Simon Community: Helping Glasgow's Homeless
It's just a three-inch piece of folded card to most, a throwaway leaflet covered in phone numbers.
To other people, the tiny booklet is a lifeline. The numbers printed on its reverse could mean the difference between a night in the warmth or a night sleeping rough, between safety and danger, between life and death.
The Glasgow Street Service distribute these cards around the city in the hope that those in desperate need will use them. People in crisis - whether this is through homelessness, drug use or a combination of complex personal issues, can dial the street service and expect a listening ear at the other end of the line.
The street service team are the front line for those in crisis, and are often the first point of contact for many people who have no other place to turn. Project workers walk the streets looking for the vulnerable people who might be in need of their services, approaching men and women who might otherwise go overlooked.
They identify the places where vulnerable people are sleeping rough, monitoring the gaps beneath bridges and in multi-storey carparks where the homeless go to seek warmth. The street team then offer to link the people they find with services that will help them get back on their feet.
"We try and be out there, as a visible presence," said Willie McBride, Project Manager of the Glasgow Street Service, which is part of the Simon Community.
"Some people going through homelessness are wary of other services, or they just don't know the services are there.
"Perhaps they get involved so much in their own issues they can't make time in their life to present themselves as homeless and get into the chain of service that might help them."
The Glasgow Simon Community, is a voluntary sector social care provider, funded predominately by Glasgow City Council, that provides invaluable services to the city's homeless. Its employees are trained to guide vulnerable people with complex needs and often troubled pasts towards services that are able to provide them support and guidance.
For many of the individuals that the Simon Community encounter, homelessness is only one of a multitude of problems that lead them to fall off the radar of mainstream society and leave them desperately in need of outside intervention.
"It's very seldom it's purely about accommodation. That's usually in the mix," said Willie.
"No one is born street homeless in Glasgow, they've all got a history.
"You can't begin to understand some individuals' relationships with alcohol - if they are dependent or chaotic in their use of alcohol it usually takes you back a bit in terms of their history.
"Perhaps they drank like anyone else but they were abused, and before you know it they are drinking to get to sleep to try and snuff out that memory."
Many of Glasgow's homeless seek shelter in makeshift beds under bridges, or find spaces in back alleys and cardboard sheets to cover themselves with. The Simon Community outreach service aim to encourage these individuals to seek help, gaining their trust by approaching them and explaining the services available. The group help approximately 100 people per month around the city.
The culture of homelessness in Glasgow differs to that in other cities, Willie and his team have noted. Rather than shuffle in doorways or sleep in view of the public thoroughfare, Glaswegian homeless people hide themselves away from the world and conceal themselves were no-one is likely to find them. 'Skippering' - the colloquial term for sleeping rough - is done far from prying eyes in Glasgow, and this is a cultural idiosyncrasy that is inexplicable even to the experts in this field.
The Simon Community also offer an out-of-hours needle service, for heroin users who wish to use sterile equipment to avoid the risk of disease. They deliver the needles during times when high street pharmacies are closed and individuals are unable to pick up fresh needles, potentially saving the lives of many intravenous drug users.
"A lot of our work is based on counselling approaches," said Willie.
"A lot of it is about listening - active listening. We don't say 'OK - you sit over there and we'll give you your hour's counselling.'
"Once we've learned a bit about them, we think where's best to go next and what services we might best link them in with."
The Simon Community's specialist women's centre in Govanhill also provide a valuable gender-specific service to vulnerable females, with emergency single support housing available for women in need.
Many of the women who use the service have become disconnected from their communities for various reasons, sometimes due to fleeing violence, being evicted from their property or running into substance abuse problems. They are separated from their children, seeking more permanent housing and in need of support and guidance.
"People are here because they need us, they need us to support them when everything in their life has fallen down," said service manager Karyn McCabe.
"Women within homelessness tend to be very hidden for various reasons, there's a stigma attached to homelessness in women. When you think of a homeless person you think of a man, you think of someone begging in the street, you don't think of the women."
"Integrating women back into the community is reasonably easy, there's no issue with the community accepting her, it's about the woman being offered the quality of housing she wants.
"She might have to travel great distances, live in an area far from her family or have to live in estates where she doesn't know anyone. When she's very isolated it's difficult for her to integrate."
The women's centre can support 15 women at a time in single accommodation, and the centre is always full. Women are referred to the centre by the Council after being assessed by case workers and identified as in urgent need of support.
Although the accommodation is meant to be a short-term solution, many women stay up to six months due to complications with health, housing or other personal problems. Many must learn to engage better with services before returning to their communities.
Employees across the Simon Community's services are worried about the impact that upcoming welfare reforms will have on society, and how this will filter down to the individuals that need their support. There may soon be more people in desperate need of the Simon Community's help through adjustments to their housing benefit, which may leave the service stretched.
"There's no clear answer on how things will affect it, but we will adapt," said project manager Jeanann Webster.
"From us on the ground, we're looking at it how will have an impact on communities and housing. There's a fear factor, but I've lived a long time in Glasgow now and we're very good at being robust - because we have to be."
To learn more about the Simon Community, visit their website