Ewan Aitken: Tiny steps make journey for homeless a success

Homeless people begging in Edinburgh. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Homeless people begging in Edinburgh. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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Coming out from a meeting last Friday afternoon near St Giles’ I met a young man begging on the New Steps as I cut down to Market street. In these situations I prefer to offer food rather than cash. I would not suggest that’s the only or “right” option, it simply feels somehow a more human response but I have no evidence other than my own experiences to justify this.

I asked him if he’d like something to eat. “Anything” he said so I nipped back up the steps and bought a filled roll, coffee and a cake and brought it back to him.

Cyrenians CEO Ewan Aitken. Picture: Jane Barlow

Cyrenians CEO Ewan Aitken. Picture: Jane Barlow

We chatted for a brief while. His circumstances were like so many we come across in Cyrenians for whom homelessness has become their reality; a combination of family dysfunction, personal trauma, lack of access to support in a crisis and little self-confidence to ask for help.

I might be able to describe the circumstances but the solution to his challenges are less definable. In fact, in some senses, there are not definable at all. Sure, a safe warm, secure place to stay, some work and income and access to good food would all help greatly.

But these are not themselves a true description of what success really would look like for that young man for they are material requirements for survival, not an expression of living a contented life where human flourishing can really happen and only he will know what that looks like or when it has begun to become a reality.

We have a homelessness crisis in Edinburgh. That is not a blame statement; it is not aimed at any one organisation or institution, it is simply a statement of fact.

We have more people with more complex problems experiencing homelessness in more ways than ever before and few are fewer resources to offer alternatives.

So we need to do things more collaboratively and differently. I believe that starts with changing how we understand success.

One of my colleagues journeys with some of our citizens who have the most complex of challenges and have often been living on the streets for a decade or longer.

He says he does not know what outcomes those he journeys with should aim for; sometimes they can only aim for the simplest of tasks, like turning up for an appointment; which can be a huge sign of progress that can take huge courage for the individual involved.

Other days more is possible but each day is different. It is celebration of tiny steps that create the potential of a successful journey not any predefined often material outcome decided by people who have not travelled a similar road.

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians