Moderator designate challenges politicians to tackle obscenity of homelessness
Published on 17 May, 2016
The scale of homelessness in Scotland is a "damning indictment" on modern society and politicians must do much more to tackle the problem, a Church leader has said.
The incoming Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland the Rev Dr Russell Barr said it was "obscene" that so many people were without safe and secure accommodation and challenged the Scottish and UK governments to act.
Dr Barr, who founded Edinburgh-based charity Fresh Start which helps people who have been homeless to make a home for themselves, said the issue was one of the greatest challenges of modern times.
Official Scottish Government statistics show that 35,764 homeless applications were made to local authorities across Scotland in 2014-15.
Dr Barr, who had aspirations of becoming a professional golfer and left school without qualifications, said the Scottish Government must deliver on promises to build at least 50,000 more affordable homes over the next five years.
The 62-year-old, who will serve as the Church's ambassador at home and abroad for the next 12 months, said reducing the level of homelessness in Edinburgh and across the country would help drive up health and education standards.
"Homelessness is a damning indictment on modern society," added Dr Barr, who has a doctorate from Princeton Theology Seminary in the USA.
"It is a disgrace and should not happen in the UK which is the fifth richest economy in the world.
"We worry about health and education and one of the best ways to improve standards is to ensure that people are properly and safely accommodated.
"Tackling the obscenity of homelessness must be a key priority for the Scottish and UK governments because if you believe in a progressive, modern Scotland you must make sure that people are properly housed.
"The government in Scotland must keep its promises and deliver on pledges to build more affordable homes."
The Moderator Designate's call comes after three homelessness charities, Glasgow City Mission and the Bethany Christian Trust, said demand for their respective shelters rose by 94% in Glasgow and 38% in Edinburgh in 2015-16 compared to last year.
Shocking and disgraceful
Dr Barr, who has been the minister of Cramond Kirk in Edinburgh since 1993, was inspired to set up Fresh Start in 1999 after meeting a homeless man called Sam who had been allocated a flat but could not afford to buy cutlery, crockery, pots and pans or bed linen.
"Meeting this chap was a lightbulb moment and I realised we had to do something really practical," he said.
"He needed help to turn that flat into a home because what he had in the street beside him was all that he had in the world."
The ecumenical charity, which employs 18 people, also provides food and offers cookery classes and lessons on budgeting and growing fruit and vegetables.
Over the last 16 years Fresh Start has distributed several tens of thousands of starter and food packs and helped people renovate over 1,000 flats
Dr Barr said he was proud of the progress that the charity, which is supported by more than 80 congregations in Edinburgh, had made but lamented that a "perfect storm" of benefit cuts, low wages and an affordable housing shortage meant homelessness was a growing problem.
He said it was shocking and disgraceful that more than 4,000 homeless applications were made in the city in 2014-15, according to Scottish Government statistics.
Dr Barr is married to Margaret, a retired secondary school biology teacher, with whom he has a son, Robert, and daughter, Lindsey.
He has three grandchildren Eva, Caterina and Alessandro.
The Rev Dr Russell Barr and his wife Margaret.
Dr Barr, who grew up in Kilmarnock and ministered in Easterhouse in Glasgow and also in Greenock before moving to Cramond, left school by mutual consent with no qualifications and a dream to become a professional golfer
He played off scratch when he was 15 and spent practically every waking moment on the golf course, winning multiple schoolboy competitions.
Although his parents were keen to encourage his sporting career, they insisted he pass some exams and Dr Barr enrolled at Langside College in Glasgow to gain some qualifications.
It was there where he met an inspirational history teacher called Bill Hodgson who made him realise that he had academic potential.
Dr Barr said: "Meeting Bill changed my life – he saw something in me that I didn't at the time.
"I had been made to feel I was stupid but he took me under his wing, had me round to his house every Tuesday night for my tea and for the first time in my life I realised that I could pass exams.
"This was the point when I was able to make choices and chose to go to Edinburgh University."
Dr Barr said Mr Hodgson's wife Betty only learned his real name after being invited to his wedding and up until that point referred to him as "Tuesday".
Follow your passion
In addition to his doctorate the Moderator Designate holds a degree in history and philosophy from Edinburgh University as well as an honours and masters degrees in theology from New College.
The Rev Dr Russell Barr outside Fresh Start, the homeless charity he founded in Edinburgh.
He won the divinity honours class prize and in 1978 was awarded the Sir Will Y Darling Memorial prize as student of the year.
Reflecting on his younger days, Dr Barr said: "I lived and breathed playing golf and my parents were very happy to encourage me.
"But they wanted me to pass a higher because they knew professional sport was very difficult and they were right.
"I gave up playing golf for a long time because I found it so frustrating but I went back to it when my son took up the sport as a boy and now I only play for fun.
"But I would encourage people to follow their passions and stick with it.
"If it works, good and well but if not don't look back in anger, you had a good go."