Do people ever really choose to sleep rough?

As the Glasgow Winter Night Shelter closes its doors for another year, Grant, our Chief Executive, examines some of the causes of homelessness, and what needs to be done to make a long-term difference.

Glasgow Winter Night ShelterIt’s that time of year again when the Glasgow Winter Night Shelter, pictured, closes its doors for another season. This is a really difficult time for us and our staff as they’ve worked so hard providing a safe and warm environment for people to sleep in over the past four months.

It’s a conscious decision not to keep the shelter running all year round, and while this seems a little counter-intuitive there are a number of really important reasons we don’t. I wrote about this subject a couple of years ago, and while some information is out of date, the principles are the same. Year round shelters don’t fix homelessness they can often just simply mask the problem. The level of complex needs that people have who come to our shelter tells us that we need to start by providing appropriate accommodation, but people also need world leading mental health and addiction support.

While the Glasgow Winter Night Shelter is open, I still witness rough sleeping taking place and people often ask me why some people don’t use it. Do people ever really choose to sleep rough?

Is rough sleeping a choice

For homelessness campaigners and solicitors this is a loaded question, particularly as Scottish legislation regarding homelessness is held up as being the best in the world. That is, it allows for people to ‘intentionally’ sleep rough or to choose not to engage. But why on earth would anyone choose sleep on the streets of Glasgow?

I want to be very careful as I describe the journey of people who’ve grown up with brokenness, addiction, violence and abuse. Often children are born into this world with limited choices, which rapidly reduce further with each choice they make. The choice to respond violently in retaliation… or not. The choice to lie in order to get help… or not. The choice to take drugs to get through the day… or not. These are not really choices but the lesser of two evils.

You end up with very little control over your life if you’re a rough sleeper with complex needs. Sometimes charities will decide when you eat, what you eat and what you wear. And as a society, we expect that people better be grateful for the help they’re being given! If you have experience of prison, you’ll also have been told when to get up and when to go to sleep. Even in some supported accommodation the regime doesn’t allow for real choice.

Someone once described ‘intentional rough sleeping’ a bit like self-harm. While seemingly completely irrational to most, having the choice not to accept charity, often with its conditions, is the only choice some feel they have left. It’s not really a choice, but it is self-determination of sorts.

Donna's story

Donna shared her story of her mother's and then her own experience of homelessness on our Facebook page and has kindly agreed for her story to be included in this blog to help illustrate what I'm talking about. 


With thanks to Donna for sharing her story.

Multiple challenges

Some are calling again for the city to open up empty building to accommodation rough sleepers. I’ve responded to this question before , and while seemingly a compassionate response, I believe it can do more harm than good.

While Glasgow does have a homelessness and visible rough sleeping problem, the mix of mental health and addiction challenges means our response must understand and address these problems also.

Too often we’re just managing the crisis that is rough sleeping, which is far too late. If we’re serious about ending rough sleeping we must accept that as a society we’ve failed people at several points in their life. We’ve failed adults and children alike, and we’ve just closed our eyes and hoped that someone else will fix the problem. Homelessness is everyone’s business. Nursery, schools, hospitals, police, churches, mosques, synagogues, third sector, private sector, and public sector the list goes on.

Often we look for people to blame for the brokenness that we see on our streets. Sadly the issues for many people began long ago and the people responsible are long gone. However, as a society we do have a duty of care for people. In my time in this sector I’ve seen horrendous responses towards rough sleepers and I’ve also witness incredible loving acts of kindness both from the third and public sector. We are compassionate and we lack compassion at the same time. If People Make Glasgow then we must choose what type of ‘People’ we want to be.  

Night shelters are not the goal

The Glasgow Winter Night Shelter has yet again provided an excellent level of care for the coldest months of winter. It’s been busy but thankfully less busy than last year. People have been connected to council homelessness caseworkers and been accommodated. People have also received healthcare interventions, legal support, and help from our city centre project and our partner organisations in the city.

But while this is all well and good, I don’t believe that night shelters are the goal; the prize we’re trying to win for homeless people. Instead, it should be to see permanent, suitable accommodation with the right levels of support, and a joined up approach to delivering services that people require. We’re starting to see the pendulum of change move in that direction – let’s press on to this goal, rather than short term solutions that simply keep people on the streets for longer.

Grant Campbell, Chief Executive.

> Join our Prayer Walk
> Rough sleeping – what can I do to help?

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