Darren McGarvey: occupation that could kickstart bid to tackle homelessness

It's Sunday night in Glasgow city centre and the December chill is beginning to bite. As 10pm approaches, many of the city's happy shoppers, giddy revellers and harmless loiterers, have wisely cleared the streets, making for the warmth of home, as the city begins rebooting itself for the coming week.

Activists occupied 190 Trongate in Glasgow to highlight homelessness (Picture: John Devlin)

Armed with nothing but a small and rather pointless heater, some fruit, flasks of tea and the obligatory cigarettes, a bright constellation of local activists chittering cheerfully, in complete darkness, are audaciously occupying a grand building that has lain empty for years and would cost about £60,000 a year to rent.

An unusual serenity descends over the streets outside, as the city nods off, imbuing hyper-vigilant city-dwellers, primed for conflict around every corner, with an illusory sense of personal safety.

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However, it’s during the quieter moments, when you peer behind the curtain of consumerism, that the city’s unconcealable and shameful blemishes become painfully visible.

The streets, doorways and quaintly cobbled back lanes, so easily ignored at the height of a busy day, have become permanent residencies for Glasgow’s rough-sleeping population. And while most of us walk on by – perhaps sparing the odd bit of change now and then, or a note if we’re feeling giddy or flush – others, unable to avert their eyes from the human suffering, have decided to take their charity one step further.

That grand building at 190 Trongate has a long history, much like the street itself. It was built on the site of Shawfield Mansion, erected in 1711, and became the scene of an infamous riot in 1725 over a new tax on Scottish malt.

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Glaswegians reacted with characteristic restraint, and sacked the mansion. Tonight, a new generation of change-makers huddle together, with no more than the faintest hope that others, inspired by their audacity, will join the cause. There’s no shouting, no “I’ll eat the rich” banners and no cringe-inducing chants. Just some people who care enough about the problem of homelessness that they have decided to sleep in this building overnight in a gesture of solidarity.

Their central aim is to raise broader public awareness of the homelessness epidemic that shames Scotland’s largest city. The latest Scottish Government figures, for September 2016, show that there were 35,727 residential properties that had been empty for more than six months, compared with the 34,100 homeless applications made between 1 April 2016 to 31 March 2017. These figures show that most people facing homelessness could be housed over the winter months.

In truth, as hard is it might be for some to believe, nobody wants to see anybody sleeping on the street. Not lefties, not nationalists, not centrists, not Tories. But like almost every other complicated matter in this country, the waters of dialogue are mudded by partisan agendas in a game of pass-the-buck that usually ends with someone’s son, daughter, mother or father being found dead in a sleeping bag.

Some believe homeless people need to get their act together, others blame the economic system, which manufactures social inequality as a toxic by-product.

But if you talk to a rough-sleeper, who is usually self-aware enough to know it’s a bit of both, such concerns are far from their mind. They are more worried about eating, servicing a drug-addiction to avoid excruciating physical and emotional torment or simply looking for an opportunity to use a toilet with a bit of dignity.

On the path to a new sort of Glasgow, where fewer people suffer the humiliation, persecution, isolation, fear and danger of sleeping on our streets, we are faced with what seem like insurmountable obstacles.

The first being this urge to blame, which can only be transcended through skilful mediation between the various competing perspectives on the issue.

Because the truth is whether you personally like it or not, this issue will never be resolved without a cross-party consensus – at every level of public life – where evidence-based solutions are implemented long-term, insulated from the counter-productive electoral cycles that skew and distort how deeply rooted social problems like homelessness exist in the first place.

The occupation at 190 Trongate could become a legitimate pilot scheme in how this approach might work. It’s a small but significant enough enterprise that much could be learned by embarking on the process.

I am often criticised for outlining the problem without proposing the solution.

So here are my proposals. Practically speaking, initially at least, assurances must be sought from the owners of the building in question that they will afford occupiers and other interested parties a grace period of six months to establish a plan of action.

Second, the police and community safety officers patrolling the area should respond in kind, and keep their distance unless their expertise is sought.

Third, local councillors, MPs, journalists and representatives of all other interested groups in the city must take an active interest in identifying which legal, administrative and logistical impediments could be relaxed or removed completely, to make the development of an abandoned building into a city centre community hub a more of a realistic possibility.

Also, crucially, any work undertaken to modify, improve or decorate the building should be offered to the homeless themselves, who should be invited into the community where they can be upskilled, mentored and directed to relevant services, as well as acting as advisors and consultants on how new services should be shaped and rolled out.

After all, it is not just a lack of housing that blights the homeless, it’s the complete social disconnection from other human beings that compounds the acute sense of exclusion and social immobility.

And lastly, a concerted fundraising effort to raise a year’s rent, thus guaranteeing 12 months of access to the space, seems like a sensible idea.

That means finding £60,000 over the next few months, or at least a significant deposit, to show the owners it’s worth their while.

The time for talking has passed. We can and must do better, Scotland. This seems like a great opportunity to set our differences aside and begin waking this sleeping giant of a country from its constitutional coma.

If you would like a first-hand view of how this process has already proven successful in another part of Glasgow, join me at the GalGael Trust, on 15 Fairley Street, in Glasgow tomorrow night at 7pm, where I will be leading a discussion that braids the seemingly irreconcilable notions of personal and social responsibility that have become so mutually exclusive.

GalGael is testament to the fact this idea is a falsehood. It’s free and all are welcome. So I urge you to brave the cold, join us and let’s begin reimagining this country we are always threatening to sort out. Let’s shake ourselves awake and begin focusing, not on what we can’t or won’t do, but on what is already being done that we’ve all been ignoring.