The approach of another Scottish winter will, for most within the university community, have a pretty negligible impact. Maybe it getting colder gives you a conversation topic when extended family members call, or is something you can reach for upon sitting next to the quieter of souls in your tutorial group; perhaps you’ve taken part in swirling drunken debates regarding if it’s time to coat or not to coat. But, the university community exists within a much wider one, which includes many of the rough sleepers currently seen around Edinburgh’s city centre. For them, the reality of another winter on the streets of the Scottish capital, often dubbed ‘the UK’s coldest city,’ is fast approaching.
Being one of the estimated 4,750 people sleeping rough in the United Kingdom in 2017 is of course a day-in day-out hell for a myriad of reasons, not solely exposure to the climate. But we are a developed country where people are still dying of frostbite, hypothermia, and other ‘cold related fatalities’ on our streets. This makes the colder months particularly volatile and dangerous. 34,100 people were assessed as ‘homeless’ in Scotland last year - a larger number than that of rough sleepers (the stereotypical state of homelessness many picture when asked to consider the issue) as it also includes those in hostels, temporary accommodation, and ‘concealed housing’ such as squats, or the floors and sofas of friends and family. Their vulnerability to being a part of the cyclical spike in deaths seen between October and March every year, termed ‘excess winter mortality’, is real. However, only this year will the Office of National Statistics start accounting for, and producing, a record of how many homeless people die in our cities and towns, after being prompted into action by the bureau of investigative journalism’s ‘dying homeless’ project.
78 homeless people were officially recorded as dying in the UK in the winter of 2017. 42 of those deaths were in Scotland, ‘most’ in Edinburgh, where affluence is high above the national average, and yet rough sleepers can be found dotted around even those areas of town where European schoolkid tourists flock, from the Royal Mile to Cowgate to Waverly station and back again; a visible, visceral problem. The unmissable presence of homelessness in the Scottish capital is a grim reminder that austerity squeezes into practical non-existence those at the very marginal edges of our state. In Edinburgh, the nightmare housing market that many of us merely dipped our toes into when finding flats to live in, as in so many cities across the country, is a major problem too. Graeme Brown, the director of Shelter Scotland, told The Guardian this year that ‘What we are seeing is a hollowing out of affordable homes in the city centre, with rising homelessness throwing into stark relief this lack of housing supply’**.
So, as students with a frustratingly limited ability to enact great structural change, what can we do to help? As Rufus Gooder, a 4th year and co-founder of ‘Heat for the homeless Edinburgh’ - an incentive where university students (and others too!) hand out hot water bottles to those on the streets - puts it, ‘As students in Edinburgh we feel we have a responsibility to be more actively engaged with the city...it really helps to sit down and actually chat and hear their stories so we don't go through our university lives oblivious to issues of others.’ It seems inefficient, but actually is exactly the sort of attitudinal change that can end up having results far greater than the sum of its parts. Gooder also points to the ‘common misconception that homeless people won’t want to talk to you’ sometimes stops students from interacting with Edinburgh’s rough sleepers – but, he continues, ‘we have found that if you take the time to sit with them they often say that it is the most dehumanising thing to be ignored by thousands of people walking past, and any conversation might really help’. Their small but effective contribution to alleviating some of the suffering faced by rough sleepers in fact came from this dialogue, with those on the streets letting the volunteers know that handing out hot water bottles were one of the most constructive things they could do for them.
Incentives like ‘Heat for the homeless’ and other charities where volunteers do what they can luckily have a large and active presence in Edinburgh, a place with a strong history of social policy enacting positive change. Institutions like SocialBite are examples of this continuation of the strong social values the majority of Scots hold, and provide another way to help. Either by eating at their sandwich shops and restaurants, worked in and patronised by members of the homeless community, or by participating in their flagship event ‘Sleep in the Park’ (spending a December night sleeping in Princes St Gardens), you can collaborate to their ‘Mission to Build a Collaborative Movement to End Homelessness in Scotland’. This year, the University is even offering to pay the £50 registration fee for students, helping make the event even more of an accessible and tangible way to provide direct action.
Across the board, charities remind us that ‘the statistics in Scotland are not insurmountable’ (SocialBite) and that ‘homelessness is not inevitable’ (Crisis). As another winter begins, we as students can and should, in whatever small way we have the means to, chip away at this commonly regarded inevitability into non-existence.
To find out more about how the bureau of investigative journalism track deaths whilst homeless (a self described ‘complex task’) :
A list of charities tackling homelessness in Scotland:
Heat for the Homeless-
https://www.heatforthehomeless.com or https://www.facebook.com/heatforthehomelessedinburgh/!
(with thanks to volunteers from heat for the homeless!)
*Illustration by Abigail Featherstone (artbyabbx) *