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Opinion

Val McDermid: ‘If homelessness were an illness, we’d be demanding a cure’

On the 30th anniversary of youth homeless charity Rock Trust, the Scottish author has contributed to an anthology of poetry and prose. Here’s an extract from the book.

I want Rock Trust to shut down. This is an anniversary we should not have to celebrate, because it’s an admission of failure. In spite of the best efforts of everyone involved – and I’m not suggesting for a moment that Rock Trust doesn’t make an enormous positive impact – things have got worse. There are more young homeless people now than when Rock Trust started its commitment to help young people out of homelessness. 

The economic geographer Danny Dorling has said, “You could argue that the Census form should start to ask: ‘Have you ever been homeless, and, if so, when and for how long?’”

We talk a lot about social justice here in Scotland. We pride ourselves on championing a more equal society than in other parts of the UK. But when it comes to homelessness, there’s no hiding place from our failure.

If we classified homelessness as an illness – because it’s like an illness, in terms of the devastation it causes in the lives of those who suffer from it – there would be a public outcry. It would be vying with Covid-19 for the lead story on the news. Headlines every day – ‘Still No Cure For Killer Disease’. If homelessness were an illness, we’d be demanding a cure, never mind a vaccine. We’d be holding politicians’ feet to the fire on a daily basis. 

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Instead, recently, nearly 30,000 Scottish households were classified as homeless. That translates to 80 households losing their homes every single day. Those households contained more than 14,000 children. That’s an average of 38 children losing their homes every single day. Imagine a disease that caused serious chronic damage to a whole primary school class every single day. How could we bear that? 

For most people it’s a problem that’s easy to ignore. It’s easy to dismiss people living on the pavements begging or busking badly. They’re not like us. They’re junkies or jakeys. They’re the ones that have failed, not us. And that lets us off the hook. That excuses us from looking beyond the obvious. And that’s where we fail. Because the rough sleepers we pass on our way to work or to the pub or to the theatre are only the visible tip of the iceberg. And during lockdown, they’ve slipped even further down the visibility scale. When we’re not going out and about, it’s even easier not to see that other people are falling between the cracks.

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Val McDermid Launches Rock Trust’s homelessness anthology book “All the Way Home” to marking the charity’s 30 years of work supporting young people affected by homelessness in Scotland. Image: Rock Trust/Colin Hattersley Photography

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that homelessness goes far beyond living on the street. You can be homeless with a roof over your head, but if it’s not a safe and secure and appropriate roof, then you’re suffering from the same disease. For most young people who end up homeless, it’s not because they made bad choices.

It’s because they didn’t have any other choice. My working life involves the exercise of imagination. Every day I sit down at the keyboard and think myself into other people’s shoes. And so I set myself the challenge of imagining what it would be like to have no safe place to stay. I say ‘challenge’, because I’ve never stood on the cliff edge of not knowing where I was going to sleep that night. 

So I went for a walk round the city and tried to imagine what it would look like through the eyes of someone who had nothing and nowhere. You see the city in a very different way, especially in lockdown when the limited options become vanishingly few. Where can I sit down? Where can I go to keep warm? Where can I pee? How can I get new glasses? Where can I go when it’s raining? Where can I wash? Who will talk to me? Is there anywhere I can get some shelter and food? A couple of hours of that and I felt exhausted and drained. And I knew I could make it stop any time I wanted to. 

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All the Way Home book
All the Way Home (Taproot Press, £12.99)

One in five people in Scotland are defined as living in poverty after their housing costs. They rely on foodbanks to put dinner on the table. They’re just one pay packet or one car repair away from financial disaster. 

We don’t like to think of this as what life is like for a fifth of the population in modern Scotland. A fifth of our people whose life chances are constricted and constrained. A fifth of our people who are pushed to the margins. They don’t feel part of anything. They are outsiders. They are homeless both in the literal and metaphorical sense. 

That needs to change.

Extract from All the Way Home, an anthology of poetry and prose to mark the 30th anniversary of youth homeless charity Rock Trust.


Val McDermid is a Scottish crime writer and broadcaster @valmcdermid

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