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Rough sleepers risking ‘dying in the snow’ in country to flee city violence

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As families gather round the table on Christmas Day, a shocking number of people face spending the festive period not only alone but sleeping rough on the streets.

You have inevitably walked past such a person and perhaps tossed some spare change in their direction before hurrying on, or made a donation towards a homeless appeal in the run up to the festivities.

You may even think you know the narrative of homelessness, with 5,000 people sleeping rough on Scotland’s streets.

But statistics cannot begin to highlight the extent of the problem and an Aberdeen charity chief has warned we are facing a crisis not seen for 50 years.

Homelessness applications to Aberdeen City Council rose by 7% last year, meaning 1,375 people declared themselves homeless – in a supposedly affluent city.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon recently announced that additional funds will be made available to tackle rough sleeping, and Aberdeen Cyrenians is one of the charities to benefit.

It will partner with the local authority to deliver outreach services and there are long-term plans to provide more accommodation.

Staff and volunteers will also try to create a festive atmosphere come Christmas Day, if only for a few hours.

Its centre on Summer Street will be open for 24 hours so rough sleepers have somewhere warm and safe to go.

The fact remains that homelessness is a problem all year round, though.

Mike Burns, who has recently taken over as chief executive of Aberdeen Cyrenians, is calling for urgent action and says the charity’s services are more in demand than ever.

He believes the problem has peaked for a number of reasons including the oil and gas downturn and subsequent unemployment.

Having spent 25 years working in the third sector, there is not much Mike hasn’t witnessed and he makes no secret of the fact that he spent parts of his own childhood in care.

Traumatic experiences, mental health problems and spiralling addiction can often lead to a person finding themselves homeless.

Many people who previously held down successful careers and mortgages have also turned to the Cyrenians in recent months though.

Mike wants the more fortunate to understand that anyone can find themselves on the streets regardless of background.

Across Britain more than 300,000 people are homeless, and the figure is feared to be even higher as government records are not definitive.

As the charity prepares for increased demand this winter, what can be done to ensure people have a roof over their head?

Mike Burns said: “You are only ever two steps away from becoming homeless.

“I think someone far more famous than me once said that anyone can find themselves on the streets regardless of who you are or where you come from.

“I can’t emphasise enough that nobody chooses to become homeless.

“We are the fifth richest country in the world and nobody sleeps outside in temperatures of minus six by choice.

“Next year we will celebrate our 50th anniversary yet it would seem we are returning to the days of Cathy Come Home.

“Shelter was launched a few days after the play was broadcast followed by Crisis. But with the current situation we’re going back to that era. It doesn’t seem possible.

“I don’t think I’m easily shockable as there’s not much I haven’t witnessed or heard.

“The bad stories stay with you especially when you deal with someone very early on in their lives and they seem to be turning things around.

“Then you discover that they’ve died from a drugs overdose because they’ve been failed by the system in adulthood.

“I get frustrated but I always have hope. We all make mistakes and bad decisions and the only difference with someone who has become homeless is that the impact of their choice was far greater.

“Whether their business has failed and they used their house for collateral or there was a relationship breakdown: we all deal with traumatic experiences in different ways.

“There is no one route to becoming homeless.

“People like Stephen Fry are amazing advocates for mental health but he has held down a successful career whilst living with depression.

“That experience isn’t the same for everyone and the impact of losing your home can’t even begin to be explained.

“Regardless of who we are, we are all striving for the same thing: to have a roof over our heads and lead a meaningful life, be that through a career or a relationship.

“The major problems we’re facing are unemployment, new benefit changes, mental health and a lack of coordinated action to tackle the problem.

“Our Christmas and beyond appeal aims to raise £60,000 which is the figure we need just to provide our winter services.

“We will extend opening hours for three weeks to accommodate more people over winter and provide access to showers and laundry facilities.

“The public have been very generous but long-term we want to be able to help more people.

“We can only provide accommodation for 35-40 people and we want to be able to build up our own bank of accommodation.

“This means people won’t be on the streets when they’re waiting to be housed in a residential unit, but whether that happens is another matter.

“Many older people who are homeless are choosing to sleep rough in rural areas.

“Our outreach team can only do so much and people would rather risk dying in the snow and not being found than face the violence in the city centre.

“Violence against the homeless is an issue across the country and particularly at this time of year.

“Drunk people urinate on sleeping bags or physically attack someone who is sleeping rough.

“There is also violence within the homeless community itself which is mainly linked to drugs.

“Addiction changes people and we’re now dealing with the impact of synthetic substances.

“These drugs aren’t as expensive as heroin and they simulate speed and opiates.

“They can drive people to extremes.

“Some homeless people are now choosing to pair up just so they can survive the evening.

“I think change is possible but only if services work together across the board from mental health to housing.

“Quite often someone will finally get a tenancy and for various reasons they can’t keep it and find themselves back out on the streets.

“The waiting lists are long enough as it is so that person won’t be considered in the future.

“I’m always of the opinion that we should try again.

“For every bad story there is always success.

“I meet people all the time who were homeless and are now peer mentors having come out the other side.

“We couldn’t help people without our volunteers.

“We’ve got about 70 staff members and as many volunteers.

“There are people who work in law, finance and oil who all give up their time.

“So come Christmas Day, we will be celebrating and providing somewhere safe for people to go.

“We can’t continue like this though because all the progress we’ve made over the past 50 years is undone when we’re right back where we started.

“When we have a system that fails people, we have to ask why.”