By Gavin Money, Regional Manager for Scotland & Northern Ireland, Biffa
In the autumn of 2021 we, at Biffa, took the decision to foster a relationship with Simon Community Scotland by sponsoring two Street Teams in Glasgow and Edinburgh respectively. As a national Scottish business specializing in waste collection and processing, we have been acutely aware of the real risk “people in bins” pose in our industry – we still find across the UK some souls seeking warmth or security from the world by climbing into and resting in bins. You can imagine the serious and life-threatening risks from this action. In an effort to find partners that could assist our drivers should they encounter such a situation we reached out to Simon Community Scotland, and it was from there that our partnership formed.
At Biffa Scotland we operate over 150 waste collection vehicles with our drivers on the road from 4am and our final daily shift finishing around 11pm – so we have plenty of eyes in and around the cities, towns, and villages of our country. At Simon Community Scotland their Street Teams are out in those same streets in Glasgow and Edinburgh from 7am to 11pm so the operational fit between our organisations was clear.
In late March 2022 I was given the opportunity to spend time with a Glasgow Street Team so I could understand their role in the city and learn more about the challenges and situations they deal with and to provide me with some perspective. I was taken out by Paul and Alex – two incredibly passionate, empathetic, and warm individuals around the hub of the city – Argyll Street, Gordon Street, Buchanan Street, Trongate and then to Sauchiehall Street as well as the warren of lanes in between that gel Glasgow together. Paul had been working in the Street Team for 3 years and Alex for 3 months, but both shared a very palpable passion and pride in their work before we set off from the Access Hub on Argyll Street.
As we walked towards Gordon Street and Buchanan Street the guys answered the many questions I had about what they do every day. We reached a lane off Buchanan Street with a line of at least two dozen bins being used by local businesses – it was in this lane and within one of these bins at the start of the pandemic in April 2020 that a member of the Street Team came across a man that had become homeless. He had traveled from England to start a construction job, but the role fell through in the grip of COVID and not wanting to lose pride or indeed know where to turn, the gentleman became homeless.
With the support of Simon Community Scotland, he was found shelter and more permanent accommodation and it was clear that he was a ordinary guy that had just found that circumstances had conspired against him. Rather tragically the man passed away through ill health later that year, but it immediately gave me a strong impression of the situations and solutions faced by the team.
As we walked along Argyle Street from the Trongate we meet a couple that immediately clocked the purple Simon Community rucksacks and asked Paul and Alex for assistance.
We continued and met a lad that was well known to both Paul and Alex and there was a warmth and camaraderie in those initial exchanges. It was at this point that Paul and Alex spoke about the importance of trust in their role – we often speak of this in a business environment in the creation and development of a team, but this quality was incredibly profound throughout my entire time with the guys.
Heading back to the Hub for a coffee the guys pointed out the hotels that are used to accommodate and support those with the various needs Simon Community Scotland manage every day. At this point we discussed the use of naloxone and how it had helped saved countless lives. Indeed, Paul had used this on several occasions in streets, accommodation and within the Simon Community Scotland Access Hub itself.
It was back at the Access Hub that I was given a naloxone training kit and spoke with Anthony, another member of the Street Team who demonstrated and talked about what he has encountered when using it – it was clear that this was an essential element of their Street Team kit.
After our late morning break, we climbed the hill which is Blythswood Street towards Sauchiehall Street. It was during this walk that the guys explained we were en route to meet a lady who was sat outside the Glasgow Dental Hospital.
A member of the public had called Simon Community Scotland, concerned for the well-being of the woman. The guys informed me that the lady had been homeless for a great number of years, with many long term and complex issues – indeed there was to be a discussion about the lady that afternoon such was the concern for her current predicament.
The lady was indeed sat where the member of the public said she was – she was using gas but immediately reacted warmly to both Paul and Alex. She asked for some chips (with a wee bit of salt) and Alex sought some from the closest chippy – she immediately started to eat and wanted some Coca Cola which the guys bought without hesitation.
A warm smile, empathetic words and an attentive ear from the Street Team and it was clear that the lady wanted to return to the accommodation she had left some nights ago. That was a huge step in the eyes of the Street Team. Alex called a taxi and within minutes of that call the three of us accompanied the lady to a shelter that had held her room in the East End of Glasgow. The taxi driver, clearly judgemental at first, made the journey to the East End and returned us to the Hub on Argyll Street.
On entering the Hub, the Simon Community Scotland team had received correspondence that this lady was returned to care. The correspondence was read out by Elaine, the Street Team Leader, that this outcome was “once again down to the fantastic efforts of the Street Team” – it was a real pleasure to watch this in action.
I had many reflections and learned much from what was a fleeting moment in the shoes of a Glasgow Street Team. The most compelling thoughts from my time with Paul and Alex was that people do not become addicts (whether it be drug or alcohol) for the “buzz” or “joy” but to escape or block whatever trauma they had encountered in their lives that brought them to this moment.
Why would a lady in her mid-60’s be sat in the middle of Glasgow consuming canister after canister of gas living on those streets? I don’t know and those managing her needs may never know. It was clear that the reason for the Street Team wasn’t to delve or unpick lives – it was to simply to try to make their lives better – to listen, to give, to provide, to care.
I also noticed the trailing, judging eyes of people as Paul and Alex knelt close to the lady to give her that care – the taxi driver showing visible agitation as we chaperoned the lady to his vehicle. The reality is that we all do that – but it has absolutely bodychecked me and made me realise that adage that you should never judge – that people in less fortunate positions than the many rarely get there through choice.
It was an incredibly powerful and humbling experience with the Glasgow Street Team. Paul and Alex are a credit to Simon Community Scotland. Our partnership with Simon Community Scotland has absolutely solidified in my mind – an amazing organisation backed by amazingly kind and warm people.
Simon Community Scotland are people like Paul and Alex. It was a genuine pleasure to be in their company and to learn the true value of trust.
Gavin Money, Regional General Manager – Scotland & Northern Ireland, Biffa