Last week, we saw the very worst of weather and the very best of people. In amongst the blizzards and drifts, icy paths and frozen pipes, thousands of Scots rediscovered their community spirit and made the best of a bad situation. From heroic bread and milk deliveries to shovelling snow out of school playgrounds, and from miraculous bus driving to doctors walking miles to ensure operations could still go ahead, there was no shortage of good stories to share about humanity itself.
Sometimes it’s the simplest stories that pull your heart strings the hardest. For me, that was hearing that St John’s Church in Edinburgh had decided to open its doors 24/7 throughout the bad weather. That shouldn’t surprise me really, but why do we expect this of churches? How can it be that when council offices, community centres, shops and doctors surgeries shut their doors we almost expect churches to open theirs?
When the Parliament shut early on Thursday at the peak of the blizzards, I was at a bit of a loss about what to do with myself, so I decided to walk to St John’s at the West End of Princes Street just to thank the volunteers there for their efforts. Even at 4pm in the afternoon it was busy with a dozen folk all taking respite from the weather. On that short journey, I spoke to four people begging in the streets, sitting on cardboard boxes, their faces red raw with the cold. One knew the church was open and planned to go there when it got dark. Two of them had English that was so poor I sadly couldn’t explain where the church was, and the final person was a girl in her 20s who looked so vulnerable she’s haunted me since. Where did they sleep that night?
Right now I can log on to a website, look up any London borough and see how many people are sleeping rough on the streets thefe. Not only that, I can see how many people are doing it for the first time, how many consistently live on the streets and those that are off-and-on. I can see how many have drug, alcohol or mental health problems and how many have all three. I can see what percentage grew up in care, have been in jail or once served in army. But I can’t do any of that for Scotland.
For years, Labour has been challenging the Scottish Government to introduce a similar system in Scotland and for years it’s been knocked back and excused away by the SNP. That was until last Thursday when Richard Leonard, in his best FMQ’s yet, secured Nicola Sturgeon’s support for a similar system in Scotland.
Of course we need to do more than just count rough sleepers to improve their lives, but it’s certainly a good start. Understanding who they are and where they come from is easily the best way to map where they’re going with our help.
This article was first published in the Daily Record newspaper on the 6th of March 2018.