Looking at the issue from the perspective of those who suffer from it.
It is absurd that today in Scotland, there are people who still live without a home, sitting on the side of the street, forced to ask for food and spare change. It’s even more alarming that we don’t find this anything out of the ordinary; that people sleeping on the streets in the winter has become normalised. It is sheer hypocrisy that within our society, while the majority of us agree that homelessness is wrong, this issue still perseveres and worsens.
Never has this issue been more evident than in the time of Covid. Whilst most of us have been stuck indoors for the best part of a year, many haven’t had the chance to be. Spending the day outside in the cold, not having the same access to medical services or basic resources to live, puts the homeless in even more of a precarious situation when it comes to Covid. As some of the people most at risk from the pandemic, they are among those who most need help.
It is a human response to want to help those less fortunate than yourself. This is intuitive. This is also why we sometimes willfully look away; it is easier to keep walking with our eyes pointed ahead of us than to turn our heads and acknowledge the unnaturalness of a human being sitting on a sleeping bag on the pavement beside us. This doesn’t mean we are bad people, but it does mean we aren’t doing enough to engage with this obvious problem.
It seems odd that those who aren’t homeless seem to be the largest contributors towards the discussion of homelessness.
On a cold rainy day, we met Stewart outside the Greggs on Byres Road, where he was sitting in the hope that someone would offer him something to eat. We bought him a meal, introduced ourselves and he agreed to tell us his story. Stewart, an ex-joiner, was living with his father in a flat in Govan before he was made homeless. Stewart’s father was in poor health and he woke up one morning to find that his father had suffered an aneurysm during his sleep and had passed away. He shared: “I called the ambulance to say that there is no point, he’s gone… I tried to close his eyes to give him some peace, but I couldn’t, so I put a sheet over him.” After losing his father, Stewart’s residency in his father’s flat was endangered. He wasn’t in the tenancy agreement and was evicted from the flat just two weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic started.
Stewart tries to get just £25 a day, enough for him to escape from the cold to a hotel room for one night. If he falls short, he has to sleep in a close. We asked Stewart why he doesn’t try to get help from a hostel or homeless shelter, so often advertised as the safety net for the homeless. He replied: “I don’t want to go to the shelters because of the drugs.” He confided in us that he had issues with drug addiction in the past, citing himself as having an “addictive personality”. However, he wanted to move past his previous issues with addiction and he doesn’t feel safe doing this in a shelter. Stewart elaborated: “If you dinnae have a drug issue when you went to a shelter, then you are guaranteed to have one when you left.
“As soon as you get into the shelter rooms, people ask you what you want? Do you want to buy anything?” Stewart also mentioned that there is a variety of drugs in shelters: “Smack, crack, heroine, legal highs and xanax, all sorts of stuff.” Stewart exists in a Catch-22, where he may not be safe on the streets, but the mainstream alternative offers its own dangers.
With his father now gone, we asked if Stewart had anyone else to support him. He has a big brother who occasionally takes him out for lunch. However, he is unwilling to live with his brother: “I would go stay with them but he has a family and four kids … I don’t want to put my burdens on them.” Instead, Stewart told us he was aiming to get a council flat in Govan again, explaining to us that he is on “the list”. When he was living in Govan he felt like he “had it all”, fondly remembering that he was near enough to “throw a tennis ball into the Clyde”.
Throughout our conversation, Stewart repeatedly thanked us for getting him a cup of tea and a sandwich – but, more than that, he just seemed like he was happy to have the company. He explained that while some people give him money and most people don’t engage with him. However, Stewart said: “When people come to talk to me, it restores your faith in humanity.” He remarked that he is not comfortable taking too much money from people: “A woman tried to give me 60 quid … I said that was too much.”
Finally, we asked him about how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected him. He told us that many hotels were not taking him because of the potential risk, telling him: “We cannae take you because of Covid.” Stewart believes: “Covid’s brought people together and brought them more apart.”
Ultimately, Stewart thinks that what has happened to him is unfair. Stewart told us that he volunteers at a community cafe at Woodlands, believing himself to be a good person who hasn’t done anything to deserve what has happened to him. However, despite Stewart’s awful situation, he isn’t bitter, and if you find yourself lucky enough to get into a conversation with him, you’ll find yourself speaking to a warm-hearted, caring individual.
The reality of homelessness
Homelessness is an issue that continually provokes personal outrage but never seems to reach substantial collective action. Countless individuals have vowed to tackle, remove, solve, prevent, and cure homelessness, yet none have succeeded. Shelter Scotland shows that every 17 minutes an individual is made homeless in Scotland. The average life expectancy for a homeless person in Scotland is 39, compared to 47 in England. While neither figure is positive, it shows just how much work we have to do in Scotland especially. Despite a decline in homelessness in Scotland between 2010 and 2014, numbers were already rising steadily before the Covid-19 pandemic, which has only been a further catalyst for homelessness.
Two of the most prevalent reasons that force people into is homelessness are disputes within the households, both violent and non-violent. For many, the transition into homelessness is just as awful as homelessness itself.
Every day, as cars drive by, Anon sits in “absolutely freezing” conditions on the same pavement outside a petrol station hoping to earn enough money to get a bed for the night. They asked us to not disclose their name. Anon was younger than most other homeless people we met and has had a difficult life; after losing their parents when they were 5 years old, they spent their childhood and adolescence in care until they turned 21. Anon told us that they had travelled from London to Glasgow for a fresh start: “It was alright at first, and [then it] started going down-hill.”
Anon has been homeless for a few months, unable to get a job since moving up: “I would love to get a job, but first things first, I just need to get myself a flat and benefits.” When asked about how accessible council housing lists and the benefits were, they replied: “It depends on who you have in your corner.” Despite Anon having support, they are still waiting for their chance at a flat. And what about people who needed housing but didn’t have someone in their corner? Anon was blunt – they’re simply “left to rot”.
Anon was trying to get a hotel room for the night, saying they’re safer than the hostels. Following our interview with Stewart, we asked Anon if they knew of any drug problems in hostels, to which they instantly responded that drugs are a big issue. The shelters were hardly a safe space: “Some hostels don’t give a fuck.” When asked if there was pressure from other residents at hostels to use, they told us: “I was that close a couple of times.” Anon is a person not that much older than many of us, and yet they have found themselves in a circumstance so dire most of us could not even begin to imagine.
One of the worst consequences Anon has suffered since being on the streets is how negatively it has affected their mental health. We asked if this specific side of homelessness is neglected and they fervently agreed. Many of their own experiences since becoming homeless have had a significant impact on them, experiences like being “beaten up three or four times sitting on the streets”. Following events like these, they told us: “I’m scared about living by myself – it would have to be supported accommodation because of my mental health and that.”
Like Stewart, Anon also spoke to us about people’s reluctance to interact with and give to the homeless: “Sometimes people will be funny about giving you money because they don’t know if you’re just going to go spend it on drugs.” When questioned on whether this seemed unfair, Anon replied empathetically: “I get it where some people are coming from… I wouldn’t want to have that on my conscience. If I gave someone money, they went and put it in a needle, they ended up ODing…dying…I wouldn’t want that on my mind.” When speaking about themselves, however, Anon said: “Because I’ve been sitting here every day, a lot of people have got to know me here, they know I’m genuine, and that I speak the truth… that’s why they help me out nine times out of 10.”
We asked Anon what they would change about the way homelessness is tackled. Anon replied: “Even if you ain’t got drug problems or alcohol (problems), normal people like myself should get more help”, and they should just be treated as “just the same [as anyone else]”.
It was Anon’s birthday tomorrow, but they didn’t have enough money for two nights in a hotel, so they’d be back out on the streets: “A woman said she would help me earlier, and get a bed for tonight and tomorrow because it’s my birthday, but she’s never come back.”
This article was conceived from a desire to humanise the homeless experience through their stories. This is not a novel undertaking, nor is it to be viewed as a poverty safari. It’s intended to give those who so rarely have a chance to speak a platform about a complex and intricate issue which affects them personally.
Unfortunately, sometimes the fundamentals of humanity – open communication and benefit of the doubt – are often not given to the homeless. Homelessness seems insurmountable when it’s common for people to ignore the very existence of a homeless person on the street. We do not expect to produce radical positive change to the homeless situation in Scotland, but even if this article convinces one more person to have a conversation with a homeless person on the street, then it will have been worth it. In the past, we have walked past a homeless person without batting an eyelid, but we want to change that about ourselves. We hope you do too.
A selection of homeless charities you can support:
Simon Community Scotland – https://www.simonscotland.org/
Emmaus Glasgow – https://emmausglasgow.org.uk/
Shelter Scotland – http://scotland.shelter.org.uk/