Slaying the Dragon
Slaying the Dragon
Will Golding, Edinburgh Tutor at Crisis, talks to us about 'Slaying the Dragon'.
One of the core tasks of a community educator, as C. Wright Mills wrote about, is to work with people to translate private troubles into public issues.
Through my work as a tutor over the past five years, with people facing homelessness, I've seen how the structures and experiences of homelessness can often lead to social isolation. The conditions of temporary accommodation, the precarious nature of everyday life, and the stigma and treatment received when homeless, can all increase a feeling of powerlessness, which along with a range of other barriers, (language, lack of awareness of how local and national democratic structures work, confidence, access to digital communications, and how power and discrimination affects social recognition) can limit the opportunity to stand up to external forces that are dictating your everyday experiences.
Scotland ended priority need for homeless people in 2012. Whilst this saw a drop in the numbers of people rough sleeping, in Edinburgh with its rising rents and lack of social housing stock, this has led to a long-term reliance on temporary accommodation by the Council to meet its statutory duty. However, many Crisis clients have told us that they have been left in B&Bs or other temporary accommodation for prolonged periods, often for many months or stretching to well over a year. This type of accommodation is not suitable for long-term living with many people left without basic facilities for washing or cooking and subjected to curfews. We’re also told of unsafe or unhealthy conditions and of a lack of required support.
Every week at Crisis we meet people who are being negatively affected by this. Since Crisis set up as a Skylight centre, in Edinburgh in 2011, we have been developing political literacy and awareness-raising work with our clients to ensure they are involved in the political decisions that affect homelessness within the city and at national level. This has included ‘Voter sign-up' sessions, a group considering the Scottish Independence referendum, and a weekly politics group. There has also been annual conferences for our clients for the past three years, where the experience of being homeless is discussed, including the causes and solutions and this also helps us inform our own working practices. The first of these events specifically focused on the standards of temporary accommodation and it is a topic that clients are always keen to focus on.
At a gathering of our clients last October (2017) it was raised that these 'private troubles' are shared by almost all people there, but there is very little means to do anything about it themselves. People told us they wanted to form together as a group to be able to share experiences, provide solidarity to others going through this, advocate on their own behalf, and start to find out how they could collectively and directly influence the things they wanted to see change.
Following from this an initial group of six clients started a group to do exactly this, which I supported in my role as Crisis tutor as part of our learning programme. They created their own curriculum, designed the structure for the sessions, decided on the rules and group agreement, and chose when, where, how often they wanted to meet. The group was called the 'A-Team', with the A standing for Action & Advocacy. During the first term a few others started to join too, created a regular group of between 8 and 12 clients.
As the group started to build, they wanted to reach out to others who were doing similar things, to learn from them, and to build stronger networks, and identify shared public issues and possible solutions.
I worked with the group to organise a gathering, called 'Slaying the Dragon', which was held in Edinburgh in March this year and was supported by St. Martin's Frontline Network and Edinburgh Cyrenians as well as Crisis. The day consisted of a series of workshops led by homeless people, or people who have experienced homelessness, with a focus on how they have learnt and worked together to challenge and change the circumstances they have faced.
What was important to us in planning the event was that every speaker, workshop leader and every person contributing, had direct experience of homelessness themselves.
With five different speakers, and then five separate groups from across Scotland and Northern Ireland, we had fantastic diversity of exciting presentations and input from people all affected by homelessness. Everyone was pro-actively involved in organising at a grassroots level, and educating themselves and others in their situation to work together to bring about positive change.
What was covered:
We had input from the Crisis A-Team about their own journeys through the homelessness system. This covered positive and negative temporary accommodation, the treatment of people when homeless and the need for more homeless-led solutions and transparency within services and funding. We also heard from an asylum seeker about their experience of trying to navigate the homeless system, and how difficult they found it to get the support, information and guidance they needed.
The presentations included; Participation and the Practice of Rights from Northern Ireland, who were campaigning on 'Homeless action' and now on 'Equality can't wait'; All About Me and the North Edinburgh campaigning group, led by young single mums who've all been made homeless recently. The Share, which is part of Serenity, a recovery cafe in Edinburgh, who've been looking at language, power and the causes of homelessness. Shelter and the 'Time for change' project, a peer-led action research and advice project; and Glasgow Homelessness Network, who work to ensure people with lived experience are at the heart of solutions.
Almost 150 people attended the event, many of those with lived experience of homelessness. There were lots of people working within homelessness too. The diversity of people attending and their experiences, and participatory nature of the workshops meant there were lots of interesting interactions, discussions and proposals.
There was a sense of possibility and optimism in the air at the end of the event. Since then clients of these different homeless groups have developed regular contact and are supporting each other's work, some becoming involved in specific campaigns, groups or events. New ideas have emerged and are informing the development of a possible national network of homeless people in Scotland. The A-Team have taken on new approaches and have been motivated to take part in the political process to make changes themselves, like other groups had.
It was clear that through sharing these private troubles, learning together and acting collectively, despite the precarious nature of life when homeless, there are many cases where people can and do develop the power to be involved in re-shaping these circumstances for themselves and others. Through building and reflecting on experiences, having the forum to freely express opinions and experiences, and analysing them as public issues, there was a sense of anger turned to hope, and directed towards solutions and actions.
The event generated lots of positive feedback. This has included workers who attended being involved in further conversations and meetings to take some of the ideas presented forward. People felt trained, informed and better educated about what is the most relevant and useful support and provision required now for people who are homeless.
The group has now been invited by Cyrenians to speak at the next St. Martin's Frontline Network event in Edinburgh and to help form a collaborative project to take forward to the St. Martin's Frontline Network Ideas Board.
You can find out more about the event here, and hear from some participants on what they thought themselves.
Crisis is currently running a campaign in Scotland called 'A Life in Limbo'. Based on the experience of our clients we are calling for the maximum length of stay for all homeless people placed in unsuitable temporary accommodation, including B&Bs, to be legally restricted to seven days. This is currently the case for families, but Crisis believe this should be extended to everyone experiencing homelessness, and that it is unacceptable for anyone to be put in these conditions.