staying there was more damaging to his soul than sleeping in a doorway. That’s what a resource Edinburgh spends £28m in the last three years on does to someone it’s supposed to help. Destroys their soul.
Tam was outside a takeaway. On crutches because he’s had a major operation, he was homeless because of a family breakup. He wanted counselling because he knew he needed to make sure he was ready to go back home but right then his focus was raising another £4 to get a place in a hostel; a place we discovered in conversation he could have for free but no-one had told him; despite him engaging with both Council and third sector services. One phone call from Nick was able to get that sorted; hopefully stopping another person falling though a creaking system for now at least.
Willie, whose been bouncing around the streets and hostels for 9 years, asked for food which we gave him. He told us he was on methadone but wanted to come off it. The problem was his partner wasn’t keen and it was her house he was in; so his choice seemed to be between coming off the drugs but losing his relationship and home, or stay on drugs to ensure he had a place to stay and a partner. An impossible choice given his fragility. Nick offered to meet him to talk more and he agreed.
Mike was drinking from a can of cheap lager; “it’s the only way I will sleep” he said. We didn’t spend long with him though Nick did find out where he was kipping and promised to return for a further conversation.
Alex was lying in his own sick outside a pub. We thought he was begging at first. We worked out he had a place in a hostel nearby but was so ill, not drunk, but ill, and combined with his disability he couldn’t get there, so we got him there. The staff took him in with kind words and compassion. It was moving to see their willingness not to judge, simply welcome.
Our final stop was with a man who has slept rough for many years. He knows Nick well. His story is long and complex and his journey to somewhere more permanent will be similarly so. But it should be his journey and no-one else’s. Success should be in his hands. Nicks task is simply to be there for him and he clearly is by the way he was greeted as a friend not a worker.
Everyone’s story was different yet each looked as if they were doing the same thing; begging. Everyone has different ambitions and needed different kinds of support yet they all looked as if they were doing the same thing; rough sleeping
Shelter Scotland and the City of Edinburgh Council have just published a new report on begging in Edinburgh. It identifies mental health as one of the biggest issues facing rough sleepers. What I saw for some; the very services which are supposed to help can either trigger or exacerbate poor mental health.
To quote from the press release;
“At the heart of the research is information gathered in interviews with more than 50 people who were begging in Edinburgh. It sheds light into the reasons behind their begging, what their lives are like and the struggle to move on from begging. The report confirmed what has long been known; that not all rough sleepers beg and not all those begging are sleeping rough. However, the report’s authors stress that this should never be interpreted as people having access to a safe, warm or even furnished home.
Economic reasons lay behind the begging. People used the money for food, heating, accommodation and while some said they needed to beg to feed addiction they also reported resorting to begging for children’s clothing and Christmas presents. The findings did not support the idea that those begging were bringing in high incomes to support a high standard of living, and found most were barely sustaining themselves.”
Robert Burns wrote a poem An Address to Edinburgh. Last night its final line challenged me again
“I shelter in thy honor’d shade”
We have a long way to go to make sure all those who find themselves in Edinburgh, especially those grappling with tough realities, feel they too shelter in its honor’d shade. The amazing work of Nick and his colleagues, does at least, mean the journey to that place is perhaps not as long or as lonely as it might otherwise be.