Coronavirus outbreak has shown we can end homelessness in Scotland – Ewan Aitken

A coalition of 22 homelessness organisations is calling for an end to rough sleeping and evictions that put people out on the street, writes Ewan Aitken.

Homelessness does not have to be a permanent feature of modern society, says Ewan Aitken (Picture: John Devlin)
Homelessness does not have to be a permanent feature of modern society, says Ewan Aitken (Picture: John Devlin)

What have I learnt from this pandemic? That I am not very good at making sourdough bread, but am getting better at not killing the things I plant in the garden. That my Cyrenians colleagues are heroes for all they have done to keep supporting people and tacking the causes and consequences of homelessness. And that we can indeed end rough-sleeping – as myself and colleagues have always said, against protestations from some of those in power otherwise.

The work of the Council and a group of charities including Cyrenians to move and support several hundred people into hotels was not only literally lifesaving – it made me proud to live in a city and a country willing to make sure everyone was safe, no matter their story. Scotland wasn’t unique in doing this but it wasn’t uniqueness which mattered – it was living compassion in a moment of crisis, a defining mark of a nation.

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But yet we also know, since September 2019 over 1000 unique individuals have presented at Bethany’s night shelter – many of whom had been sleeping rough. Over 1000, in Scotland’s capital city, in the 21st century. The number of people accessing support after losing their home for the first time is growing. More and more people are sinking into poverty; family break-up is increasing, alongside an alarming increase in the number of domestic violence cases. This crisis is colliding with problems that existed before Covid, putting increased pressure on households.

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We need to act now in this critical moment to chart a course ahead for a just and compassionate recovery that puts housing at its heart. Which is why Cyrenians are part of the Everyone Home Collective, a group of 22 homelessness organisations across Scotland calling for three things: more homes for good health; an end to rough sleeping; and no evictions into homelessness. Guided by expertise and evidence, we’re publishing plans to show exactly how this can happen. Last month we released our plan to end the need for night shelters. It effectively ‘designs them out’ by making sure when someone presents as homeless they get a suitable, safe, affordable place to stay within two weeks. It is possible if we treat this with the same kind of urgency that a public health crisis forced upon us – as we must.

Of course, it needs more houses to be available at prices people can afford, something of which there is a shortage in Edinburgh. With the urgency of this situation, we need to work together to make use of the opportunities we have right now. The council made the right call this week in calling for short-term lets and Airbnbs to be offered up for residential use as homes – working with landlords to make sure we all use the city’s resources differently and effectively to improve everyone’s lives.

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Every choice we make affects others. If only half of the 12,000 property owners in Edinburgh who use Airbnb or short-term lets in Edinburgh chose instead to make those properties available for residential use, suddenly the potential for ending the need for night shelters is within our grasp. Cyrenians, along with Streetwork and Crisis, have already set up a project to support folk out of the hotels into private rented accommodation. We’ve had excellent support from some landlords and agents. The more who follow suit, the more chance there is of us forever ending homelessness.

I have learnt a lot from this pandemic, and there will no doubt be many lessons to follow for all of us. But I hope that, if there’s one thing that we have demonstrated as a society against all doubt, it’s that ending homelessness is possible if we all have the will to make our contribution and act together for our neighbour and the stranger, whatever their story.

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Ewan Aitken is the CEO of Cyrenians Scotland

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