Homelessness and begging are far from lifestyle choices, says Dominic RC Heslop, and we must do more to beat them
I recently spent a few days on holiday in New York. A fabulous, buzzing city with so much to see and marvel at. I was not surprised, however, to note the number of people living on the streets, given the fact New York City has a population of more than 8.5 million. But what I was reminded of on my return to Edinburgh, where the population is less than half a million, is the awful fact that we probably have a disproportionate number of homeless people in Scotland’s capital city.
Let me say at the outset that I am aware there has been a growing development in recent years in Edinburgh of “organised beggars” or, as the Americans term it, “panhandlers”. I don’t dispute that, and if anecdotal “chat” is correct that Eastern Europeans who we see on Princes Street are dropped off and later collected in the early evening, it doesn’t mean that their plight is worse than genuine homeless individuals. I regard this as a form of human trafficking which needs to be addressed.
My blood boils when I hear uncharitable individuals and so-called Christians come out with statements along the lines of “don’t give money to people on the streets, as it’s their choice” or “they’ll only spend it on alcohol or drugs”.
I accept that there are “hobos” who have made a decision to drop out of society; when I was at university in St Andrews, I knew a very intelligent, Oxford-educated man who decided that life on the streets was what he wanted, and booze wasn’t a factor in that decision. But he was probably the exception.
Last year, I attended a very beautiful and important service in the magnificent setting of St Giles’ Cathedral regarding reconciliation after the referendum on Scottish independence. Later that day, I was walking down North Bridge in the pouring, hideous rain and saw a young lad, no more than 20 years old, begging for money to buy a cup of tea. Are you telling me he made a lifestyle choice to be in this situation? We have safety nets in our society to help people who can’t help themselves, but through different and difficult circumstances – abusive parents, sexual assault, deprivation and many other factors – we have individuals who fall through that net and do end up on our streets.
I make absolutely no party political point, and I would indeed have no hesitation in criticising any government, of whatever hue, which does not have tackling the scourge of our nation, homelessness and people living on the streets, as one of its key priorities. Streetwork, a valuable homelessness organisation in Edinburgh which provides a vital rough sleeping crisis centre and a support centre for people at risk of homelessness, has had its budget cut by almost £200,000 by the council.
Figures recently released apparently show a three per cent drop in homelessness applications over the last year in Edinburgh. That, however, does not take into account the fact that alternative housing options are now available.
In real terms, it doesn’t mean fewer people are becoming homeless. I’m sure I’m not alone in still feeling more needs to be done.
Dominic RC Heslop is Conservative councillor for Pentland Hills Ward