Homelessness: Cost of living crisis will mean many more people lose their home but by working together we can get through this – Ewan Aitken

I began my working life as a youth worker in Ruchill, Glasgow, in “detached youth work” – literally hanging about the streets, getting to know young folk in the area and working with them to find what they wanted to do, and see if together we could do it.

Many homeless people find themselves sleeping on couches or in other short-term forms of accommodation (Picture: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
Many homeless people find themselves sleeping on couches or in other short-term forms of accommodation (Picture: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

It was an utterly life-changing experience. I learnt a great deal about myself, the reality of poverty, and the trauma and stigma it often brings. The role included living in the area, something which taught me the power of simply being present without agenda. But it meant I also saw just how awful the housing was. Many flats were permanently damp but tenants were just told to put the heating on and open the windows.

It was there I learnt the difference between a house and a home. I met a young guy who had suffered deep trauma. He had physical and emotional damage from his early years. He’d left school and his mother’s home at 14. When I met him, he’d been living on folk’s sofas and other very short-term accommodation for years; nothing stable or permanent, always worried when he was going to get asked to move on.

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In my naivety, I thought the answer was just a permanent tenancy. It’s what he said he wanted, so he and I worked to get him one. And we did. The problem was he needed so much more than that. He needed the resources to make it a home: furniture, paint, kitchen equipment – the practical stuff that changes a house into a home.

And he also needed support to cope with what was, it turned out, a very different way of life. What I had not understood was all his life skills had been honed to cope with crisis and instability. When he got the keys to his house everything changed, and I didn’t ask what he needed to manage that change. Sadly, it meant his new life of a permanent tenancy lasted less than two months.

I asked his social worker what we should do next. She said to never forget it’s taken him 21 years to get to this place of difficulty; it may take 21 years for him to get out of it. We just need to be there for however long it takes.

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Today’s tough times means many more folk will be tipped into poverty and homelessness. Cyrenians’ winter campaign “Home for Christmas”, which will be launched soon, focuses on why the journey into homelessness doesn't start when you lose your house, and it doesn't end when you get keys to another.

The support we provide includes physically making a house into a home, reconnecting folk into their community, learning to cook and manage the costs of food, heating and lighting, and staying connected (internet and phone bills), support into education or employment and much more.

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If I learnt anything from my Ruchill days it was home is so much more than just a roof over your head – it's somewhere you feel you have created a safe, comfortable and supported space that’s yours for however long you want. However hard things get, I know we can come together as a community to help more people have and keep that.

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians