Housing First has given ex-rough sleeper Christopher a home this Christmas

Christopher Middlemass invited The Big Issue into his home to hear how having somewhere to live has already turned his life around and given him his first Christmas tree in 23 years

On the face of it, there is nothing radical about giving a rough sleeper a home. But Housing First has long been billed as the idea and initiative to get behind if we want to end rough sleeping once and for all. It has proven to be a huge success in Finland, all but ending street homelessness over the last 30 years.

Housing First is a simple idea – rough sleepers are given a home through an unconditional tenancy, much like the private residential tenancy many of us live in. But alongside living quarters, wraparound support is also provided to help people overcome the problems, such as addiction or mental health issues, that may have dogged them for years and left them trapped in a life on the streets. In theory, it offers rough sleepers a platform to put down roots and readjust to mainstream society without an isolating and upending spell in temporary accommodation.

This is my first Christmas tree since I was thrown out of my house when I was 16

Of all the parts of the UK that have looked to Finland for the answers to homelessness, Scotland is the most advanced. The Housing First Scotland Pathfinder Programme has led to 150 tenancies in Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling and Aberdeen/Aberdeenshire. The initial results have been encouraging – so far around 93 per cent of tenancies have been sustained. The plan is to top 800 tenancies by March 2021, with the Scottish Government providing £6.5m alongside £3m from the Social Bite social enterprise and charity Merchants House Glasgow’s contribution of £200,000 to hit that target and turn Housing First into the default council response.

Housing First is also on the agenda in England and Wales, underway in small schemes as well as larger-scale regional trials in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands.

But while Housing First continues to be assessed, trialled and tested, it’s important to tell the stories of people like Christopher Middlemass – a 39-year-old from Edinburgh now living in a tenancy in Glasgow – on their journey from the streets and into permanent homes. He tells his story in how own words:

Christopher Middlemass Housing First Christmas
Christopher-Middlemass-Housing-First-Christmas
Christopher's tree is already giving him a lift

Last October I was trying to travel up to my father’s. I was homeless at the time and had been for three months after splitting up with my partner and losing my home. I was living in a homeless B&B in Edinburgh but I’d cut myself off my medication without any help, I just directly cut it off. After five or six days I had psychosis because all of the receptors in my brain were coming back and I didn’t know what was going on. I was trying to travel to my father’s in October and ended up walking naked in the middle of the night past junction 19 of the M8. I got locked up in HMP Barlinnie for a breach of the peace because I was of no fixed abode.

When I got out of Barlinnie I was on the streets until I met a lovely guy called Daniel. At two in the morning Daniel came up to me and he asked me: “What’s happening?” I explained to him and he said: “Come here. Come to my house and you can crash on my couch tonight.” He was an absolute angel and if he hadn’t done that then I don’t know where I would have been.

He then took me the next morning to get some porridge and linked me in with the Simon Community, and from there they took me to declare myself homeless and then to get my medication. Then they took me down to the Southside to Queen’s Park Hotel where I stayed for about three months. The room was brilliant but it was terrible having to survive with just a kettle. There were no cooking facilities or means to cook anything so it was Cup a Soups and noodles.

Christopher Middlemass Housing First Christmas
Christopher-Middlemass-poetry-Housing-First-Christmas
Christopher's big passion is poetry and now he finally can keep his work safe with a roof over his head

I’ve been homeless about five times since I was 16. I’d always just end up slipping back into addiction and intravenous using of heroin, taking fake Valium and stuff like that. I’d be struggling and I wouldn’t engage with services. That was the issue. I had all these great ideas of doing it but when it came down to it I’d ignore them. I call it ostrich syndrome, when you put your head in the sand and hope all your problems disappear. They didn’t. You try to bring your head back up and there is that much sand there that you cannot raise your head.

It was when Housing First Scotland got involved that I got this tenancy. I have been in here for eight or nine weeks now. It has gone quickly. I’m originally from Edinburgh but it is great to be in Scotstounhill, absolutely great. I knew every drug dealer east, south and west in Edinburgh and it’s not just about that – it’s the friends and the acquaintances, I just felt like I was stuck in a rut. It is a brand-new start for me in my life. I’m a 39-year-old man and I am finally able to take control of my life. To be honest, I’m actually quite happy that I had the psychosis because all of this happened. Because of the positives that came out of it I’m moving forward with my life.

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This time it seems like a brand-new start. I’ve got a great rapport with [Salvation Army support worker] Robert and with Elaine from Housing First Scotland and that helps. But it’s also about me saying that I need the help, whereas before in the past I felt like a hindrance to people. I didn’t want to bother them. I was too humble and I would not go to foodbanks because I felt like I was taking from someone else. 

It’s different now – I realise that I need to focus and get myself into a better place because then I will be mentally stronger. Having this tenancy is the most important thing in my life. This is my cornerstone and my foundation to take my life forward. I’m on a drug treatment and testing order so they are trying to link me into getting a full mental-health assessment first, then in the future I want to try and get linked in with community projects. This is now my community, this is going to be my home for the next 20 years if not longer.

Then I’ll be trying to get into some sort of education because I love writing poetry. I write about three or four poems a day. I’ve always been into it but I’ve lost a lot of writing on the streets, so now I take great care of it. It’s always in a bag ready to go. I class myself as an urban poet because I grew up on an estate. I talk a lot about love, I talk about hurt and pain. I’ve also written about what I can see out of my window and about seeing a beautiful woman getting destroyed by heroin. The poems I’ve written in the last few weeks have had a more positive tint. 

Christopher Middlemass Housing First Christmas
Christopher-Middlemass-Housing-First-Christmas-kitchen
Even simple things like cooking a meal were difficult for Christopher while he was in temporary accommodation

Being homeless at Christmas was really depressing. At this time of year I suffer from depression anyway, but also Christmas is about family and my family all do their own things. My sister has got bairns now so they go to her husband’s mum and dad for Christmas. My mum does her own thing, my dad is up in Argyll and Bute, so I always just end up on my own. This is my first Christmas tree since I was thrown out of my house when I was 16.

The tree brightens my mood. I was just going to get a wee one and I told Robert that and he said “We’ll sort you” and now I have that! I was sat with just the Christmas tree lights on the other night and I felt amazing, it made me feel really positive. I’ll be spending Christmas with a friend’s family this year. I’m actually looking forward to Christmas, whereas before I never looked forward to it.

Having this tenancy is the most important thing in my life. This is my cornerstone and my foundation to take my life forward

My message to people who are reading this and are in the same position I found myself in is simple: engage with services. Engage with them. They are there to help you, they are not there to hinder you. If you need help, don’t be too humble, don’t be too scared to ask for help, ask for it. The service is there to help you. 

The most important thing is to keep in contact with them, engage with them and they will support you to put you in the right direction. It only takes five minutes, if someone sits with you for five minutes they can totally change your thought process around, it can change your attitude.

My journey is not over yet, the journey is just starting. But after coming through a really, really bad case of abusive addiction and getting this flat, I am blessed to have got it – it’s the best Christmas present I could ever have.

Images: Matt Marcus