There’s no need to live like a dog

Fist published in the Herald, 2005.

Gemma means everything to me. I love her to bits.

She knows if I'm feeling rough or a bit ill. And I know that even if I shout at her, she'll still be there the next day. She gives me 100% love and I give her the same, " says Eric.

To the homeless man, the six year-old mongrel at his heel is more than a pet. And while trooping about the town at her master's side may be not bad as a dog's life goes, he worried about the toll homelessness would take on her health.

Now, however, housed in a state-of-the-art homeless hostel with an en-suite bathroom and fine views of Edinburgh Castle, things are looking up for the pair.

Rough sleeping was no picnic, for man or beast. “If it rains in the night you might get soaked to the skin and the dog may get wet too, and then the next day if it’s still raining and you haven’t had a chance to dry out, a dog might start to feel really unwell, just like a human, ” says Eric.

Learning to love Gemma came gradually but his relationship with her has been one gleam of light in the dark of his struggle with drugs and alcoholism. He first got involved with herwhen “she could still fit into a shoebox” and was acquired by an ailing friend. He took her for walks and helped to care for her, and two and a half years ago, when his friend died of throat cancer, Eric took the dog on despite his own problems.

It is not always possible for a homeless person to find a hostel that takes pets and Eric ended up out in the cold longer than he needed to be because, like many homeless dog-owners, he turned down any offer of accommodation that didn’t include her.

Now, however, Eric and Gemma are temporarily being housed in Castlecliff homeless hostel. “Everything seems to be going really well at the moment.

I couldn’t ask for better accommodation, ” he says.

Castlecliff is a far cry from the dark, lino-lined, carbolic-scented dormitories that once housed homeless people. It is part of a 10-year project by private development company EDI which is independent, but was set up by the city council in 1988.

Working with housing co-op Dunedin Canmore and the council, it offers a style of hostel accommodation that is more like the boarding facilities of a posh private school. It has attached kennels and residents are allowed to keep their pets in their rooms.

The 23 rooms all have en-suite facilities plus access to a common room, well-appointed kitchen, laundry and ironing room and staff are on hand 24 hours a day to talk through problems.

“You have your own space but if you want to be part of the group you are welcome. We have a courtyard where we sometimes all sit out, ” Eric says. Apart from the supportive staff, he rates the en suite bathroom particularly highly, believing that it lessens the friction of homeless hostel living.

“I’ve been in a hostel where you have to share a bathroom; guys would be in for an hour and you would feel like hammering on the door, ” he explains.

For Cathy King, head of care housing at the City of Edinburgh Council, the bright, airy and attractive accommodation with its wonderful views of the castle is part of the process of helping people out of the trap of homelessness.

“It’s fabulous accommodation.

It really does help them. It helps people’s confidence and selfesteem. If they want to be private, they can be, if they want to socialise they can, ” she says.

Although the number of individuals and families presenting themselves as homeless in the capital has stabilised at around 5000, the council claims it has managed to reduce the average amount of time spent roughsleeping to a few days, down from several months 10 years ago.

Edinburgh can now boast almost 100 top architect-designed homeless units, many of which would fetch high prices if offered for sale on the private housing market.

PFI might be a dirty word on the left, but the Castlecliff hostel, which also has eight one-bedroom flats where formerly homeless people are offered longer-term supported tenancies, is part of a three-way partnership between public and private agencies.

Ian Wall, the chief executive of EDI, is a Sunderlander with an abrasive manner, who turns up his nose at the comparison with PFI.

But at the same time he points to the success of the council and EDI at blending public and private experience and know-how.

Down among the shiny new towers of the old docks, on the Shore – the part of Leith that is known ironically as Leith-sur-mer – award-winning architects Lee Boyd were commissioned by EDI to turn a Victorian artisans’ hotel into accommodation for homeless people at the same time as creating a glass-and-steel private housing block next door.

Again with attached kennels for the inmates’ companion animals, Leith House is integrated into the waterfront area with a break in the gleaming frontage of hi-tech apartment blocks, where a public square allows the front of the building to look on to the river.

It also offers a mix of single rooms, couple’s rooms and supported flats for people making the first step back into normal life.

Wall is particularly proud of having managed to build homeless accommodation in more desirable areas of town.

“It’s right on the waterfront, you can walk a few hundred yards from a Michelin-starred restaurant and be at the homeless person’s hostel. We wanted to ensure that homeless people have a very high standard of accommodation. It is also retaining the mixed character of Leith. With all these flats going up, there is a danger of creating mono-cultural cities full of the same kind of people in the same kind of income bracket, ” he says.

The much-advertised “gentrification” of Leith has not yet managed to sweep away the area’s earthier aspect and it still boasts local shops, cheap cafes, friendly pubs and a transport network – all of which, Wall says – means it is more attractive to homeless people than out-oftown estates where some authorities try to house them.

“If you put homeless people’s accommodation out in the periphery then there is no infrastructure for them there, ” he adds.

This project was partly funded by using council land next door to build a large block of private housing, within which are affordable units for key workers. Castlecliff was arranged after a swap with a “dingy” old hostel in the Grassmarket which was then done up for private flats, while an old barracks with commanding views became the new hostel.

The first of the new-style homeless hostels was built in Leith Street, near Waverley Station, where a derelict fivestorey tenement with shops on the ground floor was refurbished by EDI, with the help of grants from the council, to provide 30 rooms with a mix of separate and shared accommodation.

A new project starts this summer, again down in Leith, where private companies will build on council land some flats for independent living for ex-homeless people coming out of supported hostels.

Wall believes that Edinburgh’s approach to housing homeless people compares favourably with that anywhere else in Europe.

At the end of a decade of finding can-do private solutions for an era where it is no longer possible for councils to mount their own large building projects, the former member of the Socialist Workers’ Party believes he and his partners have created something which is a real centre of excellence.

Wall adds: “You see people nowadays declare something a centre of excellence the day it opens. But after 10 years, I think we can say it.”

He is backed up by David Orr, chairman of the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, who says: “The partnership between EDI and Dunedin has been very successful in delivering a very high-quality resource.

“Housing associations have a record of working in partnership, and EDI is to be congratulated on having the imagination and vision to see that provision for homeless people is essential in Edinburgh.

“I’d like to see this kind of partnership replicated in Edinburgh, as well as in other parts of Scotland.”

The Herald
28th June 2005