Jim Duffy: Why homeless people are like pet dogs

Amid seasonal hand-wringing about homelessness, ex-police officer Jim Duffy has ideas about how to make it a more lasting concern.

Just like a pet dog, a homeless person is not just for Christmas. Maybe I’m being cynical. I’ve been told I’m an “optimistic cynic” by a few people in the past.

A great deal of “PR” is being used at this time of year to draw attention to the cause. Only this week the First Minister promised more than £300,000 to help the homeless in Scotland over this holiday period.

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Attending the Streetwork homelessness charity there were shouts of “publicity stunt”. It is alleged that one homeless woman was ushered away by shelter staff as she called out: “This is all publicity. The minute they go away this will all disappear and it will be back to we get nothing again.”

Notwithstanding that something is better than nothing, has she got a point?

Having worked the streets of Glasgow as a cop many moons ago, I got to see first hand what homelessness was really all about. Of course, with my “ello, ello, ello” spectacles on, I’ll be honest and say that I was more concerned with the disorder and annoyance homelessness caused than the plight of the human beings I was dealing with.

What I saw was a real mixture of personas who slept on the streets or ended up in “gentlemen’s hotels” or hostels.

Many of the calls we attended were what we would call “run of the mill” or LOS (lot of s••••). But, the themes were almost all the same.

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Nine times out of ten it involved alcohol, alcoholics, minor skirmishes, petty theft and mental illness. That was more than 20 years ago and I bet that not a lot has changed in that time.

My cop specs hardened me to homelessness and rough sleeping. As police officers, we were not outreach workers, but were called to mop up the aftermath of what had taken place. It was more reactive than proactive. But, as I get older, I cannot say my attitude has changed for the better.

However before you form an opinion about me, let me tell you why.

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I’m ill-informed and confused. Homeless charities and local authorities have for decades looked after the homeless with what funds they have available. I got to know many of the hostel staff and we became good acquaintances. I trusted their judgement and listened to what they had to say before I made any decision on what action to take.

These charities and their staff have worked tirelessly, lobbied governments and raised funds to do their good work for years, not looking for PR and a spread in the paper. So why now have some cast the spotlight on homelessness? Why now is the First Minister making cash available over Christmas?

And that’s the bit I don’t get. That’s the bit that the cynic in me, and perhaps you, feels is a bit disingenuous to the whole concept of homelessness. A homeless human being is not just for Christmas. A homeless human being is not a pet dog. Very soon Josh Littlejohn, an entrepreneur with a social purpose, will launch his crusade to help the homeless.

His sleep-out, like many across the UK, will raise cash, raise awareness and jolt Holyrood into action. Maybe it will take an entrepreneur to really accelerate the momentum on this. Perhaps he already has. There is one thing I do know. When Josh puts his mind and network to something it really flies. But, is this enough?

There is not a week goes by when I and probably you walk past a homeless person in Edinburgh or a city close to you.

Some kneel in what look like excruciatingly painful positions. Some have sleeping bags around their legs. Some have dogs that sit with them and keep them company.

Some actively “beg” seeking spare change. Some simply look down and stare at the pavement, making no eye contact with the passing world. So what do I do? What do you do? Do I give them some cash knowing that they will probably spend it on fags and booze?

Do I walk on by, thinking to myself that if I do give them cash it will only exacerbate their current situation?

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Last week, I went into a Sainsbury’s Local, bought flapjacks and gave them to the young guy sitting outside. A token gesture.

Or do we all as a society give our voice to homeless charities and people like Josh and actively lobby Hollywood to make this a priority policy.

I am sure that a cross-party agreement would be ideal. With the new left-leaning Scottish Labour leader now snapping at the heels of his rivals, I am sure he would be right up for it. Jeremy Corbyn is.

So, my ask here of you, is to search your own conscience every time you walk past a homeless person and think about how you can influence policy to help as opposed to handing over a quid or a flapjack.

Our current First Minister has a listening ear and can read Scotland well. If she gets the message loud and clear from us all that we are in it together, then I have no doubt that even more amazing things can materialise.

Kind thoughts to everyone over Christmas and the holiday season are all well and good. But homelessness needs a 12 months-a-year focus to ensure that a longer term solution can be put in place.