Ewan Aitken: How blaming the homeless is going out of fashion
Social Bite seems to have helped the public care more for vulnerable, says Ewan Aitken of Cyrenians
Today I will have the huge privilege of taking part in the official opening of the Social Bite Village.
The brainchild of social entrepreneur – and sometime sandwich seller, as he describes himself! – Josh Littlejohn, this innovative community is both a new approach to the challenges faced by people who are homeless and draws on some well-developed understanding of what works for people in tough realities.
Cyrenians are delighted to have been commissioned by Social Bite to build and provide the support for the community created by the village. For 50 years we have used a model of community to support people as they move from a difficult situation to a new hope. Our first community began in 1968 in a house in Broughton Place and it still exists now in Ferry Road. In 1972 we bought a farm in West Lothian and began a second community for those for whom city life was in itself a challenge. The farm and its community continue to thrive. Many hundreds of people have gone on journeys of real change through community life, learning to look after themselves, to be ambitious and to do what it takes to flourish by looking after each other, being ambitious for each other and supporting each other as they flourish.
Community decision-making is around the dinner table. Perhaps the most important part of community living is if you sat at the dinner table you wouldn’t be able to tell who was staff, resident or volunteer. It’s a place where people discover they matter, they belong and they make a difference.
It’s appropriate in Cyrenians’ 50th year that we are able to bring this experience to the new and exciting community created by the Social Bite Village. The amazing “nest houses”, shared between two people, and the separate community hub make it a bit different to our present communities and the fact we don’t have live-in volunteers as we do in our present communities (though that may change) means it isn’t exactly the same, but the core principles of harnessing the power of community life as a catalyst for change remains its beating heart.
Josh and his team at Social Bite have achieved an incredible thing by getting the village ready in such a short time. They have been supported in an inspirational way by enormous contributions from supporters who slept out to raise money and lots of business in kind, cash and person, many going way beyond even the second mile.
I think the level of support from so many people in so many different ways has been the thing which most sticks out in this, at times, hair-raising journey. The village and the community it will form is in itself a wonderful achievement by Social Bite but perhaps their bigger achievement is the huge contribution they have made to changing the debate about homelessness, its roots and its solutions.
I hear far fewer “blame” statements and far more “care” statements about people who are homelessness when the issue is discussed both publicly and privately than I did even five years ago. I think this is at least in part because Josh and his team have found a way of involving people in creating the solutions, as well as critiquing the problem, which means there is a far greater sense of the issue being owned by everyone.
It has been a privilege for Cyrenians to have had the opportunity to contribute to creating this new community where more people in tough realities have the support to journey to a new place of transformation. It’s been an even greater privilege to know we contributed to transforming how all of us see and understand the circumstances of some of our most vulnerable citizens. So many of us have responded in care and in kindness for people we may never meet but whose lives matter to us in ways which mean we are all transformed by the experience.