Homelessness and poverty in the UK pose a huge problem. We heard during the election that there are currently 4.1 million children living in poverty – a fact which was denounced as completely unacceptable given our economic status on the world stage and our values as a developed society. However, when we live in the bubble that is the University of St Andrews student life, it is easy to forget that these issues are literally on our doorstep. It’s easy to act appalled when we are confronted with this complete governmental failure and we often discuss the injustices of society in lofty academic terms, but, it is sometimes worth reminding ourselves how serious the reality is for many of the people with whom we live side by side.
These issues are literally on our doorstep
A mere glance at the data is enough to highlight the problem. Statistics produced by the charity Shelter Scotland showed that in 2018-19, 36,465 homeless applications were made in Scotland. This was most often as a result of a relationship breakdown, a dispute within the household or leaving hospital, prison or care. This highlights that the systems in place are simply insufficient to help people through difficult transitions in their lives, ensuring that one catastrophe can throw someone into poverty or even leave them without a roof over their head. So many do not have a financial or familial safety net on which they can rely when something goes wrong, forcing them to rely on help from the council. A council which doesn’t always come through for them.
When we talk about homelessness, we’re not simply referencing those who are rough sleepers. Under the 1987 Housing Act, a person should be treated as homeless, even if they have accommodation, if it would not be reasonable for them to continue to stay in it. The problem is, this is quite vague language. What actually constitutes ‘unreasonable’? What are the specific conditions under which the council will intervene and provide assistance? Around 7,000 homeless applications in 2018-2019 were refused. It is so easy to make excuses in order to force people back into unlivable situations, so that they do not become a burden on the council. But, then, what are these people meant to do?
Storehouse is a foodbank that aims to help the most vulnerable people in the North-East Fife community by providing bags of food and toiletries to individuals or families who are in crisis. About 20-30 individuals access Storehouse services every week and no-one is ever turned away without food. Storehouse co-ordinator, Scott White, told me that he finds their clients often need longer-term support since ‘the circumstances that they are stuck in aren’t quickly fixed’. He said that the situations that force people to turn to foodbanks are varied and complex, including job loss, redundancy or illness. That said, they also help clients who are in work but still cannot earn enough to cover expenses.
I asked Mr White whether he finds that the public are willing to acknowledge the severity of the situation in St Andrews and North-East Fife. He informed me that Storehouse does receive lots of donations from individuals doing their everyday shopping and that “It’s so encouraging to receive those sorts of donations from thoughtful individuals, because it shows that as well as groups making generous donations of items, everyday people from across St Andrews are conscious of those in need and are doing something to help them out.”
One catastrophe can throw someone into poverty
Storehouse’s motto is ‘enriching lives with acts of kindness’- a worthwhile vision. However, no-one should have to rely on an act of kindness in order to have enough food to eat; it should be understood as a basic right. We cannot rely on charity; there needs to be greater public investments in social housing, rehoming and an effective benefits system in order to achieve this.
If you have walked down Market Street anytime since September, you will have walked past Ilyia. On a rainy Monday morning, I stopped outside Tesco to speak to him. He was huddled on the ground wrapped in numerous jumpers and coats, sitting on a thin sleeping bag, clutching a pack of chocolate cookies. I bought him a coffee and went to sit down next to him on the pavement to ask a few questions about his life and his experiences begging for food and money in St Andrews. He immediately protested as I went to lay my coat on the ground, insisting that I sit on his blanket instead. Ilyia moved to Scotland from Bulgaria 10 months ago and his lack of English did make our conversation difficult. However, I persisted and managed to understand a limited part of his story.
He told me that he had come to Fife with the promise of a farming job but as soon as he arrived, he realised that the job simply did not exist. Now, with no job and no money, he has no other option than to sit on the pavement day in, day out in the hope that some passers-by will give him a few pounds or buy him something to eat. I asked him why he doesn’t return to Bulgaria but he maintained that going home was not an option. Although life in Scotland is bad, it would be worse in Bulgaria. Having done some research, I can understand why this might be the case. The levels of poverty, social exclusion and income inequality in Bulgaria are still among the highest in the EU and the social protection system is unable to tackle these significant social challenges. I asked Ilyia about his family. He blessed himself, crossed his arms and looked up to the sky, signalling that they had died.
Ilyia’s story is all too common. So many view the UK as a land of plenty, with ample opportunities for stable and safe employment. Sadly, when they arrive, the reality is very different. After being classed as not having significant enough need for housing, they simply fall through the social security net. I shook Ilyia’s hand and thanked him for his time. He handed me his cookies and although I tried to refuse, he insisted that I keep them. This highlighted a different aspect of his situation. Not only is Ilyia in dire need of a job, some money and a basic standard of living, but he is also in need of some company, friendship and human kindness. It must be exceptionally lonely sitting on the street and having the majority of people just ignore you. It must feel like you have been completely forgotten about by the world. Our lives in St Andrews move so quickly but it only takes a few minutes to stop and have a quick conversation with Ilyia. If everybody acknowledged him, I think it would make his bleak situation a little bit brighter.
Nick, a first-year student, formed a bond with John Hunter, another homeless man who spent his days on market street with his dog. John had lost his home and his job and his diagnosis of cardiomyopathy in 2002 made it impossible for him to find work. Although the council offered him temporary accommodation, he refused due to the fact that his dogs were not permitted to live with him. Unfortunately, just over a week ago Nick informed me that John had suffered an overdose and sadly passed away.
The rigidity of the systems in place did not allow John to get away from a life on the streets and the hardship that he suffered sleeping rough,as a result of this, must have played a significant part in the recent turn of events. It is apparent that there needs to be an open and honest dialogue about how we house the homeless. We cannot limit ourselves to the enforcement of an inflexible set of protocols that ultimately forces people to either choose between holding onto something they love or having a roof over their heads. Through perpetuating this type of uncompromising bureaucracy, we enable a system that does not aid recovery but, instead, contributes to systemic exclusion.
Fife is one of the poorest areas of Scotland and a report published in 2018 by End Child Poverty revealed that there were 17,667 children growing up in poverty. That equated to 24.47%. The situation hasn’t improved. Data released in June 2019 by the End Child Poverty Coalition showed that 27% of children in the St Andrews ward were living in poverty. This was the highest in North East Fife. In an area that outwardly looks affluent, the statistics paint a starkly different picture. This should act as a wakeup call.
It is so easy to slip through the social security net
Before we comment on homelessness and poverty, we need to have a more holistic understanding of the situation. It is often easy to assert that the people who find themselves in unstable living conditions have caused the problem themselves. This is simply not the case. It is so easy to fall through the social security net and once you’ve fallen through it is an enormous challenge to stand up again. Apart from practical help such as donating to foodbanks, a small adjustment in our attitudes and behaviour towards the rough sleepers we pass every day would create a world of change. Acting with kindness and understanding can not only help to ease the loneliness of those who are already living in a precarious position, but can aid in re-conceptualising society’s view of poverty and homelessness.