Cyrenians Farm and City, Edinburgh Cyrenians

Case study 7


This case study describes a service developed to respond to homelessness in Edinburgh. It is based on a discussion with Charlotte Bunting (senior social worker), Selina Main (key worker) and Lesley Anderson (Big Lottery funding manager at Cyrenians Edinburgh).

The Cyrenians were founded in 1968 in response to the homelessness problem in Edinburgh, initially setting up a round-the-clock, drop-in service in the city’s Cowgate. This was followed by a community house in Broughton Place and a few years later the Cyrenians Farm in Kirknewton on the outskirts of the city. Now each location can accommodate eight residents and six volunteers at any one time.

At the Cyrenians, community support is delivered by a combination of permanent staff and a large group of often international volunteers who stay for six to nine months living with the residents, either in the City or Farm. Residents come from a variety of backgrounds, including care leavers and people who have experienced family breakdown, homelessness and mental health problems.

Contact Cyrenians
Norton Park, 57 Albion Road, Edinburgh EH7 5QY / tel: 0131 475 2354

A service modelled on community values

Flickr – Greg Lobinski (CC BY 2.0)

The model of Cyrenians’ service delivery is unique to the organisation. Referral is received through formal routes: the social work department or throughcare and aftercare, and self-referral can occur. The service accepts residents between 16-30 years of age. Predominantly,  the city community takes in younger people and the farm takes the older applicants. Once a referral has been accepted, the young person is invited to visit the community and undergoes an assessment, followed by lunch with the group and then one overnight stay, to get the feel of the place before committing to moving in. On moving in, the residents become members of the community.

‘…the model itself for the communities is so unique; the fact that we have volunteers who live alongside the young people who come to us, referred through social work, just that in itself is completely unique.  I don’t know of anywhere else that does it the way that we do… the idea is that the people who live in the houses are community members…’ (CB)

The majority of the time, volunteers and residents work out all domestic and inter-personal issues between themselves. Volunteers are taught conflict resolution in training and will put this into use in times of confrontation in the house. The idea behind this set-up is that the people who live in the houses act as active community members, practising skills in the evenings and weekends when staff are not around to guide them.

‘I just think it’s the whole ethos about the company and what the company is all about, and it is about giving that person the chance for a normal life and some other organisations don’t give them that chance, whereas here we do.  We’re open minded to where people have come from and where they’re wanting to go, and how hard at times it can be.’ (SM)

Flickr – Ellen van Deelen (CC BY 2.0)

Evidence from Cyrenians’ own analysis indicates that residents develop a more robust ability to act independently and respect boundaries. They learn by doing rather than by being told. People are given options and are expected to make their own choices.

The farm environment

The farm provides a unique setting and many benefits for people who desire tranquility. It aids the recovery of people with mental health issues and those trying to detox as it removes them geographically from known triggers. Although farm work is not compulsory, many residents do take part. The theoretical purpose of the work is to build up a work ethic, however, residents also achieve qualifications which may boost both their confidence and possibilities for employment in the future.  Qualifications include health and hygiene qualifications, required to work with animals and produce, and RIAS certificates. The farm staff have recently added a furniture upcycling project to activities at the farm, where residents learn to restore and add value to old furniture. In time, the goal is to establish this as an independent social enterprise.

Flickr – Tobi Gaulke (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

‘We probably tend to, at the farm, attract maybe more of your older age group, and what they’ve said and what staff have noticed is it really benefits people who want to develop.  They might have mental health problems so it’s quite a tranquil, peaceful environment and it aids in their recovery process; maybe people from addictions backgrounds, having a rural location is actually quite useful if you’re maybe going through detox and things like that because you’ve not got access to substances as easy. ‘(LA)

During working hours the key workers’ roles involve significant educational aspects to strengthen the residents’ independence. They work actively to ensure that the timing and relevance of their support fits the needs of the residents. Personal outcome goals are set at the beginning of residency and reviewed weekly in progress meetings. Residents at the farm are encouraged, but not expected, to participate in work at the farm.


The recruitment of volunteers takes place on an international scale. The organisation’s values are explained to potential applicants who are asked to describe their learning needs in order to be considered for interview. It is imperative for the organisation that volunteers can fit into a culture where the question ‘what can we learn and change?’ is asked continuously.

‘ … one of my big things in the recruitment process is that people show that they have learning needs… if they say they don’t have any learning needs, for me, that’s an immediate flag that somebody’s not going to work in this organisation well, because, to me, you have to have learning…  we state that we’re looking for people to live and learn together…’ (CB)

Volunteers cite the biggest challenge of their role as maintaining energy and motivation, however, resilience is built up through learning to deal with common issues with new residents. The dynamic relationship between residents and volunteers is enriching for both parties as they learn the important values of open mindedness towards where people have come from and where they want to go.

The volunteering role is time-tabled so as to secure stability in the house. Volunteers are expected to act as role models, setting an example for the residents by following house rules, be on time for their shifts and do house chores. Each volunteer has a mentor who they see for an hour each week to support them in their own development. Furthermore, volunteers are tasked with teaching basic domestic skills, including cooking and cleaning.

‘Some people can’t get up every day and can’t motivate themselves to be doing everyday things that other people find is just normal and that you can go out and do that.  It could be getting up and helping somebody make that first cup of tea that they’ve never made; it’s small things, but it’s all that that makes a difference…’ (SM)


Cyrenians has developed an improvement matrix methodology which centres around continuous reviews within community meetings. These are chaired and minuted by the communities themselves, although one or two staff members are present.

‘…we constantly review what we do informally, so every week we have community meetings in each of the separate houses, and that’s for the community members themselves, so they chair and minute that.  We facilitate it and there’ll be one or two staff members there, but… that’s for the house members to look at what they’re doing in the house and how they can change, so a lot of the rules are set by the house members.  We have a couple of rules around safety and drugs and alcohol use and things like that, but the majority of the rules are actually set by the house members, and they’re reviewed whenever house members want to review those.  So that, to me, is a way of constant improvement because we’re fitting with whatever individuals or groups are living there at the time.’ (CB)

Flickr – Jocelyn Durston (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The house members look at what they are currently doing in the house and how they can change that for the better. This means that many rules are set within the community itself, although there are a few permanent rules around safety and drugs and alcohol use.  This constant improvement ensures that the culture and environment is adapted to the individuals living there at any given time, so that they can develop healthy life skills.

‘It’s addressing it and it’s holding people accountable for their actions and for what they’re doing, because most people that come here are adults or aged sixteen to thirty, so not to say if they’ve done something wrong, ‘Oh, that’s OK… it’s addressing the issues and getting the support that they then need to be able to work through the issues.’ (SM)

The success of the collaborative day-to-day management of the two locations has had direct impact on wider organisational development:

‘We used to do annual planning days which were for staff only, and last year we decided to actually just make it a community-wide planning day. So everybody was invited: volunteers, residents and staff, and we had our planning day together, and that was just amazing. We realised at that point, “Why did we not always do that?” and realised that actually just having staff there was such a narrow focus that it didn’t bring the same ideas and dynamics as having everybody there. So we’ve decided we’re always going to have our annual planning day open to everybody in the communities.’ (CB)

Big Lottery funded project

Since 2013, Cyrenians have received funding from the Big Lottery for a project aiming to ‘build skills for learning, life and work; and social and emotional skills to prepare residents for independent living’. All elements of the project are co-designed with the residents and are offered from entry into the service until departure. The residents not only decide the content of the events and courses but also help with the administrative aspects of the work. This blank page approach has so far resulted in a wide variety of learning opportunities for the young people, from increasing skills (literacy, numeracy, digital fluency) to therapeutic interventions (reflexology and stress management) and managing a personal budget.

‘What we do is when somebody goes into key work there’s different areas, so it might be housing; it might be money management; it might be addictions, so there’s twelve altogether, and they score themselves, so it’s sort of like a traffic light system. It might be something they’re comfortable with, they can manage as an individual, or it might be something that they need support to develop.  And they’ll do that individually, and then through that we identify so, ‘What opportunities can we link you in with, and how can we support you to develop this?’ And then that’s where they might use their personal development budgets to do it.’ (LA)

Individual outcomes are tracked quarterly through a twelve-point outcomes measure, which is used in weekly meetings with key workers to guide the conversation and link the young person with other resources that can help them achieve their goals.

‘Generally the residents and young people we work with are furthest from the labour market so what we need to do is prepare them on that level to applying for jobs and things like that, and work experience, looking at introducing the Skill Development Scotland Work Readiness Certificate.’ (LA)

Flickr – Paul Williams (CC BY 2.0)

To date, the project has been evaluated positively and offered more stability for the residents. There is a commitment to continually shape support provided through Cyrenians to meet the needs of residents and volunteers:

‘From what the residents have said, what the difference is through our evaluation of the project and through the stats that we collect, that actually since the projects came up our occupancy rates, how the longevity our residents stays with us, has increased.  On average, to start with, it was three months maybe three years ago, how somebody would stay with us, but now that’s gone up to an average of nine months to a year. So that shows that the approach and the way that we work with people, it’s working for them and we have to adapt that approach to every new resident that comes in, every new volunteer that comes in. ‘(LA)