Helping the homeless in Glasgow

Clare Saltiel

Returning to my flat after being at home for Christmas is always difficult; after home cooking and seemingly unlimited central heating, the prospect of dealing with my dodgy boiler seems particularly unpleasant. We may be poor students, roughing out Glasgow’s winter months (pretty much October to March) in flats with single glazing, with a fear of putting the heating on for more than two hours a day, but we have to remember there are so many people with no flat or room of their own to return to, right here in Glasgow.

In 2003 legislation was passed by the Scottish government promising the right to a home to everyone who is ‘unintentionally homeless’ by 2012, by removing the ‘priority need’ requirement, previously granted mainly to families. Despite this, there are over 10 000 homeless people in Glasgow. During 2011-12 there were 9144 homeless application made, and that massive figure doesn’t account for those who aren’t in the system.

One practice offering many people a new way of life is supported accommodation, which acts as stepping stone between being homeless and finding the means of self-support. I visited the Emmaus Glasgow charity, which is a worldwide charity established in France in the 1950s. There are 23 Emmaus communities in England and the Glasgow branch is the only one in Scotland, with three charity shops in Hamilton Hill, Mount Florida and Partick. Emmaus Glasgow was set up in 2006, and is a self-supporting charity, helping to rehabilitate those who have found themselves homeless.

Emmaus Glasgow currently has 24 beds: the residents sign off all benefits and work for Emmaus, receiving a small weekly allowance. ‘And it really works,’ affirms general manager, Gary McHaffie. ‘What Emmaus Glasgow tries to do is give people their self-respect back and get them back into the ethos of working.’ Residents are called ‘companions’ and staff the Emmaus shops, kitchen, work on the allotments, drive the vans and even design the website, ‘As far as we possibly can we will try to employ people that have been here. Obviously that’s not always the case, we can’t give everyone a job, but someone we find we can train and develop their skills… something that helps Emmaus Glasgow.’ Companions also receive training to improve their employability: there are a range of college courses on offer, driving lessons, and one resident has just completed a tree surgery course. Gary told me they also encourage companions to deal with any issues they have, ‘mental health issues, alcohol issues, anything,’ with the Emmaus support service staff, and by setting achievable goals. He says it takes the pressure off mainstream living, ‘it’s a chance to take time out, not worry about paying bills and stuff like that, not to be rushed, take their own kind of time to reflect.’

The community seems harmonious and relaxed, completely uninstitutional, with no in-and-out policy, ‘some people come and they can just live here basically as long as they want, it’s a way of life for some people.’ There is no cut-off point for residents, the amount of time they stay totally depends on the individual, and those who have lived in the community for a length of time and are making good progress can become ‘responsible companions’, getting involved with the security of the building at night and at weekends when there are no staff. Gary has been general manager for 3 and a half years and he says ‘it’s a privilege to be here, it’s great to work with the guys. It’s very rewarding when you see someone that’s come in and gradually grown in different areas until they’re finally ready to move out and back into mainstream living, their own flat and hopefully employment.’

Yet despite the 2003 legislation, Gary has seen an increase in homelessness due to economic downfall and cuts to benefits. A few years ago Emmaus Glasgow nearly closed down because of lack of funding, but now they have the strongest community Gary has experienced. And this is ironically due to the increase in people being made homeless. Gary says, ‘I’ve seen a change in the type of people we get applications from. There’s guys in just now that are so skilled in different areas, it’s hard to believe that they’re actually homeless. These are all guys that could easily get jobs outside… if there were jobs there.’ Gary admits it’s tragic, but it’s beneficial to the Emmaus community, where the companions are the workforce, ‘their skills pay for their time here.’ In recent years the definition of homelessness has had to change; Gary says they see less ‘stereotypical homeless people’ and more people suffering with depression from losing jobs, ‘they lose interest in living.’

Although Emmaus Glasgow has a strong community, they are looking at increasing their number of beds, and would love to be able to take on paid workers, but, relying on their shops and donations, they don’t have enough money for that yet. For most of us in the ‘West End bubble’, homelessness doesn’t seem to affect us, and it’s hard to believe how many dispossessed people there are right on our doorstep. But there are literally thousands of people living in our city far, far less fortunate than us, and there are ways to do your bit to help those who haven’t had access to the kind of education I personally take for granted most of the time. The Glasgow University Society for the Homeless works closely with Emmaus Glasgow, helping out at their soup kitchens every Tuesday and Wednesday and we run our own on a Saturday night. As Gary said, the experience of helping the homeless and listening to their stories is so rewarding. I’ve met a lot of people at the soup kitchens who would really like to go to university, but are just unable to maintain the lifestyle it requires, so it makes me really think about how lucky I am to be here.

If you’re interested in helping out and gaining invaluable experience in charity work, or just becoming part of a really interesting society, please email [email protected] for more information and an application form.