Val McDermid rounded up her Home/Less series at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year with a discussion about the meaning of homelessness with three pioneers in the field. Danny Dorling is a social geographer and professor at Oxford University who has written numerous papers on social inequality and injustice. Geetha Marcus is a lecturer at Queen Margaret University and has conducted in-depth research into the lives of the Scottish traveller community. Finally, Joelle Taylor is a poet, author and performer who has first-hand experience of homelessness. Taylor opens proceedings with a poem, Gutter Girls, which emphasises the particular difficulties women sleeping on the streets face. It is a sobering introduction to what will be a thought-provoking discussion.
Dorling begins the discussion with a focus on numbers. On leaving the pub last night he decided to count how many homeless people he saw between there and the train station (about 150 yards). Fourteen. He then goes on to explain that the crisis could be remedied if every room in every house was utilised. There are enough beds in the UK but many sit empty. Of course, it is not as easy as that. Dorling argues that the politicians don’t care but it seems an easy thing to blame, these people became politicians precisely because they do care. This is a crisis because it is a complex problem built up over decades and perhaps it is not that politicians don’t care but more that it has become so entrenched that they don’t know how to solve it.
Next to join the discussion is Geetha Marcus who is keen to point out that homelessness means something different to different people. The travelling community for example don’t see themselves as homeless. Home for these communities is more about family than it is about fixed abode. She believes that it is in our communities that we should start to address the problem. Start from the bottom up.
Joelle Taylor has lived experience of homelessness and speaks candidly about the negative childhood experiences which can so often lead to homelessness in adulthood. She attended University but even there wasn’t safe from the problem as after a relatively safe first year in halls couldn’t afford life beyond it. She used to offer to cook for her friends so that she could eat some of their food. Taylor ended up in sex work and involved in drugs but eventually found a way out. Host for the morning, McDermid, points out that sad statistic however, that for everyone that claws their way out, there are hundreds more who haven’t or don’t.
The discussion ends with another performance by Taylor. A heart-wrenching spoken word performance, Everything You Have Ever Lost, in dedication to a friend that didn’t make it and once again, it is a sobering thought.