Volunteering with Edinburgh's homeless can make a difference

Ahead of the first Sleep in the Park, Deputy Editor of The Scotsman, Donald Walker, shares his own experience working with Edinburgh's homeless.
Volunteers at a soup kitchenVolunteers at a soup kitchen
Volunteers at a soup kitchen

Everyone wants to help the homeless. Or so it seems, from the amount of people who say “I’d like to do that” when I tell them that I volunteer for the care van which offers support to those who live – and sadly, often die – on the city centre streets of Edinburgh.

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It’s a response I made myself for many years. Twenty years ago, I was living in London and acutely aware of the number of homeless Scots on the streets, and how they were often abused for being homeless, and abused further for having brought their problem south. Their accent alone made them targets for those who saw the homeless as vermin, frankly. I contacted the charity Borderline, which supports homeless Scots in London, offering to help.

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It was easy to pick up the phone and request details. Seeing through my good intention was another matter.

It was two decades later when, at last, I put that desire into practice. I now regret that I did not follow my first instinct all those years ago, but I was always working late, or too busy, or too tired. There was always a reason not to commit, and there was always a time I could see in the future when things would be easier, and I would do my bit. But that time didn’t come. Fatherhood was another good excuse to push this back again; supporting the children was exhausting, and it was enough, wasn’t it? Helping the homeless – or anyone else, for that matter – would have to wait again, until life became less complicated.

I wish I could point to a moment when the light dawned, but a couple of years ago, I recognised, finally, that life would always be like this, and at this rate, I would never do anything but talk a good game. We’re all busy. We’re all tired, juggling the commitments of demanding lifestyles, and failing to achieve that much-referenced but rarely enacted work-life balance. In many ways, I realised, it was now or never.

What followed when I signed up as a care van volunteer was an eye-opener for someone who thought he had enough of a grasp of the concept of homelessness. In truth, I did not have a clue. Being homeless is usually only the latest stage of a deeper problem or problems which have disrupted or virtually destroyed a life. It can also be the last stage, but for some, lifeline support can be enough to keep them going as they battle to find a way ahead, even if a cup of hot soup and a bread roll is only going to help them through the night.

Like most people, I’ve heard many complaints about homeless people having dogs, and why they must be stupid because they can’t afford to feed themselves, never mind a pet. But the dog isn’t a pet. It’s a means of not freezing to death, clutched close to the chest during long cold nights.

As well as food, support groups distribute clothes and sleeping bags. At this time of year, demand is high for socks and gloves in particular, and repeat requests from some of those in need alerted me to something I should have worked out long ago: when a pair of socks get soaked, quite often they are finished. Someone who is homeless over the winter months will have no means of drying them out to wear again.

And it’s also important to remember that those who will accept help from a support charity might not be homeless at that moment, because getting a roof over your head in temporary accommodation does not put food on the table.

There is both ignorance and misconception of the lot of the homeless, and this weekend’s Big Sleep Out in Princes Street Gardens is a very welcome initiative which will both raise funds and increase awareness and understanding of the problem.

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I also endorse personally this newspaper’s excellent Edinburgh Cheer campaign, which encourages you and me to realise that if we want to help, we can, however small our contribution might be. All it takes is recognition that the opportunity is right now; a better time won’t come. If you are thinking about helping those in need this Christmas – and beyond – I would urge you to take that leap of faith.

I would not describe my experience as a volunteer as rewarding or fulfilling. It’s neither, but nor has it ever been a matter of regret, and in any case, it’s not about what I get out of out; it’s about what I put into into it, and what someone else gets out of it.

Without volunteers, all the goodwill in the world gets nowhere. And for someone out there, that small commitment might make a bigger difference than we could ever imagine. I just wish I had realised this 20 years earlier.

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