The invisibility cloak, that’s what sprung to mind. My son had just snuck the new Harry Potter book from his bag. That would be the 26 year old son, who, once having read the book, would pass it onto his ** year old mother! Hands up, we’re Potter fans – isn’t everyone? Anyway, just one sight of the book and I’m flashing back to all the previous Potter adventures…and to that magical, invisibility cloak.
There’s a lot of folks walking around wearing invisibility cloaks these days, haven’t you noticed? And none more so than the homeless. Sadly, their cloaks don’t come like Harry’s, as a gift to protect, but are instead, without permission, wrapped around them, every thread of stigmatisation adding to those magical powers of invisibility.
‘Invisible Edinburgh’, I’ve been banging on about this new venture a lot recently. It’s a fab wee social enterprise that empowers homeless people through tour guide training, whilst educating others on an ‘alternative’ Edinburgh. You know, the side of Edinburgh that many pretend doesn’t exist…those ‘invisible’ places and more so, people?
Book a tour and you can expect to visit some of the usual attractions under interesting themes, such as ‘Powerful Women’ and ‘Crime and Punishment’, but you’ll also be introduced to some of the places that have shaped the homeless guide’s experience of Edinburgh. I’m thinking of those landmarks that are personal to them, be that the run off his/her feet podiatrist (!) for the homeless, down in the Grassmarket, or charities such as Streetwork, who in the guide’s own words, ‘Gave me a bed when I needed to sleep, and food when I was really hungry.’
I’ve been on a few of these tours, and each time I’m left with the sense that it’s an education that many across our society need. Far too many invisibility cloaks have been sewn, and it’s about time we started unpicking the stitches of stigma and come together in a joint effort to end homelessness.
‘Lots of folk who were somebody are buried here’ laughed our utterly fantastic tour guide as we stood in Greyfriars Kirkyard, ‘So I’m not likely to be buried here.’
Before entering the graveyard, we’d been told ghosts had been known to touch folks, but it was words that ended up touching me. In that moment of commentary, I could hear the years of stigmatisation that had been endured. I could feel the prejudice of others, born from a lack of understanding of the real life circumstances that could hit anyone of us to send our lives spiralling out of control…leaving us vulnerable and in need of support. Or does fear better explain? A fear of the unknown, or indeed that it could one day be us?
Scrabble, to be honest, I’ve never liked the game but I played it recently at Social Bite’s Women’s Suppers. It’s a space for homeless women to come together for food and a natter, and it’s been my privilege to help out there over these past couple of months. My opponent, a feisty and even more competitive woman than I, had just won, and being still a tad raw from a fairly recent Holyrood election (!), I’d pleaded for her to be gentle in her success. Hell no, she was brutal, visibly dancing around the room taunting me with chants and ‘loser’ signs!
‘We don’t want their pity, just their respect.’ Having nattered about politics at this week’s supper, we moved onto dentists and make up (Not together!), and then found ourselves on the familiar issue of homelessness. Different experiences were shared of how people had treated them, but there was a common call for respect.
This valuable and voluntary opportunity over the summer has left me nothing short of inspired. Winning at scrabble is only a speck in the ocean of challenges my homeless friends have overcome, and the challenges that they have yet to overcome today. These are strong, intelligent and talented people who, for one reason or another, have found themselves in a vulnerable situation and do not deserve to be shunted away into the realms of invisibility. If I’d to form words on that scrabble board, they would include ‘redundancy’, ‘domestic violence’, ‘poverty’, ‘high rents’, ‘low wages’ ‘abuse’ and yes, ‘addiction’…because with the stories comes the understanding of that addiction.
Homelessness is wrong on every level. Here in Scotland, we’ve made some real progress through our internationally respected homelessness legislation. Last week saw a welcome end to the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme, which ate into our social housing stock. In addition, the Scottish Government is working towards a new target of 50,000 affordable homes, much of it social housing. They are delivering ‘Help to Buy’ schemes to support people onto the housing ladder, and through the Private Tenancies Bill, making private renting more secure, and providing those much needed caps for rent increases in high rent spots. Rents I should say, that see both my sons temporarily moving back into our family home – an experience shared by many families today.
Progress yes, but much, much yet to do. What of the rents that are already too high? Or, let’s consider the UK Government cuts filtering down to councils and potentially threatening the quality and scope of homeless properties and services. What too of the empty buildings across our city, and wider Scotland that need to be made available and innovatively used? Or the partnership approaches to tackle homelessness at its roots? What about a more simplified benefits system that helps, rather than hinders? And what of our new, although limited, social security powers, and how they can be used to prevent homelessness?
‘Hi, how you doing?’ Out on those ‘Invisible Edinburgh’ tours, I lost count of the number of homeless people we passed on the streets, but my tour guide stopped to acknowledge each one. No invisibility cloak had been stitched to hide away the value of each homeless person from his eyes. Everybody was a somebody – stigma free!
I’ve had it with invisibility cloaks! They need to go. Instead let’s stitch new garments from patterns of understanding, respect and equality…all of us visibly working together in the common goal of ensuring everyone has a home to call their own. Let’s unpick that stigma!
NOTE TO ANYONE WHO READS BEYOND THIS BLOG…It’s been quite a while since my previous blogs below. I may have since changed some of my opinions!