When I moved to Edinburgh last September, I was surprised to see so many homeless people on the streets and was interested in seeing what was being done to alleviate the issues of homelessness and begging. Whenever I walk along Princes Street or the Royal Mile, I am reminded of the sheer volume of people affected by these issues throughout the city. Homelessness, where “you have no home in the UK or anywhere else in the World for you to occupy” according to the UK government, seems to be such an obvious feature of Edinburgh life, yet it is rarely spoken about and little is known of what is being done to lighten it.
The figures in Scotland speak for themselves: according to the housing charity Shelter, between 2013 and 2014, 29,326 households in Scotland were declared homeless by their local authorities. Out of these households, 45 per cent were single men and 21 per cent single women. And for what reasons? According to the same source, people most commonly become homeless in Scotland after a dispute within the household (28 per cent), having been asked to leave their accommodation (26 per cent), as a result of an action by the landlord (14 per cent), harassment or violence (4 per cent) or having been discharged from hospital, prison or care (6 per cent). Homeless people on the streets of Edinburgh tend to be local, yet there have been an increasing number of homeless Romanian people since the country gained EU status in 2007.
Although they are not mutually exclusive, both homelessness and begging came to the surface two years ago when a local group, Essential Edinburgh, launched a radical petition to prohibit begging on the city’s streets through the creation of a by-law. Back in 2013, the group’s Chief Executive, Andy Neal, claimed that “shoppers want to avoid them and in the process avoid the store as well”. He justified this by saying that shoppers and tourists were made “upset by seeing begging and [would then] think there are other crimes or underworld activities going on that they should be afraid of”. Neal argued that without begging, the city centre would become “harassment free” and that generally business would be more successful.
Speaking to The Student earlier this week, a spokesperson for Essential Edinburgh said that the council voted against putting their proposals into legislation. A representative for Edinburgh City Council justified this decision by saying that public complaints about begging in Edinburgh were “low”, so introducing a by-law would be unnecessary. The Scottish Government said there is already existing legislation which could be used to convict anyone on the street that breached the peace legislation; if they were offensive, aggressive, threatening, abusive or sitting by an ATM machine, for example.
In recent years, the Scottish Government has already achieved a great deal in minimising homelessness and begging through prevention; namely the provision of affordable housing across Scotland. A spokesperson said: “In our ambitious aim to build 30,000 affordable homes by March 2016, we are currently on track, more than two-thirds of the way into the 5 year target.” The government says it will remain “committed to continuing to invest in affordable housing and has planned to spend over £1.7 billion over the lifetime of the Parliament.” This is incredibly promising given that all stated above has been achieved on the backdrop of a 25 per cent cut to the Government’s capital budget. The government continues to work with many local charities which are aiming to prevent homelessness, poverty and begging. Homeless charities in Edinburgh include the Bethany Christian Trust which focuses on short term relief of suffering homeless people, and Edinburgh Cyrenians which prevents homelessness through offering visiting support for up to six months.
Ultimately, it will be a long process before homelessness and begging are thoroughly prevented in Edinburgh and across the UK. Despite this, the Scottish Government, in collaboration with numerous local charities, is making firm progress to prevent homelessness, and this has been reflected in recent statistics. For the meantime, there is no existing by-law prohibiting homeless people or beggars from being on the streets and as long as they are not breaching any existing laws, we should respect their right to be there.