Word on the Street – Homelessness and COVID-19

Photo credit: Circa Media

On Monday 16th March Humanist Society Scotland’s volunteer StreetCare team took to the streets of Edinburgh, as they do every week, to help the homeless. The shadow of coronavirus was with them as they set off, having taken as many precautions as possible to minimise the risk of infection. In this blog StreetCare team leaders Mary Mackay and Paul Dickson share what they saw and their worries for homeless people in Scotland and globally during the pandemic.

What we saw that night was disturbing. Edinburgh was almost like a ghost town but the homeless were still on the street despite the miserable weather. At a time when instructions on isolation had just been shared with the nation by the Prime Minister, we were confronted with rough sleepers unable to self-isolate: how do you self-isolate on the streets?

We are being bombarded with information on how to try to avoid contracting the coronavirus: frequent hand washing, self-isolation and social distancing – but how on earth can people sleeping rough get speedy access to this information let alone follow the advice? 

Previous to the coronavirus pandemic not enough was being done to support the homeless and address the causes of homelessness. And last night, in the midst of a pandemic, we saw new faces sleeping rough. They are totally dependent on support from charities and whatever they can collect from begging. Unless they can collect enough money each day to cover the cost of a night shelter their only option is to sleep on the streets.

Currently Edinburgh has a few free night shelters run by voluntary organisations, but they can only accommodate a limited number of people.


One young person that we met last night was typical of the people we meet and the stories that we hear every week. She had health issues, and despite working and receiving some benefits, had fallen short on being able to pay her rent. She had been evicted from her home and was unwilling to sleep in a hostel. Any accommodation available to this young woman (and others like her) would likely be in dormitory environments where many
others would have significant health challenges and preexisting conditions.

In all the planning to tackle the coronavirus pandemic the homeless are the
forgotten ones. Despite the fact that they are incredibly vulnerable and simply don’t have access to many of the options that those with homes have to stay safe and well, their welfare is not being adequately planned for.

The people we saw last night on our StreetCare route are aware of the coronavirus, but would just shrug their shoulders when asked how they might deal with it. Not for them a safe, warm, dry place where they could self-isolate if required.

Something must be done, and done quickly, to support the homeless during this global crisis. In London this morning Mayor Sadiq Khan announced that he was looking at ways in which empty hotel rooms could be used to accommodate homeless people in the short term. We need a similar fast and inventive Scottish response. Maybe one solution could be to use some of the empty properties in Scotland’s Capital bought specifically for short term rental purposes as a means to stop vulnerable people on the
streets becoming victims of the virus?

Looking to the future we hope that this current situation provides us with time to reflect on how a better society might be created – where the poor and homeless are considered in all aspects of our lives and our policies.

Maybe we will see the start of a society that cares for everyone – not just the interests of one nation, one faith, or only the rich.

We hope that people will begin to wake up to the price we will pay as a society if individuals continue to put their interests before the common good, and if we continue to have leadership that at times appears to have no moral compass.

Please remember people who are homeless in this unsettling time – they need us.

You can support our StreetCare teams in Glasgow, Stirling and Edinburgh by sponsoring the project.

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