‘I’ve been sofa surfing with my 10-year-old for months’ - Fresh calls to put Edinburgh’s homelessness crisis at 'very top' of policy agenda with looming financial hardship and mental health woes resulting from Covid

Fresh calls have been made for Edinburgh’s homelessness crisis to be placed at the “very top” of the policy agenda, amid fears it will be exacerbated by a surge in financial hardship and mental health problems brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

Tuesday, 2nd February 2021, 7:00 am

Recruiting more people with “lived experience” of drug and alcohol addiction to provide better one-to-one support has been suggested by one charity founder, with politicians urgently seeking more state investment in truly affordable homes and wrap-around services.

Edinburgh mum Lynsey Gordon says she and her 10-year-old son have already been waiting nearly two years for permanent housing, and have been ‘sofa surfing’ with family and friends for the last 14 months due to a lack of available suitable temporary accommodation.

She says past traumas linked to her own mental health issues - complex post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and borderline personality disorder - have prevented her from accepting a council offer of shared temporary accommodation in Lothian Road, after she left a private let property in November 2019 following a neighbour dispute.

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The 31-year-old, who previously worked as a hairdresser, now fears for her own son’s mental health and claims the system is failing those with complex mental health needs.

She said: “I don’t feel I am treated the same as someone who might have had a physical condition.

“I can not remember when we last had a decent night’s sleep. We are having to share a bed and most nights sleep on sofas. I am just desperate to get a bit of normality back.

“It seems like they are just building more and more student housing and not any decent, affordable council housing. There has obviously been a lot of council houses bought by previous owners too.

Lothian MSP Sarah Boyack (top left) and founder of Edinburgh-based charity Steps to Hope (right).

“There is going to be a surge in mental health cases and people really are struggling just now, and that is something they will need to look at.”

Waiting two years for permanent housing is commonplace in the Capital and, in October, it emerged the standard wait for a three-bedroom council house is more than three years. In response, several councillors have called for more government funding into council housing, which makes up 15 percent of the city’s housing stock compared to the Scottish average of 24 percent.

Councillor Kate Campbell, homelessness and fair work convener, urged anyone who does not have somewhere to stay to get in touch and acknowledged pressures on temporary accommodation means they can not always place people where they would like, but stressed officers will always make offers and provide advice.

Ms Campbell said the city’s council housing stock was decimated by the Right to Buy policy but says they are trying to find ways of providing alternative accommodation, for instance though their rent deposit scheme which gives initial financial support to help people move into the private rented sector. The council also pledges to build 20,000 affordable new homes by 2027.

Provision of temporary accommodation has been a challenge but the council has secured more than 800 additional spaces and a 65-room welcome centre, delivered in partnership with the Bethany Trust, providing shelter and food and targeted support. The council says it also works with Streetwork volunteers who help hundreds of people each year who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Pre-pandemic it is thought there were between 90 and 120 people sleeping rough each night in Edinburgh - but this has fallen dramatically to between ten and 30 people.

However one city resident, who did not want to be named, recently contacted the Edinburgh Evening News to highlight concerns about a relative with mental health issues being forced to sleep in his car overnight, after the council’s out-of-hours homeless service told him no rooms were available - including in the welcome centre.

An email response from the council to his complaint, seen by the Evening News, states demand for housing in Edinburgh “far exceeds” what is available and that the draw of the Capital is leading to their services being “stretched as never before.”

Recruit those with ‘lived experience’

Founder of Edinburgh-based homeless charity Steps to Hope, Richard Roncero, says although the number of rough sleepers is way down on pre-pandemic levels, too many are still living out on the streets. He said: “I would regularly get up at 5:30am and take coffees out to rough sleepers in Edinburgh and build a rapport with them, prior to lockdown.

“There were times I handed people coffee and their hands were shaking. They have asked me to put sugar in and they have dropped the cup because their hands are shaking that much. It breaks your heart, and that’s the reason we do what we do.”

Mr Roncero stressed that, even if more people are being housed in temporary accommodation during lockdown, they often end up back on the streets due to a lack of adequate support for persistent linked behavioural issues like drug or alcohol addiction and mental health problems.

One solution, he says, could involve the council recruiting more people with lived experience of homelessness and addiction to start talking directly to those in most need, helping to give them a sense of hope and the confidence to start believing they can deal with their problems, access the right rehab services and start rebuilding their lives.

Mr Roncero, who founded the charity in April 2018, wants the Scottish Government to focus less on harm reduction methods such as prescription drugs, for instance, and more on practical solutions to fix and prevent the addiction issues which contribute to homelessness.

The 37-year-old, a former cocaine and alcohol addict who has been clean and sober for six years, had been running an emergency overnight shelter on Sunday nights in St Cuthbert’s Church hall for several months before the pandemic arrived. It also served as a daily soup kitchen and a welcoming space for people to watch movies.

They have been unable to reopen it because of Covid transmission risk but the charity has been running a hot food van from various locations around Edinburgh ever since. He says that, when his team of volunteers contact the council’s out of hours service to find accommodation for those asking for help at the food van, they seldom have rooms available.

Authorities ‘can not cope’

Lothian MSP Sarah Boyack (Labour) says homelessnes has to be at the “very top” of the policy agenda both now and post pandemic and that, although councils have delivered increased support to communities during Covid, their funding does not reflect the extent of their responsibilities to those in need.

She said: “Local authorities cannot cope with their workload and urgently require additional resources. We also urgently need new affordable homes to be built in Edinburgh so that people can get a permanent home and the wrap around services they need.

“Keeping people safe, healthy and in a permanent home will also benefit our NHS as we move towards thinking about recovery from the pandemic. We need properly funded local councils, able to provide a wide range of services to the people who need them the most - from mental health support and employment advice to permanent housing."

SNP Housing Minister, Kevin Stewart, says the Scottish Government has committed a record £230 million to delivering a range of affordable housing in Edinburgh over the current parliamentary term, primarily for social rent.

He says they have also taken “important steps” to support those with addiction and mental health issues into secure, settled accommodation with “intensive support,” providing £3.5 million to the council to implement its ‘rapid rehousing’ transition plan to get people into settled homes as quickly as possible.

Mr Stewart says they have also provided about £2 million to the city’s Housing First programme - a consortium led by homeless charity Cyrenians - which gives people a safe home of their own then puts in place a support structure to help them sustain a tenancy and re-integrate into society.

The government will also provide an additional £50 million each year for the next five years to improve and increase services for people affected by drug addiction.

Mr Stewart added: “The number of people sleeping rough in Edinburgh is at a record low.

“In 2020, we provided over £1.5 million to third sector organisations in Edinburgh and Glasgow to support people off the streets into emergency accommodation, and the establishment of rapid rehousing welcome centres have also played an important role in reducing the number of rough sleepers in these cities.”

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