Blog: Changing the dialogue on homelessness

Ewan Aitken
Ewan Aitken

Ewan Aitken of homelessness charity Cyrenians blogs ahead of Shelter Scotland’s Homelessness Conference 2017

Sometimes I think the very language we use is a barrier to the solutions we seek for those we journey with. Even the word “homelessness” is a definition of what an individual doesn’t have rather than who they are. Now I have no particular desire to get too hung up on words and what they mean to different listeners; “homelessness” is at one level an accurate description of the circumstances tens of thousands of our neighbours are experiencing right now and at least it is derived from the word “home” rather than “house”.

That said, I do believe that the solutions we seek need to be much more person centred than they are at present. I am as bad as the next person for chuntering out stats to prove my political point or to tug a heart string and loosen a purse string – “4500 young people leave home every year due to family conflict”; “20% of those sleeping rough are liable to be ex servicemen, way out of proportion with their number in the general population”; “24% of the young homeless population are liable to be LGBT” and so on. They spill from my lips on a daily basis, those numbers may be the drivers, the motivators for change but the solutions need to be far more nuanced and human. And to have the space for that to be the case might mean finding new ways to tell the story.

Almost without exception, those we journey with at Cyrenians will say that it was having someone to accompany them as they sought out the space to find their own way that meant they discovered the right solution for them to their circumstances. As one of our outreach staff put it, “I don’t know the outcomes I am seeking for the person I will be meeting today until I have met them”. That takes time and skill and a willingness to be messy for a while, to follow paths that don’t work and be there when folk stumble as well as when they succeed – on their terms. Success happens when someone feels they are thriving, flourishing, in control of their own destiny, living with dignity. That might be in their own tenancy or it might not. It might be with a job or it might not. It might be without some support or it might not.

The trouble is – having shaped the narrative in numbers, we create the way we call to account those with decision-making responsibilities with numbers and they, understandably, respond in kind. Of course, when money is involved, and not just public money but any money given for a purpose, there does need to be accountability and transparency, that is a given. But that’s not the same as saying the money was well spent by defining success for everyone as being one of a menu of options we can count.

These are tough times. Austerity and some frankly disastrous political decisions, following some even worse economic decisions by some banks and others in the world of finance and ironically, in housing finance in particular, means that many more will find themselves in a place of vulnerability and without or in danger of being without a secure home. But even, or perhaps especially, in tough time we need to grasp the opportunity to change the way we talk about the journeys we share with those in tough realities, so they are much less of a number and much more simply our neighbour.

Ewan Aitken is delighted to be chairing Shelter Scotland’s homelessness conference and hopes it will contribute to the debate about changing the way we talk about and view homelessness in the future.

Our Homelessness Conference 2017: Far From Fixed takes place on 22nd March in Edinburgh. Book your place at

  • Ewan Aitken is the CEO of Cyrenians
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