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Tuesday, 20 March, 2001, 17:39 GMT
Rough sleepers come in from the cold
South Fort Street
South Fort Street currently houses eight people
Mike Lloyd reports for BBC News Online on a new scheme for Edinburgh's homeless.

Eden Stark woke up a couple of months ago to find one of his best mates dead alongside him.

His friend was one of five homeless people who died on the streets of Edinburgh over the festive season.

Homeless charity Shelter recently criticised Scotland's capital for failing to use 10m from the government's Rough Sleepers Initiative (RSI) to get homeless people off the streets.

But Eden now has a new home thanks to the RSI.

Eden Stark
Eden Stark says the project has helped him
The 'wet house', opened in January by the city's Old Town Housing Association, is a far cry from the bad old days, when people would drape themselves over clothes lines to catch a wink of sleep in the infamous hostels of Edinburgh's Grassmarket.

When you look around Eden's chalet-style bedroom, with its en-suite shower and small kitchen, it is hard to believe that those days were only 30 years ago.

"It has certainly helped me and the others who are staying here", he said.

"It's going to take me a wee while to get organised again, but I'm sure I'll manage it."

The untouchables

Hostel beds have been cut over the years, and Shelter says spaces have fallen by 105 since 1997.

But there is a bigger problem for many rough sleepers, who are considered untouchable by conventional hostels.

The Old Town Housing Association's carers actively seek out those who fear rejection elsewhere.

Unlike most other hostels, South Fort Street does not ban drink, drug addicts or street sleepers who have dogs and will not be parted from them.


People are wary until they know who you are and what you are about

Yvonne Spedding, manager
It caters for those who have found themselves at the sharp end of homelessness, with drink and drug-related problems.

One of the staff at South Fort Street, Betty McGowan, says many of the rough sleepers who arrive there are traumatised and need to time to readjust.

"You can see the fear. Just getting their door shut on them is quite an ordeal," she said.

Eden's own experience bears this out.

He admits it felt strange at first, but has now settled in so well that he is on a drying out programme and determined to get his health back.

"I'm on the detox just now. I don't think I could have done that in a dry centre," he said.

South Fort Street
Some residents need time to readjust
David, who is accompanied by his dog Lucky, says it is the first place he has felt comfortable staying in since he left care when he was 17 years old.

"It's brilliant man, it's different from a normal hostel," said the 23-year-old.

"You don't usually get your own privacy - and I don't know anywhere else that takes dogs."

All the eight residents, whose numbers will soon be swelled to 10, are determined to get back on their own feet.

But the staff support, rather than direct, them and progress has to be made at a pace they feel happy with.

Yvonne Spedding is the manager at South Fort Street.

Alcohol problems

She explained: "The team here buy into the principle of accepting people where they are.

"People are wary until they know who you are and what you are about, that you are not going to be telling them what to do."

South Forth Street is just one of Old Town Housing Association's projects aimed at helping those with alcohol and drug-related problems.

Community care manager Elaine Johnston said the association had done much to improve the lot of what were once called "down and outs" since it began to transform the Castle Trades Hostel in the Grassmarket nearly 25 years ago.

"The association has many years of experience and we've devised ways of engaging better with the issues - and the homeless," she said.

Drug user's arms
The project helps people with drug problems
"We believe everyone has the right to be treated with respect and we have discovered that is a successful approach."

The association also runs supported flats, which are designed to rehabilitate long-term hostel residents so they can manage their own affairs.

And for the moment it still runs a hostel in the Grassmarket - although it offers vastly superior accommodation to the old days.

No-one working there would claim that South Fort Street is the whole answer to Edinburgh's homelessness crisis.

But, according Betty, it is a big step in the right direction.

"Wonderful things are happening here. Crazy things as well, but wonderful things," she said.

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