Damien is a young man who has been sitting outside a shop near me begging most days of the week for nearly a year now. I have spoken to him often and given food, money and clothing and I have tried to offer advice and help.
He is always polite and grateful, but has become increasingly distressed and depressed. Before Christmas he told me that he was absolutely hopeless and had decided that if he could not get off the street in the New Year he would end it all. He had had enough. I thought that this had a serious intent and asked if he had had been to the homeless health service. He said that he had been prescribed anti-depressants and that the health service knew he was depressed because he was homeless, but they could not help him get a home. He does not appear to have substance abuse or addiction problems and always is lucid. So probably that reduces his priority for health services. But in any case there seems to be no connection between diagnosis and priority for housing support.
I found it difficult to believe that Damien could not get the help and support he needs if he just went to the right place and asked, and I kept advising him to go to the council homeless services and ask for social work or personal assistance. He said he had been and they were 'no use' and clearly thought that I was a naive and foolish person just like all the other residents who, like me, stopped to speak to him. Not one of us it seems can quite believe that there is no service designed to help someone so clearly in need of help. So Damien gets treated with suspicion.
I understand that his situation might not be as straightforward as he presents and that there might be all sorts of complications and underlying factors that would explain his helpless situation. Damien told me it would be no use asking for a social worker, or for anyone to sit down with him and just listen and help him. He never got beyond the front desk of the service, he told me.
In January he told me that an offer of a flat from an apparently benevolent stranger had finally come through, having been promised for some time, and that he had made a housing benefit claim but they kept refusing, saying that there was something missing. He was trying to sort it out. But he did not have a phone or a postal service and so he was very frustrated.
On 4 February, I stopped to talk to him and this essay is the sum total of the hopeless muddle of misinformation, callous indifference and rudeness that I experienced.
He showed me a letter from City of Edinburgh Council's housing benefits office dated 20 January (addressed to his potential address which he could not move into because no benefit) saying that his HB claim was unsuccessful because of 'insufficient information.' Damien told me that he had been up to the HB office and had handed in everything that he thought was necessary. He did not know what more he could do.
I asked if he wanted me to try to find out what he needed to do. He said yes. Here began my Kafkaesque experience of the 'services' of the council.
There was a number on the letter to ring if the claimant wanted assistance. I called the number and was given seven options none of which were to talk to someone. I was surprised by this as the letter implied that there would be access to specific advice about the refusal of benefit and what needed to be done. I went round the system again and opted for 'Landlord' as I suspected that someone might actually speak to someone more important than a tenant, and after refusing the various options there I was finally redirected to a real person. This is expensive on a mobile phone. Damien has no phone.
The person in housing benefit who I finally got through to asked to speak to Damien to confirm that I had his permission to speak about his case. This was duly done. I then carried on with the call. The HB staff member told me that it looked like he had not signed the tenancy form, and that needed to be done. I told her that Damien told me that he had been back to the HB office several times and that he had done all that he had been told he needed to do. No-one had helped or advised him by checking through all the forms, someone would just take the form and supporting information and not check it or advise him. Then he had got another letter saying that it had been refused because it had been filled in wrongly or something missing.
The HB assistant told me that he should 'get another HB form sent to him' (he is homeless and has no address other than the one he cannot move into) or 'go online somewhere' and start again. I said that this had not been a successful way of doing things for him and he really needed some personal assistance as clearly he was not coping with the system. I asked if I could make an appointment for someone to sit down with him and help him fill in the form properly once and for all. That would take one homeless person off the street and save him his health, and it would also save the taxpayer just to get it sorted quickly. This remark seemed to be taken as an insult and I was warned that I would be cut off.
So I then asked if they did not do this, was there a social work service for homeless clients that could help him fill in a form? I was told that they no longer made appointments for social work but he should go to 249 High Street at 8.30am and queue for a social worker. I asked for the phone number of the social work service at 249 High Street and she said she did not have it but would put me through to reception.
When I got through to reception I asked to be put through to the social work homeless service at 249 High Street and was told – by the refreshingly helpful switchboard receptionist – that there was no such service but that she would try another number in Parliament Square. I got through to the homeless advice service or something like that who told me that as he had a HB claim in, he was not homeless and not eligible for help. I explained that he was indeed homeless as he was on the street but they said that he was not homeless as far as they were concerned and they could not help with housing benefit. When I tried to make the case that a little assistance now, a few hours of someone's time sorting out the muddle, would get him off the street and asked if they were indeed dedicated to helping the homeless, I was cut off without explanation.
At this point my phone-battery was nearly out and I was very cold. I decided to go home to pursue the issue in the warmth and with access to the internet, something which is not available to homeless people.
At home, and online, I found that there was a service called the Access Point which was to offer advice on housing and homelessness. I phoned and started explaining Damien's predicament: that he had an offer of a flat but could not get the HB claim successfully sorted. She interrupted me and said that if he had a flat he was not homeless. I said he did not have a flat, but he could have one if he had the housing benefit. She insisted that he was therefore not eligible for a service as he had a housing benefit claim in. I explained that the HB office did not offer assistance with forms and that therefore he was going to remain homeless until someone did offer that assistance. Could they not offer that assistance?
I was cut off. I phoned back and the assistant said it was an accident and that she had been trying to put me through to the social work department.
I was returned to switchboard who then put me on to a social work number. I chose 'adult' option and explained the story again. I was told that Damien would not be entitled to a social work service. I asked why someone who appeared to me to be at serious risk, with physical and mental health compromised by his situation, and being treated for depression and talking seriously about suicide could not be considered a priority for a social work service. She consulted a social worker who said he was definitely not eligible for allocation for a social work service and that he should go to the Access Point. I explained that the Access Point were refusing to regard him as homeless as he had an address that he wished to claim benefit for, but which he could not move into until he could successfully claim benefit.
I had found the receptionist at the Access Point and indeed all the other staff I spoke to apart from switchboard were short to the point of rudeness, and appeared to be lacking in any empathy or concern for the people for whom they are being paid to provide a service. They all seemed to have been allowed to believe that for anyone to advance any disagreement with their short and rude statements was somehow not tolerable and that person should be cut off. I am educated, polite and thoroughly aware of rights and entitlements, and I was treated in a way that I found rude and dismissive. And cut off several times. I can understand that Damien feels quite hopeless about getting anyone in the council to help him. Impatience, distress, cold, fear, and desperation are not offences – they are the result of needing sympathy and understanding.
I find it unbelievable that the council provides all these services, and so many people apparently working to prevent and end homelessness and housing and social problems, and that not one of them thought it was at all their job to sort out this situation.
I don't know what I expect by writing this – I hope that someone from the City Chambers will come down in a council limo or even just a taxi, take this young man up to the right office and ensure that an official of the council sits down and sorts everything out with him. If he can't have the tenancy that he thinks he has on offer, he needs to be offered a supported accommodation service that will help him get back on his feet.
I am literally dumbfounded that not one service could be found that would come and just take his hand and hold it until he had been helped out of his misery. Instead we have a warren of services devoted to refusing help and a health service that can prescribe anti-depressants, and pills to cure the side effects of the anti-depressants, but not a route to a home.
This article was first published in SR in 2016