Coronavirus in Scotland: Homelessness charities need your help – Ewan Aitken

The social security safety net has been deliberately pulled apart over ten years and now the most vulnerable are paying the price, says Ewan Aitken

By Ewan Aitken
Friday, 20th March 2020, 11:38 am
A homeless man on Edinburgh's Royal Mile bows his head (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
A homeless man on Edinburgh's Royal Mile bows his head (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

These are very tough times. Not least because we don’t know exactly what it is we are facing, how we will be affected or for how long, or how we should respond. It is a leap into the unknown.

Despite this uncertainty, I remain inspired by the deep well of compassion I see in our communities. People are self-organising as well as self-isolating. New community networks are springing up all over Scotland, encouraging those well enough to offer their time and energy to assist those who need it. People are not flouting the rules this way, they are innovating, so those who are struggling can still get what they need. Neighbours and strangers are looking out for each other, becoming acquainted with one another – often through WhatsApp groups or platforms like Next Door – perhaps for the first time, out of a shared desire to look after those who may not be able to look after themselves; evidence again of how we are compassionate social beings, who thrive through interdependence, driven by a vision of a just society.

Any society is judged by how those on the margins are treated, especially in a crisis. The signs in many ways are good. But there is still much to be done, and how we respond will be a real test of our shared values.

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Many of those we support at Cyrenians will be some of the hardest hit by this crisis. Those sleeping rough, at the sharp end of homelessness, will likely have underlying health ­conditions that make them more ­vulnerable to this virus – and how they had previously received support will change. For those experiencing homelessness in unsuitable or unsafe accommodation – facing overcrowding, using cramped, shared facilities, or living with a pervasive threat of violence – how must it sound to be asked to self-isolate?

For those trapped in the grip of poverty, times like these represent a real and present threat to their ­livelihoods and prospects, with many on low or insecure incomes facing the prospect of unemployment. Families reliant on free school meals may struggle to stay afloat after schools close today. And, after ten long years where our social security net has been slowly and deliberately pulled apart, we cannot rely on things as they stand now to stop more people being swept under at an even greater rate than at present.

The coronavirus did not create these situations – it has intensified them, with a huge impact on those experiencing homelessness, and placing plenty more at risk. But we can respond effectively. There is much governments can do, like increasing the miserable statutory sick pay amount to match the real Living Wage. Furthermore, support for community and voluntary organisations like Cyrenians is much needed as we provide vital support for those facing exclusion all year around.

Right now, we’re under extreme pressure. We are doing all we can to keep supporting the most vulnerable, adapting our services through innovative solutions to keep supporting those most in need to deal with some difficult and often conflicting decisions about supporting staff and keeping them safe too.

These are some of the toughest times we have faced in our 50-year history and, I’ll be straight with you, we need all the support we can get. We’re determined to not only get through this crisis, but to continue tackling the causes and consequences of homelessness beyond it, providing frontline support while pushing for system-changing solutions so everybody has the chance to lead a fulfilling life and to realise their potential.

To do this, we need financial donations, so that we can respond quickly to an ever-changing situation, and direct our resources effectively to where it’s needed most at a time when our commitment to working flexibly and innovatively has never been more needed. Please support us at

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians Scotland.