An Edinburgh Without Homelessness Is Possible

Leslie Cunningham writes

I got to know Rob, a homeless man, about a year ago. On 15th February 2021, he kindly allowed me to interview him. This article attempts to convey what he most eloquently expressed in no more than about fifteen minutes. (!) 

Rob just wants a roof over his head – a hostel is better than nothing – but a bedsit or, ideally, a one-bedroom flat is what he dreams of. He thinks that a monthly rent of about £350 for a one-bedroom flat is reasonable, but we both agreed that £350 would probably pay for a month’s rent of a room in a shared flat in our part of Edinburgh.

He then made the very good point that not nearly enough affordable housing is available in Edinburgh, and that the Council hands over responsibility for building new houses to private developers, who are primarily interested in making as big a profit as possible.

Photograph by Graham Checkley

Rob expressed particular concern about younger people, who are likely to be in precarious, low paid employment. If they are made redundant – as many are during Covid-19 – they may well be unable to pay their rent, and, after the temporary ban on evictions comes to an end, end up out on the streets like Rob.

We discussed what the Council does to support homeless people and agreed that there was a great deal of room for improvement.

Contacting the Council can only be done online or on the phone. Phone calls receive an automated response, which means a lot of time and money is used trying to leave a message. Worryingly, in many cases the Council does not phone back. (2)

When the Niddrie Mains Housing Office reopened temporarily last year, the queues were long, and it was not guaranteed that a client would see their own Housing Officer, as their shifts were randomly allocated. 

People in crisis who arrived at the Housing Office without an appointment often queued all day, only to be turned away at closing time. (3)

So, what did they do? Rob didn’t know.

On one occasion, the Council got Rob one night’s emergency accommodation at the Old Waverley Hotel, where he claims he was robbed.

If he can raise £15, Rob can pay for one night’s accommodation in Bobby’s Bunkhouse, sleeping in a dorm with eight beds (and no screens). The washing and toilet facilities are not clean, and there are no laundry or cooking facilities. And, as Rob remarked, “You don’t know who you’re sharing with.”

It is well known that homeless people, for a number of reasons, are particularly at risk of contracting Covid-19. However, conditions such as those at Bobby’s Bunkhouse are an ideal breeding ground for the virus and its spread, making not only homeless people but also the wider population more vulnerable to its effects. So, there is an epidemiological as well as an ethical reason for taking homeless people off the streets and finding them decent, affordable, safe housing. What about making use of the thousands of unoccupied Air BnBs in Edinburgh? 

It was heartening that, during our short conversation, nearly a dozen people gave Rob money or food. However, we agreed that this article should end like this:



(1) Rob gave permission for his name to be used, and for this article to be published on the Another Edinburgh Is Possible website and elsewhere. He was paid the standard amount of money paid by a researcher for an interview of up to an hour (£20).

Reference (2) is taken from the Interim Report on the AEIP Survey of City of Edinburgh Council services.

(2)  The relationship between the council and service users

The largest number of negative comments (around 21% of the total) related to the council’s attitude towards Edinburgh citizens, difficulties in making contact with relevant services and inadequate or uncompleted responses to requests. In some of the responses there was an explicit reference to feeling forgotten by a council that is perceived to be focused on the needs of students and tourists. Communication very difficult expected [you are] expected to have internet access. …inaccessibility and difficulty in speaking to a “real” person. I find it irritating to have the phone answered (thereby incur a charge) and then be left listening to a pre-recorded message for quite a few minutes. Others may find it more than irritating as it eats up phone credit etc.

Very difficult to get through to anyone in the council who seems to know how to get anything appropriately dealt with. 

(3) Council homeless KPI for public 2020 2021 to Nov 2020 (PDF).  An update has been requested.

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