We can’t return to the ‘normality’ of homelessness – Ewan Aitken

There should be no need for anyone to sleep rough (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)There should be no need for anyone to sleep rough (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
There should be no need for anyone to sleep rough (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
The swift action taken at the start of the pandemic to get support to those who needed it shows the way our society should be run, writes Ewan Aitken

This pandemic has highlighted both the relationships between us all – how interconnected we are – and just how unequally the burden of risk falls across society. With shops and restrictions easing, we can catch a glimpse of a new “normality”, but we’re far from being through this yet. This is a stormy sea we’re crossing, and while some of us are secure on well-built vessels, others are struggling to stay afloat.

It was through quick, decisive action at the start of this pandemic that those most exposed in society could access the support they needed, and were able to self-isolate and be safe.

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At Cyrenians, we’ve been part of a huge effort to ensure those who were previously rough sleeping could access a place to stay. This was possible thanks to the resources and direction committed from the top down, alongside the relationships colleagues have patiently built with those we support, which in some cases has taken years.

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians ScotlandEwan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians Scotland
Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians Scotland

While this rapid response has undoubtedly ensured that lives have been saved, there are some necessary choices we need to make now, in the urgency of this pandemic. We’re looking at the biggest economic shock for generations. With the protections against evictions due to end in September, time is running out for many families across Scotland who are worried about keeping a roof over their heads. Unless we act now, we face seeing a wave of homelessness this autumn, the impact of which will be felt for years to come.

We can prevent this. Last week, I co-signed a letter on behalf of Cyrenians alongside other homelessness, housing and welfare organisations, calling on Scottish Ministers to continue to show leadership and extend emergency powers to protect households against eviction until next year. This is one part of the Homeless and Rough Sleeping Action Group (HARSAG) recommendations that ministers have accepted “in principle”, and one that myself and many others across society are keen to see put in place, sooner rather than later.

We’ve also asked for better protections for those with “no recourse to public funds”. One of the amazing things that we’ve seen during Covid is how those barriers to support that we’ve come up against for years had effectively been removed. Individuals and families are getting the support they need – as they should, and as is their right.

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For years, people have been forced into unimaginable positions of hardship and destitution due to their legal status. Scottish ministers understand this, as evidenced by their recent call to the UK Government to meet their moral and humanitarian duties – but faced with UK ministers who evidently have no desire or inclination to take a humane approach and respect human rights, we cannot wait on Westminster.

In this matter, like so many others, we can show leadership, and stand up for the rights of all our communities. Who gets help, what resources we commit, and how they receive it, is ultimately a political choice – a choice that characterises us as a society.

We all have a right to housing – we must make the choice as a society to uphold human rights, and protect people from destitution. We must recognise that the relationships we at Cyrenians, and countless other organisations, have built with those we support are built on respect and recognition that there is space for change. And why not lead that change from the top-down? How we respond in the next weeks and months will profoundly shape the way our way of life for years to come. We can choose to “return to normal”, where homelessness held back the lives of many thousands across Scotland. Or we can build a society that upholds human rights by creating more homes for good health, and making sure that we see absolutely no evictions into homelessness, and no return to rough sleeping.

Ewan Aitken is the CEO of Cyrenians Scotland

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