Monday Interview: Iain Gordon of Bethany Christian Trust

In a few weeks time, on what is likely to prove a typically chilly Scottish winter's night, thousands of people will grab their sleeping bags and head off to Edinburgh's Princes Street Gardens for what is being billed as the world's largest sleepout.

Organisers of the Sleep in the Park event on 9 December are hoping for as many as 9,000 participants, with a host of celebrities, sports personalities and figures from across Scotland’s political and business communities committed to do their bit, alongside members of the public.

The event, which is being organised by Josh Littlejohn, co-founder of the Social Bite sandwich chain, has the potential be a Live Aid for Scottish homelessness.

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It’s a bold initiative and one that is poised to raise public awareness of one of society’s greatest challenges, in addition, of course, to valuable funding. Homelessness, and the mission to help tackle its causes and provide support for its victims, is an everyday reality for Iain Gordon, the chief executive of Bethany Christian Trust.

For more than three decades the Edinburgh-headquartered charity has been working to reduce the suffering and meet the long-term needs of homeless and vulnerable people in Scotland.

Thanks to the efforts of its leadership team, staff and thousands of volunteers, the trust has been able to support some 7,000 individuals every year.

Managing the day-to-day running of an organisation that must grapple with a range of societal issues – unemployment, drug addiction, social isolation, to name but three – at the same time as holding the purse strings to a multi-million-pound budget is, Gordon freely admits, a challenge.

“People tend to equate the homeless with rough sleeping but that is really only one element,” he stresses. “There are people who might be sofa surfing or kipping on a friend’s floor, in temporary bed and breakfast or in a night shelter. They are all homeless because they don’t have a secure place of their own – where they can control who comes in and out, where they feel safe in a controlled environment.”

Gordon, who has some 30 years’ experience leading service-focused organisations in the private and voluntary sectors in the UK, Asia and the Middle East, says the prominence of homelessness as an issue has altered over the years depending on government policy, the availability of funding and with fluctuations in the economy.

“I certainly think we have seen an increase in rough sleeping in Scotland in recent years,” he observes. “Some of that is to do with universal credit but largely to do with a lack of affordable social rented housing. If people don’t have somewhere to move into they tend to spend longer in temporary accommodation.

“In Edinburgh, there will be anywhere between 550 and 650 people in council-sponsored B&B on any one night. There really is a chronic shortage of truly affordable social housing.”

Gordon, who has been with Bethany Christian Trust since 2002, graduated as an engineer and held various technical and managerial posts in a UK technology research company serving the utility and oil and gas industries before moving to take up development roles overseas.

He managed technology development and promotion organisations working with local government toward rural enterprise, community development and national infrastructure development in Nepal for eight years. In the Middle East he worked with a voluntary sector satellite TV broadcaster before returning to the UK to take up his current position.

He oversees a budget of around £6 million – split about half from contracts with local authorities, and a quarter each from the trust’s own enterprises – a small chain of charity shops and its Christmas trees venture – and its traditional charitable fund-raising efforts, and legacies.

“We will go into each year with about a third of our income uncommitted,” he notes. “Of course, plenty of commercial enterprises are in the same boat.”

Gordon praises the efforts of Social Bite and the homeless village it is constructing on a 1.5-acre site in the Granton area of the capital.

“Social Bite have been brilliant at raising awareness of homelessness and bringing it back on to the agenda,” he says.

“The extra beds that the village will provide in the city will make a positive difference and the money raised by the sleepout can hopefully go into prevention projects as well as into crisis intervention schemes.

“The more we get to know people living around us the more we understand their hopes and aspirations, and their difficulties,” he adds.

“Homelessness is a challenge, but each of the five million of us in Scotland has a role to play in doing something about it.”

30-second CV

Job title: Chief executive, Bethany Christian Trust

Education: Glasgow University, doing aeronautical engineering

First job: Research engineer in the oil and gas industry

What car do you drive: Seat Leon

Favourite mode of transport: Flying

Music: Blues and rock

Book or kindle: Book

Reading material: Leadership books, biographies, novels to unwind

Can’t live without: Faith, wife and family

What makes you angry: Selfishness, bullying, inequality

Favourite place: Scottish Highlands

Best thing about your job: The fantastic people I serve in Bethany and we together serve though our services.

Best bit of advice you have ever received in your career: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather in humility value others above yourself, not looking to your own interests but instead to the interests of others.”