It only takes a short walk around Glasgow to see that homelessness is a serious issue in the city. While a 38 Degrees online petition to open the doors of empty buildings to homeless people is a good start, it is a drop in the ocean compared to what is really needed.
Estimating the scale of the problem is difficult: while government statistics suggest that around 400 slept rough in 2014, Glasgow Homeless Network puts it closer to 800. Regardless, the problem is undeniably becoming harder to ignore. The number of rough sleepers in Scotland has no doubt come down since its twenty-year peak in 2010, but demand for emergency accommodation is still high, and emergency accommodation charities such as Glasgow City Mission are increasingly being forced to turn people away due to being filled to capacity.
The initiative to turn abandoned buildings into homeless shelters has gained traction recently in Glasgow, which at the time of writing has 22,224 signatures. Part of the support is undoubtedly a consequence of the homeless man in Birmingham who froze to death at the beginning of December. This and the campaign’s success in Manchester, another UK city with a large homeless population; and the bitterly cold temperatures we have experienced.
Superficially, the idea of opening up empty buildings for homeless people is excellent and could be a good preventative measure against something similar happening in Glasgow. The reality, inevitably, is far more complex - getting people indoors is not a solution nor an appropriate preventative method to homelessness.
The first issue if this were to go ahead and Glasgow City Council opened doors to the homeless is that they would have to be continually held to account over their performance; it would be imperative that they did not then step back and claim victory while not offering continuous care.
According to a report by the Glasgow Homelessness Association, 40% people living on the streets need support with their mental health, while 28% needed help with alcohol and just over a quarter required help with drug abuse. Opening the doors is just one side of a multitude of issues regarding the problem of homelessness.
If they were to go ahead with the campaign’s plans then it could not stop there; food and drink would have to be supplied, staff would have to be hired, both in administrative and support roles, buildings would have to meet health and safety standards, free sanitary products would have to be distributed, health checks given, work done to help find people a permanent place to stay and a job, the list goes on.
It’s not so much a question of simply opening up empty buildings, it’s a question of giving more funding and support to homeless charities and pressuring the government to introduce new initiatives and measures that really change people’s situations. More hostels, more care workers, more compassion and less people worrying where they can stay night to night.
Ultimately, it’s morally repugnant that buildings should be sitting empty while people freezing on the streets. The campaign should call for empty buildings to be opened up and to be converted into homeless shelters, with a staff and a long-term support base.
Realistically, the probability of local councils going ahead with such a suggestion is unlikely, but to ask for anything less is to ignore the urgency of the problem. Local Councillors, MPs and MSPs should be lobbied and pressured to make this a national issue, taken to the heart of government so that numbers of those experiencing homelessness can be dramatically decreased.
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