Fiona Thomson, VSS service manager for Edinburgh & Lothians, describes homeless women’s experiences of crime and how she is developing a partnership with Social Bite to reach more homeless people and provide a service tailored to their needs.
In February this year I met two gentlemen delivering lunch from Social Bite to our office for a training event.
Social Bite is a social enterprise that helps the homeless through its five sandwich shops and restaurant. It donates its profits to benefit homeless people in Scotland, feeding more than 150 people each day through meals subsidised by paying customers and hosting social suppers where homeless people can speak to Social Bite staff and volunteers as well as other organisations. It trains homeless people for future employment, employs staff who have been homeless at some point in their lives and recently opened ‘The Village’ providing accommodation for homeless people to help them get back on their feet.
As the gentlemen I met shared their personal stories of homelessness I thought there may be people supported by Social Bite who could benefit from some of Victim Support Scotland’s services.
I contacted Social Bite and attended a supper, managing to speak with all of the attendees. Some were hesitant at first but the majority of them told me that no-one takes them seriously if they report a crime, so they don’t bother. They asked why anyone would want to help them. They feel isolated within the city, and so instead of going to agencies for help, many rely on each other for support.
Being homeless or living in supported accommodation, means they have to live in a different way from everyone else. They said they attend food vans on a regular basis, where at times they find “Russians and Serbians hanging around looking for women to exploit”. They have in the past had to protect younger more vulnerable women from being trafficked. Some will rely on café bathrooms to wash and are constantly on the move around the city. They can’t sleep properly as they need to keep alert throughout the night for their own protection.
Some are frightened, some are very sad, some have been assaulted, some raped and one told me she was nearly murdered. Some of them have mental health issues and told me the choices they made in the past led them to where they are today. Some of them take substances to allow them to get through each day. They told me that every day is a lesson in survival.
I listened and was moved by the determination and drive they have to keep going. What you and I may take for granted, such as the security to sleep through the night, is not always available to them. Just having somewhere to meet, eat and get support is a lifeline to some.
I was humbled by their stories and asked how VSS could help.
Some said it felt good just to talk to someone who was non-judgemental and appeared to be genuinely interested in their wellbeing. I gave them safety alarms and torches in the hopes it might help them a little. I talked about the Witness Service and how we can help them navigate through the criminal justice system, be with them in the courtroom while they give evidence and much more. I explained about Victim Support Scotland third party reporting centres allowing them to report a crime without attending a police station and to be supported while discussing any incident in a more comfortable atmosphere.
I asked if I could return to speak to them again and they were happy for me come back in future.
These visits are the start of a scoping exercise to allow me to ascertain what role VSS could play to assist homeless people and how we can make our service accessible to them by attending the suppers regularly or by providing an outreach programme. I believe with some support and the right words and resources, a few would walk through a Victim Support Scotland door to ask for help.
There were further outcomes to my initial visits. One of the Social Bite managers was very pleased with my interest in the project and asked if we could support staff with training. She felt her staff would benefit from the victim awareness skills and experience our staff and volunteers have. I have agreed to give a presentation at their next team meeting and to speak with the VSS training department regarding a bespoke staff training course.
After each visit, during my travel home, I reflect on the stories I have just heard with tears in my eyes and feel frustrated because I want to do more to help. As I pass people sitting on pavements in sleeping bags, I remind myself that each one has a story to tell and each one deserves to be listened to.
So I will continue to work with Social Bite to provide targeted support to those that need us. As this partnership continues and grows, I am absolutely confident we can improve how we provide victim and witness support services to homeless people throughout the Scotland.