Winter pressures

19 December 2023
CEO Lorraine McGrath has written a blog about the reality of the winter pressures and what our teams know and see every day.

Winter has arrived and the festive season is nearly upon us.  As ever, it is a time when many people become more acutely aware of the challenges faced by people we support, particularly those who experience the most extreme impacts of homelessness and find themselves sleeping rough in our cities.  


This year Simon Community Scotland will have connected with, supported, accommodated and learned from well over 9,000 people.  A very small proportion will have experienced rough sleeping, the rest will be somewhere in the expansive homelessness system; accommodated in a hotel room, a bed & breakfast, a temporary furnished flat or for those most in need, one of our 24 hour supported accommodation services.  


Over the last four months, we have been extremely dismayed to see a rise in the numbers of people experiencing rough sleeping, from three years of single figures to close to 100 people between Glasgow and Edinburgh at our last street counts, heading back towards pre pandemic levels. With a lot of work and partnership the numbers have come down again but there are still too many people without a safe place of their own.


There is no single explanation for this increase, the reasons are multiple and there’s no simple solution. Our teams collaborate with a wide range of agencies to continue to prevent rough sleeping and support people off the streets into a safe place, they do that for an average of 60-70 people a week, every week. 


We now have both cities declaring a housing emergency.  We hope this drives change in how housing and homelessness is politically and strategically prioritised as critical elements of  health and well-being for both cities.  We need immediate action to deliver better and sufficient levels of emergency responses and to find more ways to prevent people reaching the crisis of rough sleeping in the first place.


For the people who are rough sleeping in Edinburgh and Glasgow right now, around 20 are unable to accept the accommodation offers that are regularly made to them.  The majority have experienced  such significant trauma and mental distress that they just cannot see moving away from where they are as a positive choice. For this group, the streets can feel like the safest place and we know from past experience they are unlikely to use a shelter of any kind, it is a more targeted and personalised approach that they need. We never give up and it can take months and even years of building trust and finding ways to connect to reach a point where they feel safe enough to accept our offers of help and to find a safe place that works for them.


For people from outside the UK, the Home Office rules and UK law may prevent local authorities from providing accommodation. For others, there simply wasn’t accommodation available from the Council when they needed it and others felt unsafe in what was available. 


Simon Community Scotland’s  Street Teams and hub staff  build relationships with everyone who is out there and know the circumstances they are in, their health, their vulnerabilities and what options may or may not work best for them. We don’t do this alone, we work with over 60 different services, specialists and agencies to find solutions and create safe places. Undoubtedly, the challenges have increased and everyone is feeling the pressures.  For some, this means it can take many nights before we can find them a safe place to sleep.


There is always more we can do, like a unique collaboration, to coincide with the opening of this year’s Rapid Rehousing Winter Welcome Centre in Edinburgh,  which resulted in 46 people being accommodated directly from the street into safe, self contained and 24 hour supported hotel rooms within two days last month, providing access to a full multi-agency response thereafter to ensure a positive and settled move on.  


This is a huge change from the days of winter shelters with mattresses on floors and people had to leave early every morning and re-present each night, a model that belongs firmly in the past. This shift from large scale group night shelters was a national endeavour involving just about everyone involved in homelessness – across the public and charity sector – to ensure we are not just offering shelter for one night at time, but a safe place to rest, recover and connect with support, care and long term solutions with expert staff wrapped around them 24 hours a day. 


On 28th November, we saw the publication of figures, shockingly confirming the tragic loss of nearly 250 lives last year, people who died whilst experiencing homelessness in Scotland. We have also seen this misleadingly reported as “deaths on the street”.  Every life lost is a loved one and future lost, every one an absolute tragedy that could have been avoided.  However, it is wrong and misleading to suggest these deaths happened on the street, they mostly happen within homeless accommodation, all too often in total isolation and in less than safe and comfortable environments, not something we would wish for anyone


In my nearly twelve years at SCS, working with the teams who spend everyday connecting with those experiencing rough sleeping, I am only aware of one  death of someone actively rough sleeping at the time, a young man in Glasgow many years ago. He, along with the 243 who we lost last year are not statistics to be used. They were each a person with a history and a future, someone who needed the compassion and care of the whole system, not just any one element, any one service or any one charity or organisation. 


You might think that opening buildings to provide overnight shelter is a simple and effective way to make a difference, or that we should re-establish the use of large spaces with mattresses on the floor in Glasgow and Edinburgh.  We know that is not  safe and actual past delivery of such venues, even with skilled multi-agency input did not resolve the pressures and harms that people experience, they did fill up but seldom did this correlate to a reduction in people sleeping rough and often actively increased the risks to their health and wellbeing. 


That is why we collectively worked to move away from this well meaning, but frankly demoralising and unsafe way to offer people somewhere, to do little more than shelter in groups. We can and must do better. We should not go back when we have come so far. People need a place to call their own with skilled multi-agency support wrapped around them, that is where we need to put our efforts, our financial support and our political influence. 


Your heart might tell you that any shelter is better than none but that is rarely the case for people who already experience so much harm, distress and trauma. It has to be a safe place that works for them. 


We know what good looks like. We experienced what was possible during the pandemic when everyone was offered an emergency placement in good hotel environments, with 24 hour skilled support and a full multi-agency rapid response.  We hope that the current crisis response leads us to being able to offer everyone that kind of safe place again and soon. Hotel rooms are not a home and they should never be a long term response, that is why we need the full multi agency wrap around approach to ensure everyone moves quickly on to the kind of home they want and need.


The risks involved in returning to this type of response cannot be ignored, even those organisations with the expertise and past experience of delivering similar concepts recognise those risks. Bringing groups of people with a host of health, social and in some cases behavioural challenges increases the risks of exploitation, re-traumatisation and all kinds of harm and rapidly attracting those who would see opportunity to bring further harm.  These are all very difficult things to manage, even in small numbers with 24 hour expert and experienced staff teams. We must not leave this as the only option for people in our major cities. We must do better.


There is no one in our cities who wants to see people rough sleeping, we want to see people in a safe place and with the support they need and we along with a wide array of charities and agencies are working towards this. The same partners who in 2018 worked collectively with the Scottish Government to end the use of congregate night shelters. We can’t make everything right, but we really don’t want to make it worse for people. 


There is nothing good about rough sleeping, it’s harmful in so many ways but it is also a lot more complex than simply not having a roof.


We can and must do better and we know what that good looks like. A temporary space to shelter or roof alone is not safe, it is not progress and it is progress that we need for every single person already experiencing rough sleeping and everyone who faces the risk in the future.