Marco Biagi: My night sleeping rough in capital

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Marco Biagi joined 70 volunteers on streets to gain an understanding of the misery faced by the homeless on a daily basis

Under the imposing shadows of bank, hotel and theatres in Festival Square last week, a group of 70 volunteers camped out.

We were part of an annual event organised by Edinburgh homelessness charity The Rock Trust, this year working in concert with charities in seven other cities across the UK.

The sponsored Sleep Out 2012 was intended to raise funds and awareness, rather than duplicate the experience of sleeping on the streets. The 50 of us who spent the night there were guarded by event stewards. All of us had homes waiting for us when the night was over. None of us had to beg for our suppers.

That night, though, we experienced all the elements that a November in Edinburgh had to offer. We were kept up by the noise of the city all night. All of us felt hard concrete underneath. That brought us all a step closer to appreciating what it would be like to live that way every night, but the experience was always going to be a sanitised one. It would be ridiculous to suggest that one night outdoors conveys wholesale the experience of homelessness. Fortunately, that is not the intention.

The main purpose of the Sleep Out was to raise £250,000 for the youth homelessness charities working in each of the cities. The early indications are that it has succeeded. The second was to raise awareness, and on a long and mostly sleepless night, it was hard not to reflect on the problem that all of our towns and cities continue to grapple with.

Scotland’s Homelessness Act, passed in 2003, had ambitious aims. It set a target that from the end of 2012 all unintentionally homeless people will be entitled to settled accommodation. Homelessness, however, needs much more than just a new law and a well-intentioned pressing of the voting button in Holyrood. The Act laid the foundation for change, but investment from government at all levels and tireless efforts from charities working with the hardest to reach has brought us to where we are now. After peaking in 
2005-6, when 61,000 people across the country presented themselves as homeless, levels are now down by a quarter.

Much of the recent progress is down to work aimed at the causes of homelessness. Last year, young people with direct experience of going through homelessness services told their stories to the Scottish Parliament’s Equal Opportunities Committee. Family and relationship breakdown, threats of violence and the isolation of leaving the care system ran through their accounts. Like many charities working in this area, the Rock Trust also runs projects aimed at risk groups, like young people making the transition from care.

In the last decade, local councils have realised that it is a false economy only to target those people already homeless rather than those before and after. It is a rare case where homelessness creeps up with no warning signs. Almost as rare is the newly-housed individual or family who does not still face challenges that could lead them to being homeless again. Parliament heard horror stories like young people who had been housed into the very lowest quality property. Flats could be no more than empty boxes, bereft of the basic essentials of life such as carpets, furniture and cooking equipment. Again the reports also show that such experiences are now rare, and more importantly, are on the way out.

If this is a picture of hope, there is trouble ahead. The accommodation costs of the newly rehoused depend heavily on money that comes straight from the UK Government through the welfare system. Radical changes in approach are now under way, and national organisations campaigning for homeless people such as Shelter, Scottish Churches Housing Action and the Scottish Council for Single Homeless have all argued that the changes will make homelessness worse. Local councils will face higher bills in already difficult times, and more of the rehoused will be at risk of losing the roof over their head because of rent eligibility problems and finding themselves in a yo-yo between crisis services and temporary housing. Not only could the UK-wide changes lead to turmoil in already difficult lives, what was intended to save public money will almost certainly end up costing more.

With these difficulties on the horizon there has never been a more important time to support Edinburgh’s many hard-working housing charities, so they can keep on offering their services, whether in homes, on streets, or in hostels. You don’t have to sleep out in Festival Square to do that – there are always opportunities all year round, and there are still too many people facing another winter, who, unlike us, couldn’t simply go home in the morning.

• Marco Biagi is an SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central.

• HOMELESSNESS is still a problem in the Capital, despite the most recent figures showing the numbers were decreasing.

Homeless applications in Edinburgh fell from 4645 in 2009-10 to 4531 in 2010-11. The figures showed that the Capital had the most homeless people sleeping rough with 512 people saying they had slept rough the night before they applied for help.