Glasgow has the second most homeless people in the UK- why is that and what can be done?
Homelessness is a social issue that is widely discussed throughout society, the news, newspapers, and in academia. It is an issue that constantly needs addressing due to the state of the legal system implemented in the UK. As Scotland has a fairly independent government, the laws affecting people experiencing homelessness in Scotland are more accommodating than in other areas of the UK. Section 29 of Scotland’s Housing Act, implemented in 2001, requires councils to accommodate homeless people in short-term accommodation. This is not the case in England and Wales, where the system is priority-based, with specific demographics being assessed as essentially “more important”. The state of the homeless population is still in despair around Scotland, but especially in Glasgow. There has been an increase in referral applications to homelessness organisations all around the UK, including Glasgow. The whole system addressing homelessness is overwhelmed. The British Red Cross estimated that by the end of 2023, there would be 50,000 homeless people in the UK – an eye-wateringly high number.
Homelessness is a systemic issue created by the neoliberal political system. It is an issue that, if governments wanted to, could be eradicated overnight (like we saw in lockdown), yet they decide not to do so. Homelessness began to be an issue with the emergence of capitalistism, where people would migrate to cities in search of work, and if they lost their job, they would also lose their houses. In a capitalistic society, especially when considering the existence of rental properties, this has changed: many people do not own property that they could call “home”, and in an instance of losing a job or a traumatic life event, there is a high possibility they will not have anywhere to go.
This has been exacerbated by Margaret Thatcher’s policies in the 1980s, which impacted Glasgow. The policy allowed people to buy the social houses they rented at a discounted price. Since then, the Home Office has been building fewer social houses than before, causing a rise in private ownership and consequently a situation in which constant rises in rent prices mean many people cannot afford this option anymore. Homelessness has existed in Glasgow from its beginnings. To combat this issue, the city built what is known as “tenement” houses to house an overwhelming number of newcomers with nowhere to stay. The policies of Margaret Thatcher affected Glasgow in the same way as the rest of the UK, with many tenement houses being sold to private owners and remaining in their ownership. This left many people without any option but renting – an insecure position to be in.
Homelessness is not an individual issue. It is an issue inherently connected to poverty, which also cannot be considered an individual issue. We tend to associate homelessness with people who are dishevelled, addicted to drugs or alcohol, who are trying to collect change in front of a supermarket. That is an image instilled in our heads. And yes, those are the people experiencing homelessness who we see around Glasgow, especially in the City Centre. However, this specific image of homelessness is not what we should think about, and it is just the tip of the iceberg. The overwhelming majority of people experiencing homelessness are what could be considered “invisible homeless”. People, and especially people seeking asylum in the UK, living in hostels or hotels provided by the Home Office are the majority of people who we would call “homeless” in England, Wales and Scotland.
This is where the aspect of third-sector organisations, such as Shelter, Simon Community Scotland or Emmaus Glasgow, comes in. In a society where people cannot trust their governments to manage social issues accordingly and promptly, a lot of responsibility falls onto non-profit organisations. People who are experiencing homelessness are forced to turn to charities when the council fails them. The truth is that the current laws that exist surrounding homelessness are unclear and hard to understand. Charities are seen as more humane, perhaps because they actually are. The employees working in charities can focus on people as individuals and treat them with the kindness and dignity they deserve rather than just viewing them as numbers. However, this often leads to overworking and “emotional labour”. In an interview with a staff member at Mustard Tree, a homeless organisation in Manchester that works with people to help them break the vicious cycle of poverty, they recalled that “as I speak to our colleagues, and the staff […] it’s people giving up sought careers to… be here, because they believe in the work that we’re doing. It’s hard work, in the sense of sometimes seeing successes can be few and far between, if you measure success in [whether] this person’s achieved everything they want to […]”.
As The Guardian reports, homeless people rely on volunteer groups and homelessness street teams in Glasgow for survival. That is a lot of responsibility on people who have devoted their lives to helping marginalised populations. Similarly to Glasgow, Manchester is also a hotspot for people experiencing homelessness, with several different homeless organisations working tirelessly to battle and reduce homelessness. One such organisation is Mustard Tree, an exceptional charity that provides emergency provisions to street homeless people and acts as a stepping-stone for people trying to break the vicious cycle of poverty and homelessness with different programmes, most notably The Freedom Project. In interviews with Mustard Tree employees, their passion for the cause can be clearly seen. As one employee recalled: “as I speak to our colleagues, and the staff […] it’s people giving up sought careers to wanting to be here. Because they believe in the work that we’re doing. It’s hard work, in the sense of like sometimes seeing successes can be few and far between, if you measure success in [whether] this person’s achieved everything they want to […]”.
Success is seen in a particular light in our society. We are successful if we have a well-paid job, a house, and a healthy relationship with our partner. For homeless people, success looks different. It takes a lot of courage to talk to someone about personal issues, so a success for Mustard Tree employees might be the first step their service users take to change their lives and asking for help. For people who have lost everything, change takes time and small steps. That is what Mustard Tree employees are doing: they are patient and kind but fair and honest. The emotional labour that this type of work entails can be significant, and therefore the employees of third-sector organisations need to ensure their jobs do not become all-consuming, which, as another employee recalled, was one of the hardest challenges of their career: “There’s some of the people that are going through so much stuff, just, you know, really awful circumstances, whether they’ve had trauma in their past, […], an event that’s occurred, or family life or home life is just awful. And so, it took me a long time to kind of be, still probably practising it now, being able to work with people going through that and be able to support them and like not take it home, and not kind of have it resting on my shoulders all the time. There was a very long time where I felt very, you know, I’d go home, and I’d be thinking, “How am I going to help this person? They’re in this awful situation. What am I going to do to get them out of it?”.”
The third sector is struggling now: the received funding is getting cut, and without external help, it is challenging to help at the same capacity and at the same level as before. In 2023, the Glasgow City Council had a £49m gap in their finances, leaving a lot of sectors without essential funding. The recession after the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis meant donations from the public are not as frequent or generous, purely because people cannot afford to do so anymore. This affects the third sector significantly. Working in a highly emotionally charged environment is challenging enough, and with the overwhelming number of referrals that are coming to both Mustard Tree in Manchester, as well as all homeless organisations in Glasgow, the job of helping people in need is becoming more and more difficult. This can be seen in Emmaus Glasgow’s urgent appeal for the donations they so desperately rely on, having not received any funding from the government or the local council. Otherwise, their services cannot function as efficiently, or at all. The government is not doing enough, and the most marginalised people in our society are suffering because of it. Unfortunately, the homelessness crisis is not stagnating, but instead picking up speed, and our governments and councils need to take a more holistic approach to battling homelessness as a social issue and treat people in a humane way rather than looking at them more and more as merely problematic numbers. People are not the problem; the system we live in is.