After lockdown: what next for Glasgow’s street homeless?

The rain is bouncing off the pavements and wind blusters down the off-the-beaten track Glasgow street. But inside the sleek foyer of this city centre hotel, all is calm.

There’s the usual glass front you’d expect from a well-known chain, background music, coffee, basket of snacks for guests to chose from. But this is not an average hotel lobby.

Since 23 March, the building has been run by homeless charity Simon Community Scotland (SCS), providing “rapid access” emergency accommodation for street homeless people. Its urgent remit was to get people off the streets during the covid-19 pandemic and save lives.

Since then 424 people have come through those glass sliding doors. But now they are closing.

All week the numbers have dwindled as move-on accommodation was found by the Glasgow City Council, mostly temporary furnished flats, or supported accommodation in the case of the most vulnerable.

By Monday there were 18 guests. By the morning of its final day, less than ten people with no recourse of public funds (NRPF) remained, waiting for confirmation of places in one of the network of B&Bs used as homeless accommodation across the city, at least until September.

And for the staff here – as well as others working in homelessness across the city – questions and anxieties about this next stage also remain. What will happen to those who find themselves newly street homeless tomorrow, the next day, or the week after?

This hotel partnership, funded by the Scottish Government, was the solution to a terrifying situation that nobody could have second-guessed.

As covid-19 hit Scotland, the Glasgow Winter Night Shelter started to report people were arriving with symptoms. Sleeping on mattresses on the floor, just inches apart – an emergency solution at the best of times – became untenable in the midst of a public health emergency.

The day centres, with their hot meals and company in ready supply, started to close too. As those with homes started to stay put, those out begging with a cup found themselves on increasingly empty streets.

At the beginning it was just whatever we could do we were doing and it was exhausting and it was exhilarating and it was strange. After that it’s just become…well, it’s just the norm, whatever that is. Elaine Barrett, Simon Community Scotland

Among them was Hugh, who on 21 February emerged from prison after a year inside and found himself living in another world.

“I came out onto the street and it was already going into lockdown and I couldn’t get any help for my alcohol [addiction],” he told The Ferret last Friday. “Eventually I started drinking again and through that I ended up racking up five charges ­­– all petty. He lists them off – “police assault for shoving an officer, shoplifting, I jumped the train [without paying].”

But he’s been here in the hotel since April. “And you can see he’s thriving,” says Jeanann Webster, head of learning and development, who was deployed to the hotel during lockdown. It’s an experience that she describes as personally life defining.

“At the beginning it was just whatever we could do we were doing and it was exhausting and it was exhilarating and it was strange,” says Elaine Barrett, team leader of the Simon Community Scotland’s outreach service who back in March packed up her office and is now installed in the corner of the lobby with a laptop.

“After that it’s just become…well, it’s just the norm, whatever that is.”

Street kitchen volunteers mobilised to help provide three meals a day, day centres like the Lodging House Mission started packing up bags of donated food, toiletries and clothes, legal advisors took up residence, helping EU citizens to apply for settled status or get other support.

One of Webster’s jobs was helping meet guests coming off the streets at the door to provide what they needed. She laughs as she recalls the first time she met Hugh, wearing a bright red jacket and asking for a pair of trainers.

“I thought I’d get a nice red pair to go with the jacket, “ she says. “Do you mind [remember], Hugh? .

“I was thinking ‘it all matches’ – thought I was doing really well. When I brought them he says to me: “Who d’you think I am? Santa Claus?” The two of them roar at the memory.

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Hugh has felt cared for while staying at the hotel

Angela Catlin

Hugh had been reluctant to leave his skippering [rough sleeping] spot in the west end of Glasgow, refusing accommodation in other hostels and B&Bs traditionally used to accommodate homeless people. But a police officer talked him into coming here. “He said it was the kind of hotel that he would book into himself,” he said. “So I thought I’d try it.”

He says the other hostels that have been used as emergency accommodation are not somewhere he feels safe.

“There’s too much going on at those places,” he shrugs. “It’s like the jail. It’s violent. It’s like coming out of prison and then going into another one. It’s the same faces, the same wheeling and dealing. It’s chapping doors at night– “have you got this, have you got that?”. I can’t handle it. I would rather be in a sleeping bag.”

Before covid-19 there were plenty of people in sleeping bags in this city, most recent estimates are about 200 annually.  Some on the streets, according to the Simon Community’s Glasgow City Council funded street outreach team, are begging but housed, at least in temporary accommodation. Others are turned away from homeless services, sometimes because they don’t meet the criteria for housing, such as a local connection to Glasgow. Others, like Hugh, supposedly “choose” rough sleeping.

Coronavirus changed that. Glasgow’s Health and Social Care Partnership says its homeless services team has provided accommodation for more than 5000, almost 600 of whom are in hotels. It says it has “managed to maintain 90 per cent of services despite having staff off work self-isolating and others having to work from home”.

“We have worked closely and tirelessly with a number of supportive third sector partners of which the Simon Community is one and will continue to work with partners, including Glasgow’s Alliance to End Homelessness, going forward,” a spokeswoman said.

Not everyone is convinced that using hotels has been the best solution. “Even a nice hotel quickly loses its sheen when you’re stuck in your room with nowhere else to go,” someone from another charity notes. One guest, who spoke to The Ferret off-the-record, complained it took too long to find alternative accommodation, leaving them feeling isolated and frustrated.

“We’ve been working really well with Glasgow City Council. Since the beginning of the month it’s constantly: “What can we do, what do people want” and as we’ve gone on there’s been daily phone calls, giving us a chance to find out what’s appropriate for the guys here." Elaine Barrett, Simon Simon Community Scotland

But for many it’s been a huge success. John, who’s been here for a couple of months, is moving into a flat in the south of the city. Several of the EU citizens staying here spent all of last winter in the night shelter but have now have been granted settled status and will move into new homes.

“We’ve been working really well with Glasgow City Council,” says Barrett. “Since the beginning of the month it’s constantly: “What can we do, what do people want” and as we’ve gone on there’s been daily phone calls, giving us a chance to find out what’s appropriate for the guys here.”

Hugh is going to a flat in Knightswood, back to the northwest area he lived as a boy and he’s excited but nervous. “I thought it was brilliant here,” he says.

Jeanann Webster reassures him, reminding him he was apprehensive too about making the move from the street to the hotel too – “of even coming over the door.”

Hugh nods. “At first they suggested other places for me to go,” he remembers. “And I said: “Naw. I won’t go to those places”.”

“Well, we knew that, “ Barrett chips in. “We’ve been chasing this man round the city for years,” she explains. The Rough Sleeper and Vulnerable People (RSVP) outreach service spends much of it’s time trying to build trust with people considered “entrenched” rough sleepers like Hugh.

“Aye and what did I always used to tell you?” asks Hugh.

“Get tae”… Barrett jerks her thumb over her shoulder.”

“I’d tell you to go away politely,” counters Hugh.

“I’m not sure it was always that polite,” quips Barrett.

“Ah,” he beams at her. “That’s before I knew you.”

Glasgow City Council says it would be wrong to single out any one service for praise and states it has staff in all hotels it uses daily “providing support to homeless service users and working to find them alternative accommodative when lockdown restrictions are fully lifted and housing associations are back up and running at full capacity.”

But Barrett says she and her team have been called in to provide additional support. “I think some of the hotels in the city centre have really struggled,” she says.

Training in Naloxone, which can reverse the effects of opiates, was provided just four weeks ago. In several places there have been multiple overdose deaths in recent months, which she says have been “devastating”.

“Places like that become a community,” she says. “To find out that the person in the next room, or even your pal, has passed away…it’s just horrendous.

“And for staff who are not trained to be dealing with that… their training is in running a hotel. I’m sure they are caring and want to do their best but if you’re a receptionist and suddenly you’re having to deal with multiple drug deaths…?”

Having a homeless charity on site does not make you immune. There has been one death at this hotel too. “It was traumatic,” she says.

Beginning not the end

Yet Hugh insists that here he’s felt cared for, for the first time. “Any other place you’re just thrown in a room and forgotten about,” he says. “It’s sad this has to end.”

But if charities across Scotland have their way this is the beginning rather than the end. In recent months over 20 organisations and individuals working in homelessness have formed the Everyone Home collective, aimed at ensuring lessons learned during the pandemic are not lost.

It has called for more homes, an end to rough sleeping and an end to evictions into homelessness, and presented the Scottish Government with a set of detailed recommendations about how to do that.

These have been accepted, a move welcomed warmly by the charities. But there remain many question marks about how and when these will be rolled out. Critics argue that all the recommendations of the Homeless and Rough Sleepers action group (HARSAG) were accepted back in 2018, and many have still to be implemented.

Meanwhile, planning continues for night shelters in both Glasgow and Edinburgh that some hoped would not be necessary this year.

Charles Maasz, chief executive the Glasgow Winter Night Shelter, is clear that it cannot return to the old style shelter. It is planning a Welcome Centre to stop people falling through the gaps this winter but is still in talks with the city’s Health and Social Care partnership and the Scottish Government. Though “there is no assurance of anything yet” he would like to open in November. Plans in Edinburgh are understood to be more advanced.

Meanwhile, there are worries about the potential for rough sleeping to increase. Newly released official homeless statistics show someone become homeless every 17 minutes in Scotland in 2019-20 and there have been fears raised about the additional pressures the pandemic will bring.

As she prepares to get back to the day job Webster, says: “Our fear is that there are going to be more barriers put up to access [once] again. You have to bring people in, give them a room and then do the work.”

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Julie Alleyn, volunteer manager for the Simon Community and other staff have been based at the hotel since March

Angela Catlin

Barrett agrees. In the last couple of months the charity has come across people who have not been accommodated by Glasgow City Council under their statutory duty.

She acknowledges that it’s not easy to find accommodation in a city where housing is under huge pressures. “In the last couple of months we’ve come across people from outwith Glasgow,” she adds. “There have been lots of people arriving in the city, some with their families. So it’s quite challenging.”

“And there are still people falling through the cracks, still people rough sleeping.”

Work to find accommodation continues apace across Scotland. In Glasgow there have been some 300 more flats made available from the Wheatley Group, which include 100 earmarked for Housing First.

In a statement housing minister Kevin Stewart told the Ferret it had “provided over £1.5 million to third sector organisations in Edinburgh and Glasgow to support people previously sleeping rough or in unsuitable accommodation, like B&Bs or night shelters, into hotels and other self-contained accommodation, including those with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF)”.

He added: “Hotel accommodation has never been a long term solution and we are working with local government and frontline partners around a shared commitment to ensure no one returns to unsuitable temporary accommodation or rough sleeping.”

Barrett always knew that this hotel came with a time limit. But she and Webster believe it has shown what is possible. What would she like to be the legacy?

“For Glasgow to have a rapid access service,” she says. “For us as a team to be able to lift someone off the street and put them into a safe room where you can look after someone, get to know them, do a bit of work of them, that has been really something.

“For us not to have to give a sleeping bag out at the end of the night. Because doing that is just the hardest thing to do.

“I would like to say we’ll get that but I’m not very sure. And I know it’s about money, and it’s about politics. But the bottom line is there are vulnerable adults sleeping rough on our streets and something needs to change.”

All images © Angela Catlin

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