Aberdeen: Post-COVID Homelessness

After months of isolation and varying lockdowns the recent news of a vaccine with almost 95% effective that could be rolled out relatively soon came as a welcome sign that things may just get better. Life has changed incalculably for billions of people all over the planet. The pandemic has undoubtably been the largest worldwide event in my lifetime. With a light only just being visible in this long, dark tunnel it has been good to see a hint of positivity resurfacing when chatting with people. For some things are starting to look up, but for many the damage has been done.

Months of furlough pay and national lockdowns have left thousands across Scotland either unemployed or struggling financially. Despite government initiatives being implemented to try and reduce harm to the economy there is an unavoidable damage being dealt here. In some previous posts I have been critical of the handling of certain issues, including the pandemic. I do not want to do that here, during my research I have found the more long term effects of COVID to be a huge threat to Aberdeen, particularly to jobs and housing.

With a financial crisis potentially worse than 2008 looming it is fair to say that despite the worst of the pandemic being over (hopefully) there is still a long way to get back to ‘normality’. The idea of a normal life is a concept that is subjective in itself. Many who live on the breadline may not have such stability to identify a ‘normal’ in their lives. This turbulent reality based around living solely off of what income you can scrape together has the potential to be increasingly common as we deal with the economic effects of the pandemic.

“Homeless” by matthew.devalle is licensed under CC BY 2.0

It is hard to imagine the past year from the view of someone who is homeless. Empty streets and even further social isolation than they would usually experience. Whilst homelessness figures may not have increased dramatically during the pandemic due to measures to prevent evictions, this is very much a temporary solution. At the first available point this prevention will likely be loosened, resulting in all of those people that lost a source of income this year being faced with a hefty bill or finding somewhere else to live. Any period of sustained job loss will inevitably lead to an increase in homelessness and rough sleeping. After all, a study from homelessness charity Beam found that the ‘average Brit’ lives only two pay cheques away from homelessness.

If, like me, you lost your job during the pandemic and struggled for months to find any work then this is very alarming. Luckily, I managed to move back up to Aberdeen and go back to university to do a Masters. In doing so I gained access to SAAS again to buy an extra year and delay the job hunt and all of the rejection that comes along with it. During my research so far, I have looked at homelessness and job losses in Scotland. The two are most definitely linked and in Aberdeen we face an added element of risk after the number of jobseekers in Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire has increased by 128%. This does not stand us in great stead when considering that many more jobs are either still at risk or at least hold uncertain futures.

“King Street” by Simon Varwell is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

During my research I spoke to Emma Bellu, the Fundraising and Communications Manager at the Aberdeen Cyrenians, a local charity helping those effected by homelessness. Talking through some of the issues that Aberdeen has faced during the pandemic and some of the potential issues still to come was eye-opening. Bellu, said: “I think there’s a lot to come, in terms of homelessness as an outcome of COVID.” This is especially concerning when a government report in 2018 found that Aberdeen City has the third highest death rate amongst homeless people in Scotland. Homeless deaths in Scotland have increased in recent years, with an estimated 19% increase between 2017 and 2018 alone.

This comes after over 50,000 people were assessed as homeless in Scotland in a report released by the government this year. When considering these statistics, it is important to remember that not all of those registered homeless necessarily sleep rough, with many people relying on friends and family or couch surfing as a temporary measure. The fact is that people need a home, somewhere to settle down every day and not fear any risk of being at risk. To manage the potential rise in homelessness will require huge support from the government and some fast action. When asked about the current measures Bellu said: “Everything that is in place right now is temporary so the impact of COVID on homelessness in Aberdeen will be felt for many years.”

The current postponement of any evictions is one step in the right direction but there have to be questions raised about what comes next, and there is no clear or easy answer. Bellu, of the Aberdeen Cyrenians said: “It’s still building a huge amount of debt for people that’s going to be a real challenge in the future”. How this debt is addressed and managed in the coming months is crucial and will be the main challenge to councils and the government.

As if the massive weight put on Aberdeen’s economy by the pandemic was not enough, we face additional uncertainty based on our dependence on the oil and gas industry. Describing this culmination Bellu said: “We’re also very, very strongly affected in terms of financial loss of income from Brexit as well. So, there’s a whole range of different factors that are creating kind of a perfect storm in Aberdeen.” The resulting changes in these problems are already beginning to show, particularly in the fact that Aberdeen has had one of the largest increases in Universal Credit claims.

“Aberdeen” by DecoByDesign is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This “perfect storm” could prove disastrous, not just to Aberdeen or even Scotland but across the world. Examining the effects of COVID on a place like Aberdeen shows the human toll of the pandemic, not necessarily from the diseases itself but the longer lasting socio-economic issues that we will not doubt face shortly. To avoid catastrophe, measures need to start being introduced. Government, councils, companies and charities must all now work together to support the population. It will certainly be a huge undertaking, but the management of job losses and homelessness are essential the lives of thousands.

Just as I was finishing up my interview with Emma Bellu, she informed me of a collective based in Scotland that has set out requirements from the government going forward. The collective is called Everyone Home, and represents various homelessness charities that have come together to ask three key questions of the government:

  1. Ending the need for night shelters and hotel provision in Scotland
  2. Scotland’s Ambition to End Destitution and Protect Human Rights
  3. Can the Scottish Parliament come two terms with homelessness?

I urge anyone reading this to go to their website (https://everyonehome.scot/) and click through each of these points. You will be able to find valuable information on homelessness, the risks we face and what can be done going forward to support people. The research that the organisation has done is clear, concise and in-depth. If nothing else, the government should start here. Start by asking what they can do for us, as without long term support homelessness will only get worse.

Many thanks again to Emma Bellu from the Aberdeen Cyrenians for taking the time to speak with me.

Words by Ewan Blacklaw

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