Earlier this year I was talking to a group of Big Issue salesmen and women about their experience of selling the magazine. I was struck by one man who said: “The tough thing is not people who say no thanks, it’s people who just ignore you – or even worse, look right through you.”
Many of those we journey with at Cyrenians tell of how the stigma of homelessness is a huge barrier to them feeling able to get out of their tough reality. They feel they lose their identity, that people judge them, that they don’t matter or are just seen as a problem that needs fixed, not a person that needs respected and loved.
Sadly, these things they feel are not just in their imagination. A new poll, commissioned by Cyrenians, found 15 per cent of Scots believe young people are homeless because of personal choice and 25 per cent because they refuse to accept help from family, friends or benefits.
The study also found that Scots believe a rift/argument with family (85 per cent), excessively consuming drugs (64 per cent), and excessively consuming alcohol (54 per cent) are the main causes of homelessness amongst young people in Scotland. All of these beliefs carry an element of “blame” about them, which feeds the stigma those facing homelessness feel.
To try to help folk understand the human reality in a very different way, Cyrenians have launched a “bot” called Alex.
He’s a digital character who is struggling with homelessness. Although he’s a digital character, his story is based on the real experiences of people Cyrenians have journeyed with. You can talk to Alex at www.askalex.scot and learn through asking questions about his story about the reality of why he was on the streets and is still not yet settled even though he’s working and no longer sleeping rough. Please try it and if you like it, please tell your friends, Alex would like to get to know as many people as possible.
At Cyrenians we believe that the journey from exclusion to inclusion is an inner journey, a journey of the soul (in the sense of inner wellbeing, not just in the religious sense).
We all need material things to help us be warm, and dry, safe and fed and money coming in but if we feel we have no identity, none of these things will take us from exclusion to inclusion.
Alex is our attempt to help break down the stigma many of our most excluded citizens feel as they journey from exclusion to inclusion, a road that is long and rough with many barriers along the way, without the huge added burden of simply feeling that you don’t matter to anyone at all.
Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians