Homelessness in Edinburgh: Living Through Covid exhibition showcases art that helps makes sense of a world turned upside down – Ewan Aitken

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of speaking at many events to mark the opening of buildings, exhibitions, new services and other moments of celebration.

During the height of the Covid pandemic, hundreds of homeless people were put up in hotels (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)
During the height of the Covid pandemic, hundreds of homeless people were put up in hotels (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

Weirdly, there are even a couple of plaques on the walls of buildings bearing my name to mark such occasions. I find the idea of my name on a plaque in perpetuity because of a speech I made and ribbon I cut strange, but these are the odd consequences of having spent years in elected office.

Last Monday I spoke at a different type of opening event, an online art exhibition. It’s called Living Though Covid.

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There are no plaques, but I really hope people will remember the exhibition and what it tells us about recent history. It came about through a collaboration between my Cyrenians colleagues and the University of Edinburgh.

It’s the story of a world turned upside down early in the pandemic, told through creative work made in early lockdown by some of my amazing outreach colleagues and the people they were supporting with the tough reality of homelessness before and during the pandemic.

The exhibition is based on their real-time diaries of those weird times of first lockdown. It is a living record of what they felt as they, like all of us, were working out how to adapt to a situation none of us had previous experience of, which created extra challenges and unexpected relief for people in some very tough places.

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It takes us back to a very weird time: empty streets, shops closed, parks bereft of people, a collective sense of anxiety and fear of the unknown. As the exhibition says, the world was turned on its head.

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Yet being turned on its head meant we discovered we could do things differently. Cyrenians were part of a group of charities who worked in partnership with the city council and the Scottish government to rent five hotels for over 700 people who otherwise would’ve been on the streets in places where they couldn’t isolate.

That level of cooperation and collaboration, scrapping the rules and focusing on what people needed, was one of the many lessons from Covid that we must not lose sight of.

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And it was the major reason there were no Covid cases (yes, none!) amongst the homeless population in Edinburgh in the first lockdown. If we can achieve this in a crisis, think what we could do when there isn’t one!

The exhibition expresses living through those difficult things using the creative arts, which is often the only way we can find to talk about tough times.

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One person who moved into one of the hotels and was grappling with the mental health impacts of lockdown wrote:

I can choose my route, so turn my face away

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From the concrete jungle glowering menacingly near,

To my left, where tiny birds sing out confidently all day

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And trees grow strong while the river rushes to the weir.

The poem adds that “some days, I’m the fragile bird, others, the unbending tree”.

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The exhibition has many more such gems, insights into the human experience of lockdown, and asks what we're willing to learn when the world gets weird. I’d encourage everyone to spend some time exploring it.

Ewan Aitken is CEO of charity Cyrenians

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