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Working together to tell individual stories of homelessness

Lindsay standing against a grey backdrop with her hood up, looking upwards
Shelter Scotland
Written by Shelter Scotland

Shelter Scotland partnered with photographer Margaret Mitchell to work with people with lived experience of homelessness through our Time for Change group in Edinburgh. We share our methods of working together to tell important, personal stories along with a preview of some photographs planned for exhibition next year. Here, Lyndsey shares part of her story.

“Lyndsey told me of her many challenging years as we walked through the city. We did her ‘tour of homelessness’ as she called it, within one small area of central Edinburgh to the many hostels she had lived in over the years. At the end we stopped and made this portrait. Shortly afterwards, I waved Lyndsey off as she caught a bus back to yet another hostel in West Lothian where she was living at that time.” ~Margaret Mitchell

Lyndsey – a personal journey

Through the Time for Change group, Lyndsey is using her experiences of homelessness to help others and to campaign for better services so that in the future people don’t experience the same trauma that she’s been through.

A brown wall with a window in the middle. Lindsay is looking out with her chin reting on her arms. A tree is reflected in the window.A portrait of Lindsay wearing a pink hoodie and looking to the left against a background of trees.

Lyndsey tells of a life history full of trauma, chaos and disruption. Unsurprisingly, she found coping strategies for what life put her way, but sometimes those strategies became unhealthy and overwhelming. At 16 she’d moved into her first homeless accommodation and by 38 she’d lived in over 25 different places. She experienced hostel after hostel, where some showed kindness and understanding but others were unsupportive, disapproving.

When Lyndsey’s sister died from a heroin overdose, her life spiralled out of control, one more loss to the many lived through. She’d left a bad relationship, but life’s pressures meant she wasn’t able to keep her daughter with her. “I hit rock bottom but there was no help. I was pre-judged – put in the box for ‘has an alcohol problem’ – and that was it.” That first night of renewed homelessness, Lyndsey went to an emergency shelter where her bed was a mattress on a church floor. She cried all night, contemplating everything that had led to this point in her life.

Lyndsey was then placed in a hostel on the edge of her local town, but this temporary accommodation only increased her emotional problems. “It’s an isolated building surrounded by woodland and it brought back horrible memories because I’d been assaulted in those woods once, but they wouldn’t offer me anything else”.

Last Christmas Eve, Lyndsey received a phone call which left her crying uncontrollably. But it was a good call, news to say she had a permanent home and that she could move out of her hostel in the near future. A new beginning, a place for hope and a place to call hers. With support in place Lyndsey talks of her path to recovery and is doing well. “I’m learning to be myself and also learning to stop punishing myself. My daughter’s room is all unicorns. When I first moved in I just found myself walking around it because I was so used to just living in a single room for 9 and a half months. I just love my house.”

Her involvement with the Time for Change Edinburgh group has seen her visiting hostels pre lockdown and at its peak, she helped another peer handing out food to rough sleepers. With training from Shelter Scotland staff, Lyndsey is learning how to triage people looking for help with housing problems, with her own lived experience giving insight and awareness to current issues. “You hear some horrific stories but it’s really interesting and I love doing it. It’s clear there’s nowhere near enough housing.”

“Now I’ve got this great house I’m looking forward to having my daughter stay with me more. I’ve waited until she was ready. I’ve got a place where she can see herself living and I’ve rebuilt that trust. It means the world to me.”

A portrait of Lindsay in a brown hoodie with the good up, standing in front of a tree and an apartment building.

Two images. One of a residential building with a red door and grass in front. Another of Lydnsey standing in an internal doorway with a picture of her daughter in the foreground.

Time for Change – answers from those who know the problem of homelessness best

Time for Change Edinburgh is a group for local people with lived experience of homelessness. The members of the group are known as peers. They use their own experiences to help Shelter Scotland decide what needs to change to improve services for people experiencing homelessness, and to help campaign for homelessness to stop altogether. Senior Development worker William Wright oversees Time for Change Edinburgh.

He said: “The peers have helped me carry out research by talking to people using services for people who are struggling, places like temporary accommodation or food banks. We’ve found many people say there are issues with personal safety and mental health in temporary accommodation. Lyndsey became involved as a Time for Change peer in August 2019, and has helped local people, co-designed local responses, acquired qualifications, become a volunteer and has been involved in many other opportunities including partnership work with Margaret Mitchell.”

An empty, partially waterlogged field with some trees under a grey sky

Working together to tell personal stories of significance

Working with people to tell aspects of their lives is something that Margaret Mitchell is committed to in her work as a photographer. The collaboration with the Time for Change network is part of her wider work ‘An Ordinary Eden’ which reflects upon the very human need to belong, to have security, to have stability. With the peer network and Shelter Scotland, she is working on photographs and stories from people with lived experience of homelessness. From initial discussions through to final selections, people choose what parts of their lives they want to share. Lyndsey’s story is part of this work.

“Lyndsey and I have now known each another for about a year now and I visited her in both temporary hostel accommodation and when she got permanent housing. I hope that by working together we can tell personal stories of significance.”

At the end of the bus route is the stop where Lyndsey gets off for her hostel. A symbolic terminus. Then a 10-minute walk to the outskirts, in a place one might ordinarily reflect would be good for the soul. A place set amongst the outdoors, of beauty but really for some people with complex histories, the isolation and abandonment is what is felt most.

All photographs ©Margaret Mitchell

This winter Shelter Scotland is asking you to give hope to people going through the same struggles that Lyndsey survived. By supporting us you can make sure we can be there for people during the hardest time in their lives. This year has been hard for all of us but if you can please make a donation now.