Lorraine McGrath: Network keeps vulnerable off the streets

Probably all of us have felt insecure at some time in our lives; perhaps even a victim of circumstance once an old certainty has been suddenly stripped away, such as a relationship or a job.

Sleeping rough is a dangerous choice. Picture: iStockphoto/Getty

Thank goodness that, for the very large majority of us, circumstance and uncertainty do not gang up to the extent that they force us out of our home.

But not everyone is so fortunate. Most of the general public might equate homelessness with rough sleeping, but of course that is only part of the picture. Add, for instance, short-term, insecure tenancies or having to sleep on a friend’s sofa.

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We are a homelessness charity and it’s our 50th anniversary this month. At Simon Community Scotland, our focus was, for many years, in Glasgow, but we have since extended our provision into North Lanarkshire and North Ayrshire.

Our way of working is to get alongside someone who is homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless, and help find practical solutions that are tailored to their individual needs.

We often do that by working closely with other organisations, and we will be using a birthday event later this month to thank them publicly.

We launched our 50th anniversary with an event on 1 September with one of our many partners – The Bike Station, the bicycle recycling workshop. A group of women have been attending The Bike Station in Glasgow and building their own bikes from scratch. When completed they can use them to travel the city and get to job interviews.

But it’s not just about building a bike, it’s about building self-confidence, making new friends and learning a skill.

Another project we’re launching is Nightstop Glasgow. It’s aimed at young people who are on the brink of homelessness. Maybe because of a family argument.

There is compelling evidence that the decision to sleep rough or pitch up at an adult hostel is a very tough one to make, while the decision to sleep rough or pitch up for a second night is relatively much easier.

So, we are creating a network of spare rooms – in people’s houses throughout Glasgow and provided by volunteers (who will be properly supported, trained and vetted) – as safe sanctuaries.

If our outreach team – working the streets – is able to identify a young person at risk of homelessness, or we are alerted by another agency, we will move quickly to have them accommodated in a person’s home (for up to three nights).

And then we try to move heaven and earth to find a solution that diverts them from what might have seemed to be an inevitability.

We estimate that, over the next three years, we will have provided 120 young people with this welcoming, homely and safe option.

And the stakes are extremely high: over half of all rough sleepers first slept on the streets before they were 21 and homeless people are nine times more likely to commit suicide. People who are long-term rough sleeping have a life expectancy of 47. Rough sleepers are 13 times more likely than the general public to experience violence, 47 times more likely to be the victim of theft and three times more likely to have been a victim of a road traffic accident. One in ten rough sleepers are estimated to have been victims of sexual violence within the previous 12 months.

We have three organisations to thank – in particular – for helping make this “nightstop” project a reality: the Big Lottery Fund and the Rangers Charity Foundation (both for funding) and fellow charity, Depaul, which already operates similar such “nightstops” elsewhere throughout the UK.

We deliver around 170,000 hours of support every year and engage with up to 3,000 people at risk of, or experiencing, homelessness. In Glasgow alone, our street team see around 150 people every month, with up to 40 new cases each month.

Which is why we are hoping this 50th anniversary will result in a surge in volunteers – including former service users, who are often best able to provide the necessary sympathetic ear.

And just as the story of each and every homeless person in Scotland will be different, so everyone in Scotland can be part of the solution.

Lorraine McGrath is chief executive of Simon Community Scotland