Being homeless is a circumstance, not a condition

The Church of Scotland, along with many other churches across the UK, has just observed Homeless Sunday '“ an annual event to show solidarity with people who are homeless, and to inspire action to tackle the issue.

Calum Murray is Director of Adult Care Services at CrossReach

The reactions and questions raised by the event show that people have a deep concern about homelessness. Certainly, it is unsettling to reflect on the fact that an ordinary person in our advanced and affluent society could lose something as fundamental as housing – a resource we rely on for everything from personal safety to registering with a doctor.

The most common question 
people have is simple: isn’t there something that our society can do so that people don’t have to sleep on the street in 2017? The answer: yes, there is.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Experiencing homelessness is not restricted to certain parts of the country or certain groups in society. CrossReach – the Church of Scotland’s social care charity – supports people who are homeless through services in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and the Isle of Lewis.

Some of the people we work with are from disadvantaged backgrounds – they grew up in poverty; or in the care system. Others had privileged upbringings and professional careers before they became homeless.

Next month, CrossReach has an opportunity to share some of our experience with MSPs at a reception on homelessness in the Scottish 
Parliament. Our hosts are people who – by passing legislation and allocating funds – establish the structure we work within. It is therefore vital for us to take the opportunity to inform them about the situation we see on the ground, and to ask that the right action is taken to end homelessness.

During 2016, several eye-catching homelessness-related projects were able to grab headlines but, unfortunately, these do not – and cannot – get to the root of the problem.

The single biggest step we can take in Scotland to deal with homelessness is very simple, but it is too expensive for non-profit organisations like CrossReach to implement.

We have the expertise, the experience and the will to support people experiencing homelessness to change their circumstances, but we need help to get the necessary infrastructure in place.

Being homeless is a circumstance, not a condition. It is a surprisingly, frighteningly easy circumstance to find yourself in, but a very difficult one to get back out of. The specific causes of homelessness are as varied as the number of people without a home, but the most common themes include relationship breakdown; action by a landlord or lender; harassment; and rent or mortgage arrears. Once the security and facilities you have in your house are removed, it becomes almost impossible to hold down a job, let alone get hired by a new employer.

When your income is reduced, it’s difficult to eat well and so, combined with the stress of the situation, you’ll get ill both physically and mentally. It’s hard to feel safe and confident with nowhere to live – feeling ashamed of what your friends and family will think of you is more likely.

Although complex, with the right support all of these issues can be worked through. We’re good at this. CrossReach – and other charities like us – can and do support people to a place where they have the skills, confidence and stability to successfully manage a home. Yet, more than 30,000 homeless applications were made in Scotland last year.

So why are so many people still homeless? A fundamental resource is missing – there are not enough homes.

Housing is a basic need, and a right according to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When people are prevented from accessing adequate housing by our economy or public policy it is an injustice – but it can be fixed.

Shelter Scotland estimates that we need to build 12,000 affordable homes per year for the next five years to meet our need for housing. The Scottish Government has made a commitment to build more housing during the current parliament – we welcome this and look forward to seeing it achieved.

It is not acceptable that people have to sleep on our streets and survive the insecurity of temporary accommodation.

An adequate supply of social and affordable housing will allow charities like CrossReach to support people from homelessness into stable homes, meaning they can get on with their lives. Beyond the economic and social benefits of securing stable housing for people, this is justice – it is the right thing to do.

Calum Murray is Director of Adult Care Services at CrossReach,