Image by Blodeuwedd via flickr
Image by Blodeuwedd via flickr

Spring has been trying to come to Edinburgh in recent weeks. But each of her attempts has been defeated by the haar, by weather systems from the north, by whatever else makes Scotland such a brutally damp, cold country.

I take Judy out for her last walk of the day about 10pm, and I see them bedding down for the evening, groups of men gathering in front of the tall grate of the Carlton Hotel, where hot air mingles with the smell of rotting rubbish, blowing its stench out onto the street. They lay down their cardboard and sleeping bags, bundling up against the bitter wind that blows even in April. They watch me with sad eyes.

I’m a priest, I say to myself. These are people loved by God, made in God’s image. And they’re wet and cold and this is where they will spend the night. I should do something. 

But I carry on. I walk past with my dog wrapped warm in her fleece coat. I think of my bed, the electric blanket I’ll switch on when I get home.

Since moving back to Edinburgh, since starting my curacy at Old St Paul’s, I’ve learned a lot about homelessness in the city. And yet I know so little what it is really like.

I still make assumptions so quickly.

‘I’m a recovering alcoholic,’ one man told me after morning Mass. ‘I dare not go into a hostel where there’s drink. I’d be too tempted. So,’ he confessed desperately, ‘I am thinking about committing a crime.’

I looked around the empty church nervously wondering who would hear me should I need to scream. I grasped the panic alarm in my pocket.

But he went on to say, ‘I want to get caught. At least that way, if I’m locked up, I’ll have a roof over my head and a hot meal.’

I’ve been in touch with — and give financially to — the various support networks and charities of this area, and I know where I can send people who truly want help and not just money. I often refer people, knowing that these organisations are better equipped than I to begin to meet the needs of some of the vulnerable and chaotic characters who come into the church or who ring my doorbell.

I know there are some who, for all kinds of reasons, decide to reject the support offered them. I know there are some who, for all kinds of reasons, play the system. And I know there are some who, for all kinds of reasons, cannot access the help they really need.

I say these things to myself as I walk past those men at 10.00 at night.

But even so.

I also know that my dog will be safe and warm and dry and comfortable curled up on the sofa while my fellow human beings sleep on the pavement exposed to the wind and the rain of a dark Scottish April night.

And my heart aches.

But still I walk on. Saying nothing. Doing nothing.

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