Edward Fremont-Barnes speaks to Glasgow's homeless and the charities trying to help
During storm Emma and the accompanying "Beast from the East", anyone venturing outside may have noticed the absence of the homeless. Walking through the West End to university, I am used to seeing the same five or six familiar faces on Byres Road each morning. On hearing reports that a homeless man named only as Ben had died in his tent in Retford, Nottinghamshire, I wondered what support there was from charities during the winter months and what exactly the government is doing to address homelessness. A week after the storm I spoke to Charlie, a regular on Byres Road. Charlie was an upholsterer for twenty years before getting behind on his rent, leaving him homeless for the last eight months. He sleeps rough in Partick and was wary of going to a shelter even during the storm. “I feel safer out here than I do in there,” he told me, citing the risk posed by other people who also use shelters, "It only takes one idiot to kick off.” Charlie eventually found refuge in a bin during the storm.
“Not everyone is ready to receive help,” explained Graham Steven from Glasgow City Mission, a Christian charity that offers aid to a variety of vulnerable groups. He stressed that the reasons some refuse help from charities are varied, from suspicion and fear of perceived danger, as described by Charlie, to their own mental instability. Glasgow City Mission offers two major services for the homeless population, the Winter Night Shelter, and the City Centre Project. The shelter can sleep 40 and is staffed by a mixture of permanent staff and volunteers from December to March, offering a bed and a meal to those in need. The City Centre Project offers support to vulnerable adults year round, from practical help finding accommodation, paperwork and providing food parcels to simply offering a sympathetic ear. Pastoral support is a key part of the charity’s work or as Graham put it, often “they just need someone to listen to them.” He explained that both the shelter and City Project kept running through the bad weather with staff and volunteers putting in extra effort to make it through the snow on foot. The public reaction was also heart-warming, with many calling in to offer hats and gloves. However, Graham points out that this speaks to a misconception of the kind of support homeless people need. Food and financial donations to charities like the City Mission can address deeper problems than the cold.
One man who makes regular use of the shelters operated by local charities is Steve, who spends much of his day out on Argyle Street in the city centre. He found himself homeless and without family just under a year ago. During the snow he “wandered around until the shelters opened”, having few options indoors. Steve is very grateful for support but is in the same difficult position as Charlie - unable to work without a home or afford to rent without work.
It is important to note that Steve and Charlie’s experiences of homelessness are extreme. Homelessness is a status applied to anyone who is not in a permanent residence, including people sleeping on the street, those "sofa surfing" and people living in hostels. Graham describes the 30 to 40 people sleeping rough as the “tip of the iceberg”, noting that 5000 made homelessness applications to the City Council last year. Rough sleepers are the most vulnerable and most visible part of a wider problem. Steve noted the different institutional responses to homelessness in Scotland and England. While living in Cornwall he was aware of local councils taking a hard-line on begging, cutting off support or encouraging people out of the area.
This is a recognisable trend. The BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire Show revealed that councils in England with among the highest numbers of rough sleepers were buying the homeless one way tickets out of their areas. The practice is supposed to reconnect rough sleepers with relatives however its scale and uncoordinated nature suggests it has been misused. Some councils moved people to areas with which they had no links. Gareth Glendall-Pickton, a Bournemouth native, was offered a ticket to Manchester, a city 250 miles away with which he has no connection. Manchester City Council itself spent £9,928 on "reconnecting" homeless people over a six year period.
Theresa May’s government has made recent moves towards a national strategy tackling the issue. The new Rough Sleeping and Homelessness Reduction Taskforce was announced in the Autumn Budget. Chancellor Philip Hammond said the government aims to halving rough sleeping by 2022 ending it completely in 2027. However, this was undercut by reports last month that the Taskforce had still not had its first meeting.
A serious blow to the government’s recent attempts to address homelessness came with the findings of the Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee on 20 December 2017. MPs claimed the government was “unacceptably complacent” after an investigation revealed over 9,000 people sleep rough every night in the UK. This came after mass resignation of the entire Social Mobility Committee on the 2 December. Committee Chair Alan Millburn was scathing of the government’s apathy towards inequality and social policy, writing in his resignation letter: “I have little hope of the current government making the progress I believe is necessary to bring about a fairer Britain.” In response to government criticism earlier this month, Heather Wheeler, the homelessness minister, claimed she would resign if rough sleeping increased during her tenure.
As to a Scottish response, a Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Communities Committee report, published on 12 February, suggested we might follow the Finnish example and introduce First Housing, a system by which people are offered a permanent home rather than moving them between temporary accommodation. First Housing England claim that 70-90% of their customers remain housed and Finland is the only country in Europe to see a reduction in homelessness.
Glasgow’s social housing, run by the Glasgow Housing Association (GHA) since 2003, offers affordable rents in over 39,122 homes. £1.5 billion has been invested in GHA. There is a substantial waiting list however, with 13,310 people waiting for housing, 555 are homeless referred by the City Council. Affordable housing plays a vital role in preventing homelessness, demonstrated by statistics from Holyrood that show more than a third of the homeless in Scotland were either asked to move or forced out by landlords between 2016 and 2017. In the same period there were 10,899 households in temporary accommodation with 27% of these households in bed and breakfasts or hostels. There were also 6,581 children living in temporary accommodation. The top three kinds of households making homeless applications to their local authorities in Scotland were single male (46%), single female (21%) and single parent female (17%).
Homelessness and rough sleeping has not been sufficiently addressed here or nationwide. While the Scottish Parliament and councils have taken a far more constructive approach than certain councils in England, there is still a fluctuating rate of homelessness across Scotland. Since 2010 homelessness has increased 48% and rough sleeping has increased 169% in Britain. Complacency has lasted long enough and hopefully recent claims in Westminster and Holyrood will be seen through.