Ewan Aitken: That political decision that’s making people homeless

Volunteers and residents pictured at the Cyrenians farm in 1981
Volunteers and residents pictured at the Cyrenians farm in 1981
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When I turned 50, which wasn’t yesterday, my daughter, then aged eight, asked me: “What’s it like to be half way through your life?” I loved her confidence I would make it to my century, though the “half way” did get me thinking about what I had, and hadn’t, done in my 50 years so far.

Cyrenians will reach a half century later this year. It’s an important milestone to mark and we’ll be doing so with a number of events and a media campaign. What we won’t be doing is celebrating. It’s a sad admission that, after 50 years, what we do is still needed; its good to gave thanks for what has been done but it’s not a cause of celebration we are still here.

Cyrenians CEO Ewan Aitken

Cyrenians CEO Ewan Aitken

Homelessness remains on the rise. Austerity, a political choice, is producing more destitution than ever. Social isolation, a consequence of many different competing issues, is one of the biggest drivers of vulnerability. There are 600 homeless people in bed and breakfast every night in Edinburgh and significantly more in temporary housing. More and more people struggle to afford even to rent. And 4,500 young people leave home every year in Scotland because of family breakdown. It’s still the biggest reason given for youth homelessness. And despite lots of dedicated people working very hard, both in charities and in the council, some people still fall between the cracks of services and support; what is offered is not what they need.

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It was many of those same issues which inspired a group of concerned Edinburgh citizens, led by an Edinburgh University chaplain, Anthony Ross, to found Cyrenians in June 1968. A secular origination despite it biblical name, it grew out of a “drop-in” cafe for the homeless in the Grassmarket called Skippers. There were no criteria for using its facilities – if you needed what it offered, you were welcome. Those running the cafe noticed some people just bounced around the system. Everyone knew they were there, but somehow no-one could find how to best get alongside in a way which could see them begin a journey of transformation. So Cyrenians tried something new. Our first project was a community in a house in Broughton Place. Volunteers and residents shared a living space, shared meals and domestic chores, shared activities and where possible work, journeying together as equals. The principle was anyone who visited couldn’t distinguish volunteer from resident.

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The second project was another community, this time on a small farm in Wilkieston, West Lothian. Those two projects are still going, still offering shared community living with staff, volunteers and residents. And if you went there today, you’d still struggle to know who was who. Over the last 50 years we’ve grown into an organisation providing early interventions to prevent homelessness as well as trying to support people who have become homeless. We have 37 projects over seven local authorities, journeying with several thousand people excluded from family, home, work or community. This year we’ll be delivering the support for the Social Bite Village and launching a new community to support people dealing with mental health challenges; two new communities for our 50th year.

Our core principle of being equals on a journey of transformation remains. Values-led, relationship-based, our activities are shaped by and are successful because they begin with the building of trusted relationships. We are very proud of what Cyrenians have achieved over 50 years, of the journeys shared and the lives transformed; but in another 50 years hopefully we won’t be marking our 100th birthday because we won’t be needed.

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians