I wonder if you have watched the film, ‘Rosie’ penned by Irish novelist Roddy Doyle? If not, I would really recommend it. The film explores the Irish housing crisis through the story of a family who find themselves homeless after their landlord sells their rented home.
Rosie and John Paul are parents to four children. John Paul works in a restaurant kitchen and until the landlord had sold their home, they had been living happily in north Dublin where their children attended local schools, knew their neighbours, had a lovely border terrier and a trampoline in the garden. The family are trying to find somewhere else to rent but rents are proving unaffordable and they simply cannot find anywhere suitable. They have to leave their home, distributing their belongings to family and friends and piling their car high with bin bags and suitcases full of clothes. The film focuses on 36 hours in the families’ life as Rosie desperately tries to find somewhere for the family to stay temporarily, begging social services for interim overnight placements in hotels and B & B’s. We watch as Rosie phones hotel after hotel from a list that social services have given her, to be told again and again that there wasn’t any room for them. The film ends with the family sitting in a late-night café until closing time, each taking it in turns to get “ready for bed” in the toilets before traipsing out together to spend the night in the family car. It is completely heart-breaking. It is also a story that is happening to families in the UK. It’s happening in Edinburgh. Some of the processes may be a little different but the situations and the experience almost identical.
A few weeks ago, I met Kirsty. Kirsty had got in touch with me because she had wondered if there was any possibility of working with us to host a Soul Food meal for families in Edinburgh who are currently homeless. A meal for families has been something that we have been wanting to begin for a while and so it was with interest that I met Kirsty. Kirsty’s story - that she tells in her own words – has echoes of Rosie’s:
“Prior to becoming homeless we were private tenants in the same property for five years. We received notice from our landlord to end our tenancy with two months’ notice.
We tried to secure another tenancy within this time frame but were unsuccessful. We were left with no choice but to declare ourselves homeless. Our belongings were taken into storage and we were told to present ourselves to the council on the day our tenancy ended.
Although we were incredibly anxious about our situation, we were somewhat naïve about what lay ahead. We felt no sense of entitlement but believed that this process would be a short one and that our basic needs as a family would be met. We thought that we would be given suitable accommodation and that there would be access to cooking and washing facilities. This was not the case.
Upon presenting ourselves as homeless we were informed that the only accommodation available on that day was at the Premier Inn ten miles away from where our children attended school. As it was a hotel, we had no access to cooking or washing facilities.
At first, we ate in the hotel restaurant. This quickly became very expensive though and so no longer an option. Due to the fact we didn’t have a fridge we had to become very resourceful. We purchased a washing up bowl and a bag of ice which we topped up daily. We filled the bowl with fruit, yoghurts, milk and the baby’s antibiotics as she became very sick during this process; picking up infection after infection.
My husband was forced to take two weeks off work in order to make the journey back and forth to Leith for school and nursery drop offs. During this time, we became increasingly stressed with our situation and felt powerless to change it.
I contacted several agencies to ask for help: the doctor, the health visitor, social services, Shelter Scotland. Every response was the same: there were no resources in place to support homeless families. I was advised to visit our local food bank – which although invaluable to people experiencing food poverty – is not tailored to those who have no cooking facilities.
I grew increasingly desperate and made daily calls to the housing office asking them to move us closer to our children’s school. We were finally told that a place had become available for us at a B & B called Abbots House. This guesthouse was next door to the children’s school; we were delighted.
We arrived at the B & B in the evening, taken into the reception and read a list of rules which we had to follow. We were then shown to our room. It was in the basement and it was damp and dirty. It didn’t have enough beds to sleep us all. My daughter burst into tears: “I feel like I am in jail.” The hotel that was 10 miles away now seemed like an appealing option.
We had access to a microwave for 1 hour a day in the evening. This hour was to be shared with the other 14 residents. We didn’t have any other cooking facilities or a bathroom. We had to share a bathroom with 9 other people.
We spent 3 weeks in this B & B, constantly calling the housing department with regards to our situation and asking when we would be placed in temporary accommodation. By law a family is not meant to be housed for more than 3 weeks in a hotel or B & B, but in practice this isn’t the case.
Thankfully, we were eventually offered a temporary flat. We spent 5 weeks in unsuitable accommodation. It was an awful experience for our family. There were no resources in place for families who find themselves homeless, particularly with regards to accessing fresh food.
I feel strongly that it is important for children experiencing homelessness to have access to fresh food, particularly fruit and vegetables, in order that they can thrive and grow. I feel that if we could even solve this one issue, we would be helping people living in this situation a great deal.”
The courage that Kirsty has shown in sharing her families’ story, demonstrates the depth of her passion and determination to help support other families in our city who are going through similar experiences to those that she and her family endured. It is completely shocking that parents and children are having to live through situations like this. There has been much written in the press about the situation in Edinburgh; often with stories like Kirsty’s and almost always with descriptions of unfit living conditions and badly maintained B & B’s.
When I met Kirsty, she talked of how she would like to help facilitate a safe space for homeless families to meet and eat a freshly cooked meal. A place where they could be assured that they weren’t alone and that there were people who could offer them some support. She wondered if Soul Food could be that place…
I mentioned in my last blog post that we hope to begin a Soul Food for families on a Saturday afternoon/evening. Having a meal with a particular focus on families does not mean that families are not also welcome at our other Soul Food meals, they are! (We regularly have children and parents along to our Soul Food meal hosted by Mustard Seed Church at St Margaret’s on Easter Road), but it does mean that we can create an environment where children can have plenty of space to play, and parents can relax for a while.
In order to make this possible, we would love to gather a team of volunteers from churches and communities across the city. Together - we believe - that we can create a supportive community for families experiencing the crisis of homelessness or the threat of it. We are holding an information meeting on Saturday 15th June, 4pm at St Margaret's Episcopal Church, Easter Road for anyone interested in being involved or wanting to find out more. Please let us know if you can come along!
Just as we would like to gather volunteers from across the city to help host this Soul Food we would also like to fundraise, collectively, for it too. We have determined that our first year's running costs will be about £6,500. (This money would simply fund the meals and also the fairly minimal set up costs).
We would love to hear from anyone who would like to be involved. Please do get in touch! Our email address is email@example.com If you would like to make a financial donation to help establish this meal, you can do this by visiting our online shop
And finally, if you do find yourself with an hour and a half free, please watch 'Rosie'. It doesn't hold any answers and has no immediate happy ending, but it will give an insight into situations more and more families are having to face. And in the light of it and in the light of Kirsty's story, our hope in setting a table for dinner and offering the warmest of welcomes and safest of spaces, is that a family enduring -what must feel like one of the greatest challenges of their life - will begin to feel assured that they are not alone.