Rough sleeper accepts he may die on streets of Capital

Gordon with his dog. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Gordon with his dog. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

For most, living on the streets would be unimaginable, but after Gordon Wilkie’s life took a drastic decline he now admits: “I can see myself dying on the streets.”

The 56-year-old claims to have worked in London for years and had 300 people working under him. But drugs played a huge part in a downward spiral that led him to begging, leaned up against a bin on Princes Street.

Gordon said: “I ended up with drug issues. Heroin, crack cocaine and alcohol – anything I could get my hands on. I turned to it because when you go from having everything to nothing and not as much of a phone call, you get depressed. I have family but I stay away from them. I’m too much of a headache for them.”

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Despite saying he has a residence at Kirkgate House in the city, Gordon chooses to sleep in the bitter cold under the stars. His recent spot has been at a carpet laid doorway of a Royal Mile store.

He added: “It’s my choice to be on the streets. I’ve got a place to stay but I never stay in it. You just get used to things after so many years and it becomes a habit. I actually enjoy it, can you believe that? I like the people and having a laugh with everybody. Edinburgh looks after me well.

“We get the best food. KFC, McDonald’s. People come with biscuits for my dog. However if it’s not a hamburger or a bit of chicken she isn’t interested.

“There’s lots of help out there but it becomes overwhelming. I can see myself dying on the streets. My ambition has left my body I’m afraid.”

Homelessness is a complex issue with each person living on the street having their own story as to how they ended up there.

A multi-agency partnership was created back in 2016 involving Police Scotland, Cyrenians and NHS Lothian in an attempt to help the homeless access the key services they need to turn their lives around.

Police vulnerable intervention patrols take place on a daily basis on the streets of Edinburgh to provide support to individuals and encourage engagement with, and thereafter use, of partner agency services such as housing, health, benefits and employment.

It was on one of their early morning patrols when Gordon first became known to the partnership when he was woken up at the top of Waverley Steps.

For PC Leo Baker, he admits to being in fear that one day he will come across someone who has sadly passed away during the night.

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He said: “We are the middle man between the services and the individual. Some days we’ll see two people, others we can see around a dozen. It’s such a complex issue that affects the whole community in different ways. We need to keep thinking about the way we tackle this.

“There’s an inherent danger of sleeping outside. I am always worried that today might be the day that we find someone who hasn’t made it through the night.

“Police officers being there covers the safety of speaking to the homeless and sometimes they give us information that maybe they wouldn’t give the Cyrenians on their own.”

PC Baker revealed it is a rewarding experience taking part in the patrols with a number of success stories coming from their help, including one man who was placed in accommodation following four years without a home.

He added: “After building a relationship and being compassionate he opened up to me.

“He had no drink or drug issues and it turned out he couldn’t read or write which can leave the process of claiming benefits or housing quite daunting, having to fill lots of forms in.

“Eventually he ended up in housing before the terrible weather which is very satisfying. At times the uniform can be a barrier for people but 60-70 per cent are engaging.

“To get to the point of begging or living on the street you’ve gone through some bad experience. But we are there to help these people suffering outdoors to access benefits, housing, support services, addressing health issues and employability in order to get them back on their feet.”

Drugs and alcohol are the stereotypical reasons behind homelessness and indeed in some circumstances it can be the case.

But taking a step back, there is never just one factor behind their downward spiral with many contributing factors needing to be addressed.

Community psychiatric nurse Miles Elliott, 47, of Edinburgh Access Practice said: “A lot of the people on the streets have severe mental health problems or drug misuse so I’m there to triage. Heroin dependance, alcoholism and schizophrenia are the main issues but also secondary problems include anxiety and depression which the homeless suffer from.

“It will be a combination of issues so it’s not just one way of solving someone’s problems. That’s why the multi-agency programme is needed.

“Some will have had an adverse childhood experience and will be traumatised. Them moving to adulthood has been punctuated by this therefore they are unable to function as society expects them to.”

The Spittal Road practice has a weekly walk-in service on a Wednesday where the homeless can register and access health services promptly.

Trust is a huge barrier that many homeless people struggle with. Being a good listener can fundamentally pay a vital role in establishing a relationship with someone on the streets. Nick Harrold of Cyrenians has experience in this field as part of the charity’s homeless navigator project which aims to ensure those on the streets get the best use out of support services in Edinburgh.

Nick, 44, said: “I think this partnership helps all our services to have a more rounded and broader base of knowledge of the streets.

“If you imagine the services are the bricks, I’m the mortar. To be successful we have to work together. We can’t be lone wolves. Edinburgh is only going to sort this if we all work together.

“There’s no such thing as a lost cause. There is always a way to help someone as long as they are willing to accept the help.”