If you remove your headphones as you head onto Market Street, you’ll hear the music of accordions, flutes and harmonicas fill the air. With the sound of each instrument you find yourself at different points around town: in front of Boots on Market street, parked right beside RBS on South street, on sunnier days, between Logies Lane and Bell Street. You’ll see the people playing these instruments, holding out their hats and newspapers for change. Perhaps you might even find yourself meeting Eddie, a Scotsman with the Irish rugby scarf, who likes playing the harmonica in front of Boots. Eddie, like the others, is just one of the many who find themselves homeless in St Andrews.
Take the man sat beside Holland & Barrett. Like Eddie, he is homeless, but instead of instruments at hand, he has two dogs. You can tell how much he loves his dogs by the way he carefully wraps them up in blankets, while he sits cross-legged between them.
His cardboard sign reads “I had my own company for years now I’m homeless. I get judged on a daily basis. (Why?) If I was out of the EU, I’d have a home. Two dogs not allowed in homeless accommodation.”
It was interesting that the man blamed the UK’s current European Union membership for his homelessness, because I wondered if he had met the homeless accordion player in front of the Royal Bank of Scotland on South street. A little introduction – he’s probably the most cheerful man in St Andrews, always with a smile, and never failing to shout “Hello” to anyone that passes him by as he plays. However, a small chat with him will reveal that he doesn’t know any more than the “hello” and “thank you” he greets people with; he is in fact Hungarian, from Budapest, with little to no knowledge of English. Here is a man of the European Union, whose “immigration” had supposedly taken away economic opportunities meant for Eddie with his two dogs down on Market street, and bankrupted his company. And yet, this Hungarian man is also homeless. No one is better off. Homelessness does not care about identity and it can affect anyone.
The statistics on homelessness in St Andrews reveal alarming results. The statistics compiled by Shelter Scotland, a registered charity that campaigns to end homelessness and bad housing in England and Scotland, shows the Fife region alone has 2,441 homeless applications, the third highest in Scotland after the much larger city of Edinburgh (with 3,352 applications) and Glasgow (with 5,377 applications). Further digging reveals that on average, six homeless households asked for interviews with the homelessness officers each week. In particular, people in east Fife were less likely to be able to access services and have the lowest provision of temporary accommodation in all of Fife. Although the number of homeless applications has been going down, Shelter Scotland shows that this is primarily due to the renewed preventative approach adopted by local authorities, coming in the form of housing options, rather a change in the underlying drivers of homelessness.
There have been a few efforts made by the students of St Andrews to help our homeless community. St Andrews Society for Homelessness (STASH) was one of them. It was a society dedicated to homelessness outreach in Fife and Dundee, with a goal of raising funds for shelters, providing volunteers for existing schemes, and generating awareness about the scale of homelessness in our local area. It successes led it to take second place for the “Best New Society” award in St Andrews for the academic year 2014-2015. However, in reaching out to STASH, they revealed that the society is no longer running, as there here just wasn’t much demand for a student homeless outreach society. “After we graduated we disbanded in 2015,” they said. Since then, no other society in the University dedicated to addressing the problem of the St Andrews homeless has existed.
This is why self-starters such as Elizabeth Graham are such outliers. Last year, she started a fundraising campaign on Crowdfunder after stopping to chat to Julia, a homeless woman in St Andrews. Ms Graham successfully raised the £500 target after only 11 days for Julie, who has now successfully secured council accommodation within St Andrews. Ms Graham remembers, “I just kept seeing Julie in the street, who I kept making eye contact with. She was difficult to avoid!” After getting acquainted with Julie, she later sat in a pub with friends listening to people talking about the refugee crisis. After a while, however, she realised the need to help our own first before we could help others. Ms Graham is absolutely right. It would be wrong to talk about helping people in faraway lands while we sit ignorant to the problems in our own community, like the homeless individuals we see everyday. There are plenty of ways to help out.
For those that want to help combat the issue of homelessness, you can consider Sleep-Out, an event hosted by Social Bite. It involves thousands of individuals sleeping rough in Edinburgh’s West Princes Street Gardens and city centre, with their long term mission of eradicating homelessness in Scotland within 5 years. They have ambitiously set a fundraising target of four million pounds, and are looking to generate 1,000 employment offers and 1,000 “spare room” supported lodging pledges. No tickets will be sold for Sleep in the Park, so those in St Andrews wishing to attend the event can only do so helping them reach fundraising targets and participating in the Sleep-Out challenge, which people can do by registering on their website, sleepinthepark.co.uk.
For others, a simple slip of change to your fellow man on the street would suffice. If you don’t have change, however, you can always spare a few seconds to greet them, or even ask them how they are. It has been touching to think that the Hungarian man playing the accordion on South Street is often the first person to greet me on my way to lectures, and yet does not even speak English. Indeed, he lets the music do the talking for him. It has been touching to see a man care for his dogs so much that he is willing to sleep in the streets rather than part with them. It has been touching for me to get acquainted with Eddie, eyes lit up when I asked him how he was and now calls me a friend.
In interacting with all three of them, my life has felt all the richer from getting acquainted, and hopefully, so will yours.