By Declan Murray
Counting George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio and Prince Harry among its visitors the Edinburgh-based social enterprise Social Bite is something of a celebrity in the city’s response to a persistent homeless population. Centred on its two cafés on Rose Street and Shandwick Place, Social Bite have set themselves the audacious goal of ending homelessness. By employing former homeless people in their cafés, running a ‘pay it forward’ programme where customers can buy lunch for a homeless person to claim later, setting up an affordable housing village and running the annual ‘Sleep in the Park’ fundraiser, Social Bite are a prominent player on the homeless scene in Edinburgh. But did you know there was a homeless café in Edinburgh way back in 1966?
In 1966, an Edinburgh University Chaplain, Fr. Anthony Ross established Skippers Café on Cowgate. Although only open for a couple of years the Skippers, which acted as a night shelter for rough sleepers was integral to the founding of Cyrenianstwo years later in 1968. Cyreniansstill operates today providing a range of support to those at risk of becoming, those who are and those who have recently been, homeless. The organisation regularly partners with Social Bite.
In 2017/18 there were 28,972 approved assessments for homeless status across Scotland. But such statistics are regularly conflicted by numbers from service providers such as Crisis or Shelter who track the number of people using their services and staying in the accommodation they manage. Overall figures to one side what is less contested is the distinct demographics of the homeless population in Scotland. The majority are ‘White Scottish’, single men under the age of 34 (Scottish Government, 2018). It is perhaps not surprising then that many of the organisations active in addressing homelessness in Edinburgh take a particular focus on young people. Another long standing partner in the fight against homelessness in Edinburgh, Four Square, founded in 1978, was originally called the Edinburgh Council for the SingleHomeless, reflecting the high proportion of homeless people who are single. There are legal reasons for this focus too: historically the law deemed those with families to be in ‘priority need’ and so would receive assistance, advice and accommodation ahead of those without children.
We can characterise the work of these and other organisations working in the city across three broad areas to:
- Prevent/end homelessness
- Provide emergency support to homeless people
- Help homeless people through the resettlement process
Generally, organisations are involved in more than one of these three areas. Most of the local Edinburgh organisations (like Cyrenians) work on the second and third areas: helping those in immediate need and with re-integration. Efforts towards the first goal of ending homeless tend to be more the preserve of national/UK-wide organisations like Crisis and Shelter.
As for the future? Of course it won’t be cafés that end homelessness in Edinburgh, or furniture sales (see Four Square, The Bethany Trust and The Settlement Project) but the current crop of organisations and enterprises that are working to help could well lay claim to starting its demise: the number of homeless in Scotland has been falling since 2005/6. And while the numbers may wax and wane over the years with changes in the city’s population, state welfare provision and the mode of counting and accounting for homelessness there are signs that more novel approaches are emerging like ‘Invisible Cities’ where homeless people act as tour guides to the city they know so well. Such an approach not only provides employment and skills development to formerly homeless people but crucially might also be changing for the better the wider population’s perception of homelessness.
If you are interested in learning more about homelessness then take a look at this postgraduate course at Heriot Watt University in ‘Homelessness and Social Exclusion’. The course covers both interventionist and statutory frameworks governing homelessness in Scotland today.