Edinburgh Cheer: It’s time to eradicate the isolation felt by people sleeping rough in Edinburgh

It's time to end the isolation of homelessness
It's time to end the isolation of homelessness
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According to new research, two-thirds of Scots say that they would never stop to speak to a homeless person in the street.

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Findings from a recent survey revealed that 41 per cent of people were “in fear” of stopping to speak to rough sleepers.

CEO of Edinburgh-based homeless charity Cyrenians, Ewan Aitken, said: “The fear for people is real because they see someone in a context that they don’t understand.

“But even the smallest gesture such as making eye contact or giving them a nod can be a help to someone who has not had any human contact.”

Mr Aitken, who has worked extensively in trying to reduce inequalities in society as well as working closely with the homeless community said starting a conversation can start to breakdown the barriers between passers-by and those living on the streets.

He said: “The sense of isolation endemic with sleeping rough is only increased when you feel invisible.

“One Big Issue vendor said to me once, I don’t mind people not buying but it is when they just look right through you that is the worst.

“We all thrive on small and large moments of interactions and it is no different for people on the streets.

“And actually that acknowledgement can be hugely helpful in terms of self worth and reducing feelings of isolation.”

The Evening News Edinburgh Cheer campaign is working this winter to raise awareness of those in the city who are homeless or who are isolated at this time of year and what the community can do to help show the city as caring and compassionate this Christmas.

And with more than two-thirds of people saying they would not stop to speak to a rough sleeper, Mr Aitken said it is time to start trying to tackle perceptions. He said: “There is a stigma about rough sleepers that they are somehow wasters or the more extreme view, that it is a lifestyle choice.

“There is also an assumption that everyone is an addict or they have the potential to be violent.

“People sleeping on the streets are some of the most honourable people in society. They are also significantly more like to experience violence towards them than anyone else.”

He said the most powerful tool in a community’s arsenal is empathy and the simplest gestures could make a real difference to someone’s day.

“A moment of recognition – a look in the eye or a simple no thank you to a magazine seller, is the first step to creating a more compassionate and caring community,” he said.

“Also, if you are going to buy food for folk, ask them what they would like.

“This will initiate a conversation and you will be quickly reminded that they are simply a person, as we are.

“The second stage is to try and take the time to understand what may have taken them to the place they are now in and try to understand that they have a real desire to get out of it.

“I have not met one person in all my time working with the homeless who does not want to change their situation.

“Ask yourself what you would want if you were in their circumstance and apply it.”

The survey showed that people aged between 16 and 24 are least likely to speak to someone who is forced to sleep rough, with only a quarter saying that they would do so.

Around 48 per cent of 16 and 24-year-olds said they would be afraid to speak to a homeless person.

The report also found that the older age group is less likely to be anxious about speaking to homeless people, although a substantial number – 38 per cent of those aged 55 to 64 and 43 per cent of those aged over 65 – still said they would be fearful of talking to a rough sleeper.

Last year, just under 10,000 homelessness applications were from people aged between 16 and 24 years old.

David Duke founder and chief executive of Street Soccer Scotland, who commissioned the research said: “Today in Scotland, great strides are being made to eradicate homelessness with progressive laws and a willing government.

“However, unfortunately, some things have stayed exactly the same.

“The lack of dignity afforded to people experiencing homelessness, the prejudice and stigma that comes with what is the worst time of your life, is holding our society back.

“We need to do more to change that.”

According to the Scottish Government, homelessness applications have fallen in recent years due to the 
government’s person-centred approach to housing options and preventing homelessness.

Under Scottish legislation, everyone who has been assessed by their local authority to be homeless has a right to temporary accommodation.

Scottish Government housing minister Kevin Stewart said: “Tackling and preventing homelessness throughout Scotland remains a key priority for the Scottish Government.

“The Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group will shortly produce recommendations on how we can minimise rough sleeping this winter, and exploring public perception of rough sleeping is a key part of the group’s 
work.

“Involving people who have experienced homelessness is also important in achieving the Action Group’s longer-term objectives to eradicating rough sleeping and transforming temporary accommodation.

“We have established a £50m Ending Homelessness Together Fund to drive change and improvement.”