At least 139 people died while homeless in Scotland over a period of 18 months. That figure came not from the government or any official source, but rather was the result of a year-long investigation from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, alongside The Ferret.
Journalist Maeve McClenaghan set out to log how and when people were dying homeless. She had what she thought was a simple question: how many people like him had died while homeless? After calling round every official body it became clear that no-one knew, because no-one counted.
Maeve and Ferret journalist Karin Goodwin, pulled together names and details of those in Scotland, dying on the streets, in squats and in hostels. Following the research the National Records of Scotland began to produce official data on homeless deaths.
Maeve’s book, No Fixed Abode, looks at who these people were, how they had fallen into homelessness and what more could have been done to save them. This extract tells the story of Ian Kirkland, who died in August 2018, and his sister Antoinette, looking for answers after her brother’s death.
After leaving Pottsy and the group in the flat, I made my way up to Glasgow. I wanted to find out more about the impact of this prison-to-streets cycle, not just on those living it but on their loved ones too. I wanted to meet Antoinette Kirkland.
I had first come across the pretty, sparkly eyed woman in a photograph in a Scottish newspaper. She was appealing to the public for answers: she wanted to know how her brother, Ian, had died. She hadn’t heard anything from him for eight months until a friend directed her to a newspaper heading: a homeless man had been found dead. Her brother.
We had spoken at length over the phone, but I had travelled up, arriving on a dark October afternoon, because Antoinette was taking her search for answers further. She was planning to spend the night sleeping rough, to try and better understand the life her brother had led.
So it was, on one bitterly cold Saturday evening, that I found myself following Antoinette and three of her friends down Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street, dodging the crowds – and their audaciously bare skin – out for some nightlife. Among the mini-skirts and short shirtsleeves, our sad group stood out. The friends were lugging with them sleeping bags and thick coats, the night dark and freezing already. They were joining others, part of a charity event to raise money and awareness of rough-sleeping in the city.
Antoinette wasn’t sure what to expect but, as we made our way to the meeting point, we were greeted by a large hoard of people sitting down, framed by the rectangular glow of a Sainsbury’s shop window. Dozens had come out to take up the challenge. They pooled in puffa-jacketed groups, handing round biscuits with forced camaraderie. There were so many people out that Antoinette and her friends had to edge on down the road to find a relatively sheltered spot under the overhang of a roof, the entrance to an upmarket designer clothes store.
As they settled down for the night, nestled in thick sleeping bags, I glanced around the cold, dark street. My hands were turning blue already; the women had a long night ahead of them.
A few hours earlier I had met them at Antoinette’s friend’s flat, where it felt more like preparations for a night on the town than a solemn memorial. Michelle, Antoinette’s oldest friend, was meticulously straightening her black shoulderlength hair while Antoinette coddled the tiny chihuahua that danced around our feet.
‘Ian preferred jail,’ Antoinette remembered with a sigh. ‘Inside, he said, he knew whether he was coming or going, there were three square meals a day. He ran a wee shop – you know, in jail terms – a wee business.’
Her brother Ian had been in and out of prison for most of his life. At thirty-nine years old, Ian’s life had been an incessant cycle of crime and prison-time. Addicted to drugs, including heroin, Ian had done some terrible things: armed robberies, mugging old ladies. But inside prison he always appeared to sort himself out. There was drug detox there and counselling.
‘He’d always come out looking so healthy,’ Antoinette told me. But as soon as he was out and back in Renfrew, where he had grown up, he was ‘like a kid in a sweet shop; he just didn’t have the self-control. He just felt like he was plopped back in. I can’t remember him getting any help. I just don’t think the support is there.’
In the outside world, Ian didn’t want to be around the other addicts in the methadone clinics. Instead he tried to go cold turkey, locking himself in Antoinette’s spare room to exorcise the poison himself. But despite the sweat and tears, it hadn’t lasted.
There had been moments when it seemed like he had changed, Antoinette recalled, Michelle nodding her agreement. Back in 2017, as he walked out of the prison gates, Ian was determined things wouldn’t be the same as before. A few weeks later and he was telling his mum and sister the good news: he had managed to secure a job with House of Fraser, cleaning the store overnight. This was it – this was his clean break.
For three weeks he was full of energy, his sister remembered. Every day he’d wake up and get on the bus, whisking him along the M8 motorway and into the city centre. He’d sit low in the seat; he complained that people were staring at him, judging his thin frame. He had never felt quite comfortable in his skin.
But all that was forgotten once he was in the store. With the doors closed and the place empty, he lost himself in the cleaning – wiping down surfaces, buffing the floor. As if the messiness of his life could be worked out with bleach and rag-cloths.
It didn’t last. One day Ian was called in to a meeting with the manager. His work references had been followed up – the police check had come back. Ian had failed to mention, when he applied, that he had a rap sheet as long as his arm: mostly for shoplifting offences. He was fired on the spot. That did it– he gave up. ‘He was just like, “Fuck it”,’ his sister said. Ashamed, he left his mother’s house, where he’d been staying, and disappeared.
It was only now that Antoinette was starting to put the pieces together of what happened next, like some awful jigsaw puzzle. Her appeals in the local paper and on Facebook had prompted a slew of responses from people who had seen Ian in recent months, more than 130 of them in all. From going through each of these, it was possible to get a sense of what had happened after he disappeared.
‘I’ve met this guy. We bought him a burger and coffee – that was a few months ago – outside Glasgow Central. We encouraged him to go to a shelter as it was at night and he was on his own. He said he would go . . . Sorry for your loss,’ wrote one woman.
‘I spoke to this boy on 21 August. I gave him a few cigarettes. I remember it was on Argyle Street next to the card shop,’ wrote another.
‘Think I’ve seen him too. On Buchanan St against the black stone at the subway. I remember saying to my son, “That’s somebody’s son.” Roughly 14/15 Aug,’ said a woman. ‘Used to see him on Queen St quite often on my way to work in the morning, always seemed like a decent guy to say hello to, such a shame,’ wrote a man.
For a few weeks, Antoinette deduced, Ian had been sleeping rough and begging in Glasgow city centre. People saw him there, pale and drawn, his skinny frame swamped in ill-fitting jeans and a waterproof anorak top. He had propped up a jokey sign reading ‘The ex-wife had a better lawyer’, though he had never married.
But then Ian disappeared from his usual begging spot. He had gone to Paisley, a town just a ten-minute train ride from the city. It was August by then and warm enough to sleep outside, the sun dipping late in the evening. On the evening of 30 August, a Thursday like any other, he found an alcove, a dark, grassy area flanked on one side by the dirty whitewashed walls of a Domino’s takeaway shop. He had a stash of food – crisps, cold meat and pork pies. I visited that same spot later. The hum of the busy junction in front of the grassy area played like white noise.
From where he sat, perched between bushes and a spindly young tree, Ian would have been able to see the outstretched arm of the bronze statue of St Mirin brandishing a shepherd’s crook and cross, as if holding back some great evil. As the evening light dropped, a spotlight at the base of the statue cast a long beam up at the words inscribed in the blond sandstone: ‘. . . At length, full of sanctity and miracles, he slept in the Lord at Paisley.’
Sanctity and miracles. There was not much of those about these days.
Ian died just five miles away from his family’s house. Later, in the morgue, Antoinette was struck by how thin her big brother’s arms were, how soft his hair was. She stroked it gently, lost, confused as to how her brother, once so full of life, had ended up like this. An autopsy later failed to find any discernible cause for his death. It was recorded as ‘causes unknown’. That had left Antoinette reeling, trying to find the positive. ‘He just went to sleep and never woke up. We’ll never know why. We’re thinking he just gave up.’
In the weeks and months after Ian’s death, Antoinette had been struggling to make sense of it all. But there was one beacon in the gloom. One of the messages that had popped up after her Facebook appeal. The message from Steph.
A cheery blonde woman, Steph lived in Paisley, the town where Ian had come to die. News of his death had shaken her. There weren’t many people sleeping rough in the town – it had always felt like something that went on in Glasgow or the other big cities – but now, here it was, on her doorstep. Suddenly she couldn’t help but see poverty and need wherever she went. ‘I never saw anything in Paisley until I started to look and then it was everywhere, but you know you can go about and just never see it.’
Now she was seeing it, Steph decided she needed to act. She banded together some friends, negotiated use of a storage shed, loaded a car with food and set off to put on a soup kitchen meal for the vulnerable of the town. ‘I read about Ian’s death in the newspaper and remember thinking how tragic it was. I’d been thinking about doing something for some months but that spurred me on. It just really saddened me, reading about Antoinette and her wanting to know what had happened to her brother. I wish our organisation had been available to him, I really do,’ she told me.
We had met at a cafe inside a shopping centre, me a little worn out from all my train travel and her a ball of energy, juggling talking with me with expertly keeping an eye on her fidgeting toddler son who was moving the food around his plate, bored. She was clearly used to multitasking: as well as looking after her young son, she was working as a carer, and now she had grand plans for a big Christmas meal for the homeless of the town. She had held four soup-kitchen events so far and had already learnt a great deal.
‘I’ve heard some horrific stories in the last few months,’ she said, smiling sadly, as she helped her little boy with his toast and his butter-smeared hands. ‘In Glasgow you see a lot of ex-servicemen. One man was telling me that he’d served in the army and had come back with claustrophobia and PTSD, he’d lost his wife through that trauma, and now his kids refused to speak to him because of his alcoholism. I’ve spoken to single mums that have barely eaten – just beans on toast for three days – so they can feed their kids. Others still have homes but it’s just a shell, no gas or electricity.’
After making contact on Facebook, Steph had invited Antoinette to come out to see the soup kitchen in action. ‘She came along to the very first soup-kitchen night. I wanted it to be in honour of Ian. At that event, with everyone that came along, we had lots of conversations about Ian.’
Antoinette had been touched by Steph’s work. The idea that her brother’s death had prompted something good, something pure, was a real comfort to her. The two women, united by a man one had never met, were now good friends. ‘She is such a lovely woman,’ smiled Steph. ‘It’s like we were meant to meet.’
Leaving Steph in the shopping centre, I wound my way through streets as grey as the winter sky above them, lost in thought. Ian, unlike Pottsy, should have had things easier. The Scottish system was much better when it came to homeless provision, and had even been described as ‘possibly the strongest legal framework in the world in relation to protecting people from homelessness’.
And yet, many people in Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, were still leaving prison with nowhere to go (across the UK 15 per cent of men and 13 per cent of women in prisons listed ‘no fixed abode’ as their accommodation status when leaving prison).
Those that did go to their local council for help were often placed in hostels or bed and breakfasts, too often surrounded by other prison-leavers battling the same temptations.
Despite the strong policies, in Glasgow, where Ian had spent most of the time he was sleeping rough, the numbers of those on the street were rising. And with them so too was the number of those dying homeless. I had counted at least thirty-eight people who had died homeless in Glasgow that year alone.
I took Ian’s last trip in reverse, travelling back from Paisley to Glasgow, the grand, high ceilings of Glasgow Central station greeting me, the many people begging around the entrances a stark welcome to the city. A twenty-minute walk east from the station was the Lodging House Mission, a grand, greystone former church. There I watched as staff and volunteers battled against the tide of deaths. I arrived that day as they doled out the last of the lunchtime fare: beef stew and mashed potatoes. The homeless of Glasgow could convene here seven days a week for three square meals. The building was also being used as a winter shelter and every evening mattresses were laid out across the echoing hall. In a large room upstairs, a space where the high vaulted ceiling still arched to the heavens, thin duvets were airing out.
Angela Vance was showing me around. She was a no-nonsense support worker who helped run the services there. ‘A large part of my job is just holding people, just keeping them safe and here for another day,’ she explained as she showed me into a storeroom packed with food supplies.
Angela cut a sombre figure. ‘You’re in black again,’ one of the volunteers joked as she passed by. ‘Aye, I always am,’ she replied, sadly, ‘because how many funerals do I go to?’ Angela was trying to keep people alive, but it was an uphill battle.
She was hearing day in and day out about the struggles of those coming out of prison. Universal Credit had been rolled out in Glasgow three days previously and in that time she had already seen five men who had left prison and come to the centre. ‘It’s really hitting me just now,’ she said. ‘It just went to full-service. They were saying it won’t affect you too much because it is only new claims, but the amount of new claims I’ve got . . . It’s a nightmare.’
Those five men were facing weeks of waiting until they saw any funds. ‘The guys are saying, “I have to apply for job seeker’s allowance.” I say, “No, that doesn’t exist now, you have to apply for this.” They’re like, “But I don’t want that,” and they just get so upset.’
I checked back in with Antoinette a few days later. Their night sleeping out raised money for a local homelessness charity. It also gave Antoinette a better understanding of the life her brother had been living, of how desperate he must have been to spend his nights the same way. There were some rude comments that night, she told me, insults shouted by drunken passers-by. But Antoinette and her group huddled down together in their sleeping bags and focused on keeping warm. Her friends who were with her that night had known Ian too. They had watched him struggle. ‘I’m not ashamed of him,’ Antoinette said. ‘I could never be ashamed of him.’ She only wished he had been able to break the cycle. To make it out alive.