Ewan Aitken: The first step to helping the homeless is to listen to their efforts to be heard and understood

Ewan Aitken, CEO of Cyrenians. Picture: Jane Barlow
Ewan Aitken, CEO of Cyrenians. Picture: Jane Barlow
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The sight of people sleeping rough remains a daily occurrence here in Scotland’s capital.

It is an inevitable consequence of the politics of austerity and many charity colleagues share our view that we continue to have to manage more demand with far less resources.

To try to understand what we might do differently given these pressures, a group of us decided to spend time listening to those most likely to know – those sleeping rough themselves.

Teams went out on two evenings in the Princes Street/George Street area of the city centre. I was privileged to join them on the second evening. I went with two Cyrenians colleagues who are experienced in this work. I was deeply moved by their ability to get beside, physically and emotionally, the ten people we spoke with in the two hours we were out.

They sat on the ground beside the person they were listening to. They engaged in conversation about each person rather than simply quizzing them about their circumstance. Their compassion began by simply treating those we met as a fellow human being, with respect and dignity.

The reasons those we met were sleeping rough were many and varied; addiction, domestic violence, migration, debt. We know these are a tiny sample of the triggers that start a journey to the street.

Some might view the journey to the streets as the result of bad choices, but unless we understand the context in which they were made, what alternative options seemed achievable and what support was available on the way, instant judgments about somebody’s circumstances rarely find the truth.

For example, the reasons why those sleeping rough include a higher proportion of young LGBT people or ex-service personnel than in the general population are often because, in the place they found themselves, given the reaction they experienced to asking for support, it appeared to be the only ‘choice’ left.

We know from Cyrenians debt advice work that the cliché ‘only one payslip from losing our home’ is true for far more people than we realise and the speed of it happening when the payslip disappears can feel unstoppable.

One of those we met was not begging but busking. He was singing Gaelic ballads with a voice rich and beautiful enough to grace any stage. His story of violence in the home was as painful to hear as his voice was beautiful to listen to.

His song was for his supper and somewhere to sleep but his cry was to be heard as a person, a fellow human being, to be understood and to belong again. It is those things that are the first steps to rough sleeping become a thing of the past.

n Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians