‘I was a ghost in my own city for 20 years and nobody noticed'

The 'depressing' reality of life in temporary accommodation for homeless in Edinburgh.

For a huge portion of his life, John Conway felt like he was lost in his own city. His struggles with addiction led him on a long journey of homelessness that took him years to overcome.

“I know what it’s like not to have a home,” John says. “I didn’t have an address, a doctor, a phone number, a mail address. I wasn’t even on the system.

“It was my choice – because I was done, I was hurt and upset. But I fell through the cracks, basically, and nobody noticed.”

John spent many nights sleeping in hostels and B&Bs used by Edinburgh Council for homeless people. But he says even though he had a place to sleep, he felt forgotten about.

“It’s hard work,” he tells STV’s Scotland Tonight. “You are already in a prison within yourself anyway and then you get put in a box, a room, to fend for yourself. Most of them don’t have cooking equipment.

“Your daily struggle is trying to go out and get your needs met because you can’t talk to anybody in the place (hostels and shelters).”

‘Locked away’

John says he couldn’t deal with the rules and curfews that the hostels imposed on people.

“This is the bit I really want to emphasise – they’re so depressing. I got to the point eventually where I just stayed on the street because I wanted to be around people.

“I didn’t want to be locked away and have to go home for half 10 or 11 at night – if you don’t go back in that time, you’re put out again, so you have to start again in the morning.”

Eventually, John found a group of people that helped him get back on his feet. He joined a local church community and from there he was able to turn things around.

He now has his own housing association flat – and he never takes it for granted.

“Every night, I know I can put the key in that door, come in and just (sigh), like everybody else.

“You’re not worrying about getting chucked out in the morning. I have hope in my life now. I didn’t have hope for over 30 years. That’s what people don’t have when you’re in the temporary accommodation system, hope’s quite a way away.”

Right now, there are more than 14,000 temporary accommodation households in Scotland. That’s the highest figure on record.

Of these, 9,130 are living under these conditions with children. The problem is particularly acute in Edinburgh, which has the lowest proportion of social housing in Scotland and the most expensive rental sector.

John knows what it feels like to be rejected for more permanent housing.

“It’s disheartening. That’s why I’m so passionate about it because I remember it. I remember going through that system and the constant rejection. ‘I have nothing for you, nothing for you’. Beat down, beat down, beat down.”

John is now working for Cyrenians, a charity aimed at tackling the causes and consequences of homelessness.

“I just love working with people and installing hope in people when they have none.

“A stray dog on the street gets picked up, taken to the vet, it gets homed, it gets out, it gets walked – what’s wrong with a human being? How is a human being not getting their needs met? They get forgotten about.

“I was – I know that for a fact – and I know hundreds of people that are in the same place I was, and they’re left to get on with it, and fend for themselves with multitudes of issues.”

‘Deeply entrenched’

The charity Shelter Scotland believes there’s an “enormous over-reliance” on temporary accommodation for the homeless.

Its director Alison Watson said: “It is not, and never can be, a substitute for a safe, secure and permanent home. Being trapped in temporary accommodation can devastate lives, and it has a particularly grim impact on the thousands of children in Scotland who currently find themselves without a home.

“People are being forced to endure miserable conditions in temporary accommodation because of a chronic lack of social housing in Scotland.

“In that context, the Scottish Government’s decision to slash the funding for new social homes will have dire consequences.

“Unless the next First Minister changes course quickly, more people will suffer in temporary accommodation, more children will be trapped in poverty, and the housing emergency will become more deeply entrenched.”

Scottish Government ‘pledge’

Shona Robison, the cabinet secretary for social justice, housing and local government, told Scotland Tonight that solutions needed to be found.

“My pledge to those families is to work with them and with the local authority and other housing providers to find solutions as quickly as we can,” she said.

“I want everyone to have a secure, warm, affordable home, and that’s why we’re investing £3.5bn over this parliamentary term, and we need to take short-term measures to address the living standards.

“The law is there to support people to make sure that [they are acceptable]. I would expect any landlord to take immediate action to address any shortfall in those standards, so we’ve got work to do. I accept that.

“There is an absolute need for a rapid expansion of affordable homes, some of that will be new build, some of that will be acquisitions from the market, perhaps some from the private rented sector, and some of that will be bringing empty homes back into use.  So, there are short, medium and long-term solutions here.

“We know that we need to support those working on the front line and we are doing that… We need to find the solutions with the local authorities, we’re working very closely with them, asking them to come up with solutions that we will want to help them to deliver, whether that’s through funding, or other supports.”

Catch up with Scotland Tonight on the STV Player.

STV News is now on WhatsApp

Get all the latest news from around the country

Follow STV News
Follow STV News on WhatsApp

Scan the QR code on your mobile device for all the latest news from around the country

WhatsApp channel QR Code