Sitting on a scrap of beach looking over Edinburgh’s Firth of Forth – a no-man’s land that is no longer Muirhouse, still quite a way from Cramond – the water is almost exactly the colour of the sky. The two are almost hard to tell apart – which way is up?
Right now Martin and Jackie aren’t quite sure. There’s been recent trauma, a violent attack that left them in fear of their lives and made them homeless. Thanks to the council’s housing team they washed up here at the Almond House Lodge, a homeless bed and breakfast (B&B) run by the Cameron Guest House Group.
Edinburgh’s homeless system here is reaching breaking point due to surging demand and an equally stark lack of housing. Meanwhile there’s money to be made for private owners running places like this.
It was once a fairly well-to-do hotel where holidaymakers came to enjoy a drink with a view, while their kids played on the well-kept lawn. Now at the front there are lost-looking mothers, pushing buggies weighed down with shopping and laundry. At the back a bay window is boarded up and paint is peeling.
This young couple have had a room with a view here for seven nights so far and they don’t know what happens next. “We’ve been told it could take 12-24 months to get a house,” says Jackie.
She hopes they can get a temporary flat soon, somewhere her child – staying with his dad though she has joint custody – could visit. She can’t go to her kid overnight either because she would be booked out if she spends a night away. For now they are just watching the gulls catching fish and the planes fly in to land, the calm at the very eye of the storm.
All around them that storm is raging. This city is in the midst of a chronic housing crisis that has seen waiting lists soaring. Homeless families with young kids and babies are not just sent to B&Bs but report being told they will spend up to six weeks there, while for adults it will take months to get moved on. Reports of standards are shocking and people are reaching breaking point.
In Edinburgh the number of people in temporary accommodation rose 89 per cent from 661 households in 2010 to 1,246 in 2017, the highest rise by far in Scotland. At the same time this local authority has a striking lack of social housing on offer. Almost a third of households in temporary accommodation were in hostels or B&Bs in March 2017, according to a recent report by Heriot-Watt University.
This is not just an Edinburgh problem. In Perth and Kinross 58 per cent of so-called temp households are in B&Bs. In Dundee, Inverclyde and Highland it’s around half, with Highland spending £17 million on private providers. Glasgow City Council, supposedly at the lower end of B&B use compared to other local authorities, spent over £10 million on B&Bs and hotels over five years, and people have the same litany of reports about conditions.
The Scottish Government knows all this. Back in March its rough sleeping and homelessness action group, led by leading figures working in the sector with the support of a consultation with homeless people, put forward a raft of recommendations on how to transform temp. It spoke of the need for prevention, for minimum standards. B&B use should be phased out, rents lowered, housing first models better used, it said.
But Edinburgh also finds itself bang in the centre of a housing bubble. Rising rents, and intense demand, not just during the Edinburgh festivals and Hogmanay but all year round, make housing almost impossible to afford for many. Especially since the benefit cap – meaning parents could claim a maximum of £384.62 per week – was introduced last January.
It’s leading young couples like Cameron and Amy, who was 34 weeks pregnant when she became homeless, into impossible situations. They made a homeless application to Edinburgh council and were shocked to be put into a B&B, which they don’t want to name.
“The housing officer guaranteed that it would be family friendly and that people would not be using drugs,” says Amy, but the reality was different. “Some of the other people there were talking openly about taking heavy drugs like cocaine,” says Cameron.
People would be drunk. The people in the room next to us were smoking weed so we had to close the windows and use a fan because it became really hot. Cameron, B&B resident
Luckily they contacted Shelter Scotland, who raised their case with council as they had been there for more than the legal limit of seven days for families and got them moved into a temporary flat in time for their baby to arrive. But other families are still struggling.
Less than two miles from Almond House Lodge, in the shadow of a council-owned tower block for which it is charging an eye-watering £1,900 a month, Pauline Bowie, project manager of Low Income Families Together (Lift) is on the frontline of these struggles.
Bowie, who has lived here all her life, first heard about the benefit cap in October 2016 and was worried it would effect some of the mums in the confidence building group she was running. “And then did it not all happen,” she throws up her hands. “There were 11 in the group and five of them were made homeless all at once.”
She applied for funding, set up Lift and started helping them pick up the pieces. So far the organisation has worked with 178 families, about half of whom have ended up homeless, mostly due to the benefit cap.
She lists them off – single mothers asked to find an extra £94 a week out of thin air, women forced to cut the hours of minimum wage evening jobs because they couldn’t get home in time to meet B&B curfews, others treking across town on buses to get to school every morning because they have been placed miles from their communities, others putting kids’ toys in storage that they’ve outgrown before they’re ever able to unpack.
What enrages her though is that the families she works with are given a two-month notice to quit – the charity reports it to housing immediately – yet nothing will be done until the first day they find themselves homeless.
That was the experience of 25-year-old Rachel Gardner, one of the first women in her group to become homeless 18 months ago, after her landlord sold her flat. Her daughter, Lucy, was seven, and her autistic son Andrew was two days shy of his fifth birthday on the morning she ended up sat in the council’s housing office, though she had informed them of her situation when she was given two months notice.
She sat there until after 4pm, waiting till they found somewhere and her son spent his birthday in a B&B. “It was heartbreaking,” she says. After three days there was a hotel and then she was offered a place at the Abbots House Hotel, which she refused due to the conditions. She spent over a year in a private sector lease and finally got a permament flat in June. But it’s taken its toll.
“My son has really struggled,” she says. “My little girl was really outgoing. But she became dead withdrawn. She and her brother still ask on a daily basis if we’re going to be moving again.”
We've got a room along there and we call it the greetin' room. We just sit and let it all come out over a cup of coffee. Pauline Bowie, LIFT
And nothing has changed. “I was with a mum this morning with four kids and it’s exactly the same scenario,” says Bowie. “She’s been served a notice to quit on 18 October. They will come and get her stuff the night before [to take it to storage] and the following morning she’ll have to come and sit in the north Edinburgh housing office until they find the family somewhere to stay. They say they can’t look until someone becomes homeless.”
She can’t see why, with temporary accommodation so expensive – more than half a billion has been paid out in Scotland over the last five years – discretionary housing payments can’t meet the shortfall saving public money in the long term and stopping lives being literally tipped upside down.
Like others before her, it’s likely that this woman will be offered B&B. Many of the women that Bowie is supporting have been placed in what she considers substandard conditions in the Abbots House Hotel and Almond House Lodge. She shows me pictures of stained bedsheets and mattresses, filthy bathrooms, a pair of dirty knickers someone found stuffed down the bed when she moved into the room.
The women have added comments underneath: “Everything they said was lies, lies, lies,” writes one, “I feel so anxious,” says another, “drained and worried”.
Bowie lets them have a good cry: “We’ve got a room along there and we call it the greetin’ room. We just sit and let it all come out over a cup of coffee. We also tell them, “we’ve got another 50 in the same position. It’s not just you”.” And then she starts helping them fight back.
She, or one of her two part-time advocacy workers, accompany people to appointments, building them up, and making sure they know their rights. They’ve teamed up with the Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty (ECAP) and other local campaigners to hold protests outside council officers.
In January they stood outside Abbots House with their banners, protesting about conditions.
Days later they took their complaints into the council’s housing committee room, extracting commitments to end the use of B&Bs for families and 16-17 year olds within a target timeframe of six months. Bowie is deeply frustrated it has not been upheld. “I’m sick of hearing that it’s Westminster’s fault,” she says “It’s time for the Scottish Government to step up and listen to these mums.”
Edinburgh City Council – which has set up a homelessness task force – says ending the use of B&Bs is “the absolute goal”. It insists it does regular inspections and urges those with complaints to contact housing officers so they can be investigated.
Also fighting is the A team, a homeless peer support group facilitated by Crisis. The homeless charity is calling on the Scottish Government to put in place a seven day time limit for everyone placed in emergency temporary homeless accommodation, such as B&Bs.
Sitting in a spotless room in Crisis’ Edinburgh office, the members of this group are at pains to explain how their trauma is exacerbated by the accommodation they are forced to accept.
Antonio Bianchi became homeless in August 2016 just after completing his PHD. He was working part-time for the council and living with his girlfriend. He knew the relationship wasn’t working but he didn’t expect her to change the locks and write him out of the tenancy agreement with the landlord though he had paid both rent and deposit. For a while he sofa surfed, often calling friends late at night to beg for accommodation.
In the end he declared himself homeless and after an intitally refusal he was given a place in the Cameron Guest House in Hopetoun Crescent, which is also owned by the Akbar Mir family. “The conditions were horrible,” he says. “It was really shocking. The dirt in the room, the smell, made it difficult to breath.” Nicotine had penatrated the think velvet curtains, even the walls seemed to smell of cigarettes, and the centralised heating system was on constantly.
Curfew was at 10 every night, guests were banned and if he spent a night away from the hostel he would have been booked out and had to return to the housing office, where he would have been judged intentionally homeless and its duty to him discharged.
After about a month, having also developed a skin rash, he decided he could no longer stay and went back to moving from one friend to another. “I went to speak to my housing officer who said I should be offered permanent accommodation soon, maybe in other three or four months. Instead it took me a total of 14 months before I was offered social housing. In the meantime, I had lost my job.”
Now he’s rebuilding his life, volunteering, campaigning with the group, realising his experience, however nightmarish, are not as bad as some.
For many the hurt is still in the present tense. Almost everyone I meet tells me they used to be more than this. Living like this can make you rage, feel desperately failed and hurt. With the right support you might be able to fight back. But it also can leave you fearing you are worthless, make you feel like nothing at all.
Back in no man’s land by the Firth of Forth, Jackie and Martin don’t want that to happen to them. They hope they’ll get through this, find a nice house and make things work. Jackie’s been referred for support with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Martin hopes he can get a wee car back on the road. But meanwhile they’re keeping their heads down, soaking up the views, watching the planes coming in. “We’re not bad people,” says Jackie. “We’re just normal people, trying to get on with our lives.”