Cyrenians CEO column: Charity marks 50th year of tackling homelessness

Ewan Aitken

In the first of a new monthly column exclusively for Scottish Housing News, Cyrenians CEO Ewan Aitken looks back over the charity’s 50 years in operation and charts its involvement in the Social Bite Village.

This week Cyrenians staff welcomed the first residents into the Social Bite Village where we are providing the support on behalf of Social Bite. It’s a great day and doubly special for us at Cyrenians because it is 50 years ago to the day when Cyrenians welcomed the first residents into our first ever community, which was, then in a rather dilapidated town house in Broughton Place. The City Community, as it was and is still known continues today along with our farm community in Kirknewton. As well as welcoming the first residents to the Social Bite Village, we’ve also opened another community for people facing mental health challenges coming out of hospital. 50 years on and building community is still at the heart of what we do.

Over those 50 years a great deal has changed but still some things remain constant; in particular Cyrenians commitment to a way of working which is values led and relationship based. Right from the very start we understood the journey from exclusion to inclusion is an inner journey, a journey of the soul, which takes time and will be different for each person. It is also a journey which needs to be defined by the person travelling from tough reality to a place of transformation. And for it to be a journey truly shared, it must be one where everyone is open to be changed, to see the world a little differently, to be willing to understand what it is be alive with the new light of the shared experience.

The Social Bite Village

Those first six residents in the Social Bite Village have come not to take up a tenancy but to join a community. In the community, where the common tasks of eating together, looking after the environment of the village and looking out for each other, a whole variety of journeys of change will being and be shared. It is not for us to fix others but through journeying together change will happen.

It’s been this way of working which has seen Cyrenians journey with over 50,000 people in its 50 years in a whole variety of contexts and tough realities. The journey into homelessness starts from many places; poverty, mental health, criminal justice system, addiction, family breakdown, experience of the care system, struggles with education to name just a few and recognising how one can lead to others.

Cyrenians have, over the years, worked and continue to work in all these areas. We now run 37 projects in seven local authorities as well as our national project the Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution; all driven by our values and built on trusted relationships. We’ve always understood the only way to stop homelessness is through prevention as well as response to crisis, by getting as upstream as possible so when challenges come, people are better prepared and better supported. The lack of affordable, good quality housing with secure tenure is crucial and a huge pressure, it is rarely in itself the trigger which begins a journey to homelessness. So although we very definitely need to solve the crisis of access to safe, secure, affordable housing, solving homelessness is a much complex and human concern.

Prevention is always hard to “prove” but in truth we all know it works. Many years ago I worked in Intermediate Treatment, an alternative to custody for teenagers. It was very successful but was shut down because we couldn’t prove how many crimes we’d stopped happen. If we are not to need Cyrenians or Social Bite in 50 years time then it’s not only new houses we need which people can afford but also we need find way of trusting the effectiveness of prevention even if we can’t count or quantify the impact directly. It’s the journey, always the journey which brings the greatest change and skilling each other to travel well will make the biggest difference to whether or not we are still here looking to set up more communities in 50 years time.