Christmas time has some very strong connotations. When we think of ourselves getting into the festive spirit, we often think of warm fireplaces or opening presents with our family by the tree.
Perhaps you think of Christmas dinner or gingerbread coffees or getting on your best party gear and heading out on the town for a night out with your friends. Christmas, in the modern context at least, is a time for having fun.
For some people, however, Christmas will be none of those things. For some people, the trials and tribulations of an incomprehensibly difficult existence won’t just cease temporarily because the date on the calendar reads ‘December 25th’.
Glasgow has a homelessness problem. According to a report from the Glasgow Homelessness Network, a total of 1,771 people sought out help from homeless services in Glasgow in the past year alone and of those, an ‘absolute minimum’ of 560 spent time sleeping rough on the streets.
Homelessness is something that makes us all uncomfortable. When you walk past someone on the pavement, there’s just something in your gut that tells you it’s wrong, that a person shouldn’t just be left there while we all get on with our day.
Some of us might buy them a coffee or a sandwich, others might choose to walk on by, trying not make eye contact, secure in the knowledge that one single kind gesture wouldn’t be enough to solve the wider problem.
We all have our own ways of dealing with homelessness when we’re confronted with it head on. Even the most compassionate among us find a way to compartmentalise is and push it to the back of our brains.
But this Christmas and throughout this winter, the problem won’t just go away, not really. Whilst we enjoy our Christmas with our families and our home comforts, those same people we pass every day on the street will have to find a way to survive the cold winter nights.
Thankfully, there are services out there that will help to look after a percentage of them and others will find temporary shelter with family or friends. Some won’t be so lucky.
What’s worse is that this time of year often sees increases in the number of people being forced to seek out homeless services. According to Graham Steven of Glasgow City Mission, the holiday season can often push charities to the very limits.
“For us, winter time is always a very busy period,” Graham explains. “What we tend to see at this time of year is a spike in the number of people using our services. Partly that has to do with the cold weather but in January, there’s another spike again as relationships which have resurfaced over Christmas begin to break down.
“There’s also the issue of people who are just struggling to make ends meet. It could be that they’ve overstretched themselves over Christmas and the build-up of debt just becomes too much for them. For ourselves and a lot of other agencies throughout Glasgow, our aim is to get under the skin of why someone has come in to see us and understand what’s driving that need.”
For Britons, debt is a huge issue every Christmas but research from MoneySupermarket has found that we’re set to spend more than ever this year and with a third of us planning to borrow to pay for the costs of the holiday season, it’s easy to see how things can quickly spiral out of control.
Whilst lingering bills and unpaid fees can often force people into desperate situations, Graham thinks there’s another even bigger issue which is driving the need for people to seek out services: lack of housing.
“The long and short of it is that there’s just not enough accommodation in the city,” Graham says. “A number of the big hostels closed in the ‘90s and early 2000s and whilst most people agree that was the right thing to do, the problem is that insufficient numbers of alternatives have been provided in their place.”
Lorraine McGrath, the chief executive of the Glasgow Simon Community – a homelessness charity who work on developing and delivering services for homeless people – agrees that a lack of social housing plays a massive part in forcing people onto the streets.
“One of the biggest problems we’ve got in Glasgow at the moment is the fact that we have such huge pressures on our accommodation,” she says. “There is simply not enough social housing for single adults in the city. It’s a well-accepted fact among the different statutory bodies who deal with homelessness in Glasgow that accommodation pressures would be one of the single biggest issues that we need to address.
“The thing is; the council faces very difficult challenges in that respect. All of the housing in Glasgow has been transferred into community ownership so no matter how much desire they may have to change things, they just can’t do it on their own. This isn’t just a local issue; it’s a problem on a national scale.”
That seems to be one of the biggest difficulties in addressing the root causes of homelessness. Interestingly, during the research for this piece, almost every charity I questioned spoke favourably on the work that the council have been doing but all were very clear that more still needs to be done.
“There’s a wide acknowledgment that the way things are cannot be sustained and that it’s not acceptable,” says Lorraine. “Could they do more? Of course, if they had unlimited resources – but they don’t have that, none of us do. I think the reality of the situation we’re in is that it’s about how do we do more with what we’ve already got.
“The key thing is that there’s an effective response to individual’s needs. Of course accommodation is really important but it’s not just about that. More often than not, there are health issues involved and mental health issues play a big part. It’s getting that kind of support in and mobilising the resources that we do have.”
Indeed, mental health issues play a very serious role in the situations that lead to individuals experiencing homelessness. The report from the GHN also found that mental ill-health is the most frequently occurring support need identified alongside the need for accommodation, and is identified by nearly 40 per cent of service users.
That’s a particularly striking statistic because mental health issues have also been identified as a problem when helping individuals escape from homelessness. According to Lorraine, the Simon Community regularly works to engage with those who are sleeping rough and struggling to interact with the kind of systems that could help them find a permanent solution.
“We are wholly dedicated to combating the causes and effects of homelessness,” she says. “We work with over three-thousand people every year and we have supported accommodation places for people who have some very complex issues.
“We actively engage with rough sleepers across the city and help people who really struggle to work with services and find a way through the system that works for them.”
Graham has also seen no shortage of examples of this problem at Glasgow City Mission. He says that for those suffering with mental health issues, the current systems can sometimes just be too difficult to navigate alone.
“We find that a number of the processes and systems that you’ve got to go through to access help from statutory services can be incredibly complicated,” he explains. “If there are these underlying issues with mental ill-health, then it could be really challenging for some people to access the help that they really need.
“We often find that those are the people that we end up working with. It could be that they’ve already been through a statutory service or been on a course but at the end of it, they’ve not been able to support that individual back into employment or provide the services that they need.
“In those situations, it could be a case where those statutory services say there’s just nothing more that they can do for that person and then they find themselves with nowhere to go. That’s when a lot of people come to us.”
The reality is that the third sector is having to deal with a massive strain on their resources. With the huge numbers of people seeking out help from homeless services, it’s to be expected that some might fall through the cracks.
In February, the Scottish Government launched an investigation after the Daily Record’s John Ferguson did an undercover report on the Bellgrove hotel, a homeless hostel in Glasgow’s East End.
As Kevin McKenna put it in his write up of the story in the Guardian a month later, “the Bellgrove hotel is a place where men go to die, expiring in their own waste and choked by alcohol and drugs – 150 of them at a time.”
The ‘hotel’ made millions for its property magnate owners on the back of the desperation of our city’s most desperate. Whilst the council “no longer refers homeless men to the Bellgrove”, it’s a clear example of how badly wrong things can go when those of us who do care push thoughts of the vulnerable to the back of our minds for too long.
At this time of year, it seems abhorrent to think of those who need our help sitting in squalor or out in the cold. For those not lucky enough to find the help of groups like Glasgow City Mission or the Glasgow Simon Community, this Christmas time will be an unimaginable ordeal.
Every single interaction I’ve ever had with the people of Glasgow tells me that’s not good enough and that it’s just not the kind of thing we stand for. Christmas, as much as it’s a time for fun, is also a time for sharing and in that sense it couldn’t be a holiday more befitting of the Glaswegian spirit. This year, I challenge you to think of those less fortunate and ask what you can do to make their Christmas a little merrier.
To find out what people all over Glasgow are doing to help and how you can get involved, click on the links below:
In association with TSA Glasgow.