Small-town hero: one student rethinks homelessness, raising £500 along the way

Photo: Lorelei Pfeffer



Photo: Lorelei Pfeffer
Photo: Lorelei Pfeffer

In the last few years, homelessness has become more prevalent on the streets of St Andrews. Students may have noticed one woman in particular who was often sitting near Zest on Market Street. Elisabeth Gray, a fourth-year anthropology student, certainly did. The woman’s name is Julie, and after getting to know her over coffee Ms Gray set up a Crowdfunder project to raise money on her behalf. In eleven days, 45 backers helped her reach her £500 target. This success coincided with Julie’s procurement of council accommodation. On 22 February, she moved into her new flat.

Though Ms Gray developed a friendship with Julie over a number of weeks, the impetus to raise money came from a conversation she had on a night out. “I was in the Central, sitting with a group of people that I didn’t know all that well, and I heard someone say, ‘Oh, it’s ridiculous, all these refugees. We should help our own first.’ And I was like, ‘We can kind of do both, you know,’” she says. “You can easily go home two pints earlier and give a few pounds to the homeless. Also, on the way here, we all walked passed [Julie] and didn’t say anything.” Ms Gray says she set up the Crowdfunder as a “very long and elaborate eye roll.” But most others would call it something else: an inspiring act of generosity.

According to a 2015 Scottish Government report, more than half a million Scots, or 10 per cent of the population, live in severe poverty (meaning that their household income is less than 50 per cent of the UK average, or below £11,500). Though rates of relative poverty in the UK are in decline, those who remain impoverished do so at a more extreme level. Reasons for this include a rise in insecure employment and low pay.

Ms Gray says that before meeting Julie, she had been thinking about the ways in which we are conditioned to ignore homeless people when we see them on the street. “I think she kind of challenged me because it was something I was thinking about anyways,” she says. “She just kept looking up and smiling and saying, ‘Hi, how are you?’” One day, Julie asked her if she had got a haircut. Ms Gray had. “Everyone kind of ignores homeless people, but she was watching all of us and kind of a part of my life that I didn’t know about,” she says.

The first few times that Ms Gray spoke with Julie were, in her own opinion, “very, very awkward.” She says: “The thing that was preventing me from stopping and talking to her was that I felt that I had no idea what to say.” However, one day she decided to strike up a conversation. When Julie asked her how her day was going, she told her about getting locked out of her house earlier. She was surprised when Julie said, “Oh, I know that feeling,” before realising that of course she would. She had not always been homeless. Ms Gray remembers thinking: “She is just a person. We probably have a great deal in common. There’s no reason to be afraid of saying the wrong thing.”

After sitting with her multiple times and repeatedly offering to buy her a sandwich, Ms Gray says Julie finally accepted her offer. She noticed that when Julie spoke to passers-by, she never asked for money but would instead smile or say, ‘Hi. How are you?’ More than anything else, she wanted conversation. “I think she was quite a proud person who didn’t want to start immediately asking for help,” says Ms Gray.

Eventually, she learned that Julie had escaped from a domestic relationship. [Editor’s note: To help protect Julie’s privacy, we are only referring to her by her first name. The author also tried to speak with Julie for this article, but there was no way to reach her by phone and she was no longer begging on Market Street in the days leading up to her move.]

Julie told Ms Gray that she had trained as a veterinary nurse and wanted to be a surgeon. However, after getting married, she became a stay-at- home wife for nearly a decade, which she did not enjoy. “When she left, she kind of just had enough,” says Ms Gray.

“I don’t think there was a triggering point.” However, when she arrived at a nearby women’s crisis centre, she was told that in order to qualify as involuntary homeless, and thus for shelter, she had to have been abused that day. Because she was in physically fine condition, she was classified as voluntary homeless and denied help.

Julie then went on benefits and started staying at women’s crisis shelters. However, she felt hemmed in by the imposed curfews and by the prohibition on telling anyone where you were staying.

Ms Gray says: “There’s a lot of restrictions on your freedom. So she didn’t really like it and would rather have been out talking to people.”

After long days on the streets of St Andrews, she would call area shelters on pay phones to see where she could find a bed for the night. Each time, she was told to go to Dundee, which required a return bus ticket, something she could not afford. Meanwhile, her benefits were sanctioned after she missed a required 9 am meeting. But without a phone or a place to charge it, Julie had no way of setting an alarm.

Later, she was told she could not reapply for benefits because she did not have an address. Upon hearing this, Ms Gray thought: ‘This is so ridiculous.’

Unfortunately, Julie’s experience is not uncommon. According to a different report conducted by the Scottish Government, more than half of all homeless applications in 2014-15 were due to the breakdown of a relationship or being asked to leave.

Shelter Scotland, a charity that helps people struggling with bad housing or homelessness, advises that if one has left home due to violence or abuse one cannot be classified as intentionally homeless. Nonetheless, a 2010 Scottish Government report on domestic violence reveals that, due to inadequate provisions, many shelters and refuges are unable to provide women a place to sleep in their preferred locations or even at all.

Despite being unable to find a bed in St Andrews, Julie told Ms Gray that she preferred being here than in Kirkcaldy, where she is from. Ms Gray says: “Even though it was colder [in St Andrews], Julie could get the attention of people and people would talk to her; she liked talking to students about their studies.” She adds that there were a few times she had planned to see Julie and buy her a coffee only to find Julie already sitting with a group of students, “really animatedly talking to them.”

She can also vouch for the thoughtfulness of St Andrews students. Someone would come by and give her a coffee only for another to give her a handful of sugar packets or a small carton of milk, knowing that she preferred her coffee very sweet and milky. Ms Gray says: “I though it was very interesting that people were doing very little things but that were very thoughtful, that didn’t really cost much but meant that someone had been at the supermarket and remembered her.”

This contributed to Ms Gray’s decision to start a Crowdfunder. She says: “If [Julie] thinks we’re generous and more willing to communicate [than people elsewhere], let’s see if we are.”

She messaged some friends and posted about the fundraiser on Facebook. She even tweeted Scottish politicians, criticizing the government’s approach to homelessness and domestic violence. She was pleasantly surprised and even felt a bit bad when Stephen Gethins, the MP of North East Fife, retweeted her. Minutes afterwards, she received an anonymous £50 donation, which she believes was from Mr Gethins. All in all, she was pleasantly surprised by how many total strangers donated.

Despite very high rates of poverty, Scotland is one of the most charitable countries in Europe. According to a 2013 New Philanthropy Capital survey, Scotland had the highest number of donations from mainstream donors (those earning less than £150,000 a year).

Many studies show that poor people give a greater proportion of their income to charity. Ms Gray says that she found this to be true of Julie. “I once sat next to her and was telling her about how I wanted to help the refugees, and, as I said it, I kind of clasped my hands over my mouth because this is a woman who clearly needs a lot of help and support. But she, completely to my surprise, actually, because I’ve experienced xenophobia from many middle-class people, just said, ‘Of course you need to help them. Now that I’m living on the street, I realize how rough it must be. People are friendly to me, but imagine if they were cruel and wanted me to leave.’”

Meeting Julie has completely changed how Ms Gray relates to homeless people. She says: “Since I’ve met her, every single homeless person I pass, I always say, ‘Are you okay?’ or offer to buy them a coffee.”

Although she acknowledges that sometimes she cannot give money to every homeless person she sees, she believes we can still make a conscious effort to maintain eye contact and smile at someone who is homeless. “That’s actually genuinely enough,” she says. “They just want a little bit of humanity.”


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