Russell Barr: We must tackle the scourge of homelessness

'Behind every statistic is a human being deserving of dignity and respect' File picture: Lisa Ferguson
'Behind every statistic is a human being deserving of dignity and respect' File picture: Lisa Ferguson
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Kirk Moderator Rt Rev Dr Russell Barr says he will be doing all he can to tackle the scourge of homelessness in our country

Edinburgh has some of the most expensive homes in the country but it also has many people who are homeless.

Rt Rev Dr Russell Barr, visits Fresh Start, the charity which he founded. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Rt Rev Dr Russell Barr, visits Fresh Start, the charity which he founded. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Edinburgh is one of the richest cities in the world but last year Fresh Start handed out over 11,300 starter packs of crockery, pots and pans, bed linen, towels and cleaning materials to people struggling to make a home for themselves.

Edinburgh has some of the best restaurants in the world but today Fresh Start was handing out food packs to people so they could feed themselves and their families.

Fresh Start is the charity I founded in 1999.

Based at Ferry Road Drive in West Pilton, with satellite stations at Gorgie and Craigmillar, Fresh Start offers practical and social support to people who have been homeless. Every person who has been homeless has a story to tell and it is often a difficult and heart breaking story of what happened to them.

Behind every statistic is a human being, whether a man, woman or child, someone who is as much a person as you or me and deserving of all the dignity and respect we hope for ourselves.

More often than not someone who is homeless loses not just their home but their family, their friends, their belongings, their confidence and their self-esteem.

However, one of the things I have learned is that being homeless is often a stage in someone’s life – a very difficult stage – but with the proper support most people are able to make a new life for themselves.

Mary’s first husband had been violent towards her, so violent she escaped with her six children and sought safety in a women’s refuge.

Understandably given the strain she was under, Mary’s mental health deteriorated, she suffered from depression and began to drink.

Mary’s spiral of decline led to her trying to take her own life and she was admitted to the Royal Edinburgh Hospital.

Thankfully Mary was referred to Fresh Start and started attending one of our food stations.

Slowly but surely her confidence returned, she gave up drinking, and her children noticed a huge difference in her almost immediately.

Mary’s story is an inspirational one and with the help of Fresh Start’s volunteers she has worked hard to turn her life around.

Sadly, however, Mary’s story is all too common and while it is easy to think being given a tenancy is a happy ending, settling back into a new home and a new community can be a real challenge for someone who has experienced homelessness.

The reasons people like Mary become homeless are well documented with breakdown in relationships, domestic abuse, rent arrears or mortgage default being the most common causes.

According to the Scottish Government’s facts and figures, statutory homelessness peaked in 2005-6 and has been on a marked downward path ever since.

Although that downward trend is very welcome, the stark fact remains that in 2014-15, Scottish local authorities assessed 28,615 people as homeless, something which is surely unacceptable in a country which aspires to be modern and progressive.

Sadly all the anecdotal evidence suggests the numbers are increasing with both Glasgow’s City Mission and Edinburgh’s Bethany Christian Trust having record numbers of people using their rough sleeping shelters over the past winter.

Figures from the Trussell Trust also reveal a record demand for food banks, with more than 133,000 referrals in Scotland during the 12 months to the end of March 2016.

And behind every statistic is a human being, whether a man, woman or child, someone who is as much a person as you or me and deserving of all the dignity and respect we hope for ourselves.

Following my nomination as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, I have pledged to use my year of office to tackle the obscenity of homelessness in Scotland. I was delighted to read the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has confirmed her government’s commitment to building 50,000 affordable houses over the next five years with 35,000 (70 per cent) being available for social rent.

And as someone who has experienced poverty in her own childhood, Angela Constance, the newly appointed Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities, has spoken about the critical importance of people having a safe, secure and stable home.

The people of Edinburgh’s churches have been Fresh Start’s core supporters, people motivated by their faith not to walk past on the other side of someone’s need. Since 1999, they have helped thousands of people move through a very difficult stage in life and build a much brighter future.

As Moderator I want everyone to have a bright future and during the coming year I will be doing what I can to make sure Scotland has no room for homelessness.

• Rt Rev Dr Russell Barr is Moderator to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland