There are posh soaps in the bathrooms, hand-crafted blankets on the beds and rows of decorative plants splashing colour around neat, manicured gardens. In the distance, the sun dapples the river and wood pigeons gently bill and coo in the thicket of trees.
It could be a weekend haven, the sort of Highland retreat folk seek out to recharge from the stresses of city living. But the people coming here are no holidaymakers. They’re some of the most vulnerable members of society in Scotland.
Today was the DAY. The Launch of the Social Bite Village. 2 Years in the making!11 purpose built 2 bedroom houses and…
This is the Social Bite Village, in Granton, Edinburgh, the result of a sustained fundraising and awareness drive with the lofty aim of bringing an end to homelessness at the heart of its ethos. Next month, the first residents will take their places in the enclave of cosy twin cabins in what the country’s first homeless village.
The emphasis is on the establishment of a community, with project leaders Social Bite partnering with homeless charity Cyrenians. For Social Bite founder Josh Littlejohn the village is the culmination of a two-year ambition.
“We’ve always been ambitious with Social Bite,” he says. “Whatever the idea has been, whether it’s getting people to sleep out or getting George Clooney to come over, it has always come true. That’s quite emboldening, and increases your confidence in being able to mobilise an idea to reality. Seeing this come to fruition today is one of the clearest experiences of that.”
The village is built on land leased gratis from Edinburgh City Council, with Littlejohn leading the charge for charitable buy-in from over 100 companies ranging from builders and timber merchants to landscapers and glaziers.
“There were five to ten people I engaged with initially, and it cascaded through the industry,” he adds. “Before I knew it over 100 companies had contributed pro-bono. It has been an enormous collaborative effort.”
Social Bite’s ambition is higher than the Scott Monument, yards from where they first established the first of their network of charitable sandwich shops on Edinburgh’s Rose Street in 2012.
Names like Leonardo DiCaprio and George Clooney have thrown their celebrity endorsement behind the work, and acts like John Cleese and Liam Gallagher performed at their Sleep Out in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens last December, which saw 8000 punters bed down in temperatures of -6°C to raise £4m.
Around £750,000 was spent on the village, with Littlejohn guestimating its overall value to be around £1.5m.
But what motivates so many to mobilise in support of their call?
“Everyone by nature is altruistic,” says Littlejohn. “We all have selfish traits, but I think we all care about the most vulnerable people in our community, because we all care about our own community deep down.
“We just gave people within a certain industry the outlet to use their expertise and product. We gave them an outlet to do something meaningful.”
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Cyrenians chief Ewan Aitken is confident this pocket of utopia on the banks of the Forth – albeit a utopia with a megalithic gas tower as a neighbour – will help some turn their lives around.
“Often the assumption is that if someone is in poverty or vulnerable, they won’t mind where they are, they’ll be happy for a bed,” he explains. “What this place is saying is that people really matter and deserve as much quality as anybody else. The environment becomes part of their journey of change. Poverty and destitution grind the soul, and that’s affected by what you see every day.”
Applicants are interviewed, and must meet a set criteria measured against mental health and addiction before securing one of ten berths for 12-18 months, or longer. Each cabin carries £30k of corporate sponsorship, branded prominently at the doorway of the corresponding home.
"This project is about creating a blueprint on how we support people who are homeless .. creating a real sense of community, a beautiful living environment + ultimately supporting people to a mainstream tenancy." Josh speaking at today's Village Launch. #SocialBite #VillageLaunch pic.twitter.com/QGfvgIx7xQ
— Social Bite (@SocialBite_) May 17, 2018
A team of workers from Cyrenians will help design community endeavours in accordance with the aspirations of the residents.
Aitken adds: “One of the most important ways to build a community is by making sure people eat together. It’s important that people feel that it’s an important part of being here.
“When people apply, they apply to be part of a community, they’re not applying for a tenancy. Part of being here is hanging out together at the hub, taking care of the environment, cooking together, shopping together. And by looking after each other, the skills of looking after yourself and making change can happen.”
His colleague Kathy Hoyle will manage the village, coordinating volunteers, key workers and “community builders”.
“It’s about believing in people, not trying to police people, not thinking you know how to fix their problems, tapping into what their issues are, what’s holding them back, what can take them forward,” she says. “Cyrenians are all about journeying alongside people. Not telling them to go to college and get a haircut.”
At this week’s slickly-marketed launch event for partners and media, MSP Angela Constance, secretary for communities, social security and equalities spoke of her “shame” every time she saw a rough sleeper, while pointing to the SNP government’s pledge to build 35,000 social houses as part of a £3bn housing investment.
She said: “Nobody should be sleeping on the streets. That’s not the Scotland we seek.
“It’s touching to see the efforts of volunteers who made quilts and curtains, homely touches make people feel welcome.
“It’s important to recognise there’s no one-size-fits all approach. Different people need different things, and we need to shape services around individuals. This is Mental Health Awareness Week, and many people who have experienced homelessness have chronic and complex needs.
“But from small acorns grow large oaks.”
Littlejohn and his team are working towards more high-profile events, and are driving through their Housing First programme, which, if successful, should see 800 permanent tenancies open up to the homeless community in five cities.
Social Bite’s success is unquestionable, yet it has not been immune to criticism.
“When we announced this, the homelessness sector was cynical,” he said. “It felt like daggers from all corners. It felt like there was no appetite for innovation. Some of that criticism affects you, but if you’re doing something for the right reasons then you shouldn’t be affected by the positive or the negative.
“We’re not pretending this is a one-stop solution. But in Edinburgh alone there are 600 homeless people in B&B’s costing £6m a year, and yet there are pockets of vacant council-owned land.
“This is cheaper than the status quo, and has merit in being part of the jigsaw of solutions required.”