Eight weeks ago, Chris* was waking to the bitter winter chill of Scotland’s east coast. With nowhere to call home and “absolutely nothing” to his name, he had run out of options, and was living on the streets. “I felt really hopeless, it was so depressing,” recalls the 30-year-old Edinburgh man. But today, he’s feeling a little brighter.
“I have a nice room with its own bathroom. It’s restful and I respect everyone here,” Chris says of his current accommodation – Edinburgh’s Old Waverley Hotel, a three-star establishment in the city centre.
As the spectre of COVID-19 ground global travel to a halt, the Scottish capital’s thriving tourist trade collapsed. For homelessness organisations, the sudden abundance of empty rooms offered an unprecedented chance to house the city’s rough sleepers.
“We were determined to keep people who would otherwise be sleeping rough totally safe throughout this pandemic,” said Alasdair Bennett, chief executive of Bethany Christian Trust, the group assisting Chris.
“Suddenly we had an amazing opportunity to offer a whole new level of provision through linking up with a hotel, and we knew that we had to act.”
Across Scotland, like-minded groups have been seizing the opportunities of lockdown to get roofs over the heads of hundreds of rough-sleepers. For the first time in memory, there’s simply no need for people to be sleeping on the streets, says Hugh Hill of Simon Community Scotland, a leading homelessness charity based in Glasgow.
“We have accommodation, good accommodation,” said Hill, adding that, as a nation, Scotland wasn’t “far off” being able to say: “‘We’ve completely resolved rough-sleeping’”.
This positive an outcome to the crisis was far from guaranteed. Against a backdrop of austerity and biting cuts to local government budgets, rates of Scottish homelessness have been rising in recent years.
As the virus spread, individuals at the sharp-end of Scotland’s housing problem – those routinely sleeping on the streets – would be particularly hard hit, experts feared. Public health advice doesn’t always reach the social periphery. Even if it did, self-isolation measures might be difficult for a group so dependent on face-to-face assistance.
Revenue from begging would likely decline with the drop in public footfall too, and outreach schemes delivering food and provisions might have to end. Most worrying of all, the underlying health conditions endemic in homeless communities would put them at particular risk of COVID-19.
Recognising the danger, the Scottish government made available huge sums of emergency funding, allowing outreach groups and local authorities to act fast and avert disaster. The response has been remarkable, says Bennett, highlighting “the strength in partnership” when charitable initiatives pull together.
Social Bite, an Edinburgh-based social enterprise, is at the forefront of the community response. As containment measures came into effect, the group was forced to close its five cafes – which feed and employ the city’s homeless – but bosses knew the organisation had to adapt.
“We felt like, if we just batten down the hatches and try to just survive economically we would be letting people down and potentially there would be a really severe food poverty situation,” said co-founder Josh Littlejohn.
Within days of the lockdown being announced, Social Bite had repurposed itself as a food delivery service, supplying sustenance to homeless people in hotels around Scotland. Some 4,500 food packs – which include snacks and a freshly made sandwich – are now leaving the kitchen every day, filling the void of soup kitchen-style operations which have had to close.
Scotland’s official response has also been praised. New emergency legislation has been pushed through, making it harder for people to become homeless during the pandemic. The notice period for evictions has been extended to six months, with new provisions to ensure that repossession hearings take into account the added pressures of coronavirus. Restrictions on the support available to people with no recourse to public funds have also been lifted.
Ensuring that people have safe and secure accommodation is only half the battle, however. Once housed, access to social services and health care is vital. Under the rigours of lockdown, there were fears that support schemes – particularly those related to substance addiction – might crumble.
Drug abuse is a chronic problem among Scotland’s homeless population. The nation’s rough-sleeper death rate is double that of England, with almost 200 fatalities in 2018 – over half of which were drugs-related.
And so, it was with great apprehension that officials started issuing week-long supplies of methadone – which can be fatal in the event of an overdose – to reduce the need for daily pharmacy trips, which posed a high risk of virus transmission.
“I was very concerned about [extended prescriptions] causing an increase risk of drug deaths,” said Professor Catriona Matheson, who heads up Scotland’s Drug Deaths Taskforce. “But at the moment… there’s no evidence of there being an increase in drug deaths in people in treatment.”
Encouraged by the scheme’s early success, the taskforce is now considering whether it could be extended beyond the shutdown, in an effort to derail dealers’ daily access to addicts.
“We’ve got examples of people talking about how on their ten-minute walk to the pharmacy [every day] they get asked three times if they want to buy [drugs],” she said.
This could be particularly vital after the pandemic, when the streets are flooded with drugs that were unsold during the lockdown. To head off the danger, users must be “hooked” into treatment programmes now while they’re indoors and under supervision, says Matheson.
Her team isn’t alone in pondering the post-coronavirus future. Bennett of Bethany Christian Trust – which runs a rough-sleeping shelter in Edinburgh – feels “optimistic” looking ahead; but he’s also a realist, acknowledging that, at some point, “the hotels will return to what they do.”
It’s therefore crucial that those requiring accommodation aren’t simply provided with four walls and a roof, but also the means to move forward. That means connecting service users with health, housing, and advocacy groups, while ensuring they’re safe and comfortable.
It’s something the trust has a strong track record on: 93 percent of the people they’ve sheltered since September haven’t had to reuse the service, with many settling in shared or social housing, or acquiring a private tenancy.
But in the campaign against rough-sleeping, it’s the turnover rate that really counts. According to the most recent statistics, 36,500 people a year make homelessness applications in Scotland – equivalent to 100 every 24 hours. For housing action groups, that presents a stark reality: for every vulnerable person they help one day, they’ll likely be another in need the next.
Maintaining the emergency rules on eviction post-pandemic would undoubtedly help with this, but landlords’ rights must also be considered. Either way, with the economic consequences of coronavirus yet fully to materialise, action groups are fearing the worst.
“Thousands of renters will be in dire straits further down the line,” said Gordon MacRae of housing charity Shelter Scotland. “We’re facing an onslaught of people suddenly unable to afford their rent, at a time when people need to stay put and cannot safely move to a cheaper home,” he added.
Back at Edinburgh’s Old Waverley Hotel, Chris is just grateful to be off the streets. What the future holds, he isn’t sure – but the one-time rough-sleeper is feeling upbeat.
“I’m going to see someone from the council to try and get a place to move on to, and then get a job, rebuild from there. I’m hopeful of a good outcome.”
* Name changed to protect individual’s identity.