Samantha Byrne, a young Labour Party activist and law graduate, says nearly 30,000 households became homeless last year in one of the richest nations in the world – ours.
It’s easy for people to ignore the homeless. It’s easy for shoppers to focus their eyes on a point in the distance as they walk past and try their best to avoid looking at the ‘beggar’ below in a sleeping bag, with an old dirty coffee cup and a look of desperation on his or her face.
I must admit, now and again, I too have surrendered to the curse of doing what’s easy. I too have done the very thing that I just described. I remember one night I was rushing down a cold, deserted Glasgow street, worried I would miss my train, with a coffee in one hand and a bag of shopping in the other. I stopped to get my ticket, I overheard two men chatting. I thought the street was empty. Where had they come from? It turns out they were there all along. This was their home for the night. Under a canopy at Argyle Street Station. I was trespassing on their home and I never even realised they were there.
As I fiddled, looking for my ticket, the conversation beside me was not of the cold but how this was one of the men’s first nights on the street in a while. He had been going to the Winter Night Shelter. But his requests for accommodation had been knocked back. And it wasn’t ‘winter’ anymore. It was freezing; but it wasn’t ‘winter’. The shelter had shut up shop for the year and he didn’t know where else to go. The man beside him, clearly more accustomed to the Argyle Street nights, told him to get his head down tonight and then head to see a lawyer.
Having volunteered at one of the many law centres that help with homelessness, I can speak first hand of the excellent work that goes on inside and outside their doors. Solicitors work tirelessly to help the homeless. But the one thing problem that this man raised was a big one. He wasn’t from Glasgow. He was worried that help would be turned away because he didn’t come from a ‘G’ postcode. He had no local connection – the one of many things that are required before you will even be considered for accommodation in the area. He wasn’t in the ‘right’ catchment area.
Homelessness in Scotland is a real problem, and it is certainly not ‘fixed’. Scotland is one of the richest nations in the world, yet nearly 30,000 households became homeless last year and more than 65,000 households approached their local authority for help. This is a real problem, and particularly in Glasgow, where a massive 22% of calls to Shelter Scotland came from the inner city area alone. And with so many people who can afford to pay their rent or mortgage able to uproot and move to a new city without their links to the community being assessed beforehand, it seems strange that people living on the streets are being judged in this way.
The solution to the ‘postcode lottery’ is by no means simple; people already on the streets are, albeit wrongly, considered not to be members of any community. They will more than likely be rejected from any local authority to which they make an application. But with four people dying on the streets every single month in Glasgow alone, it’s time that this matter was taken more seriously.
The original local authority a person who is deemed to have no ties to any community makes an application to must help. They have an obligation but time and time again we see people stuck for a place to lay their head. And with a serious housing shortage in Scotland, it is, of course, hard for local authorities to house everyone. This type of prejudicial treatment will continue until the housing crisis is addressed by the Scottish Government.
Now, as I finally found my train ticket at the bottom of my bag, I realised something. Not once did any of these men ask for spare change. Not once did they look up at me and show me an empty, old dirty coffee cup begging for it to be filled. They never begged. They were far too busy helping each other out, trying to get through the night to see the light of the morning.
So rather than avoiding the so-called beggar on the street, we should be begging with them. Begging for a better way of tackling homelessness. Begging for nobody ever to be left out in the cold. Begging for change and begging for it to happen now.
Now that winter is coming we can only hope that, rather than the Winter Night Shelter, the two men are spending this years’ cold months under a proper roof, not a train station canopy.