RESIDENTS of Edinburgh's Old Town have rallied to defend homeless people as unlikely allies against the 'gentrification' of the city centre.

The Cowgate Clinic, officially known as the Edinburgh Access Initiative, faces closure to make way for a massive hotel and leisure development encompassing the historic India Buildings.

Health services for the Capital's homeless population are thought to have been provided from the Cowgate Free Church for decades, but the new proposal will see it transformed into an entertainment venue.

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Experts have warned that moving the practice could lead to more deaths, mental illness and a soaring numbers of rough sleepers, while campaigners say it is more accommodation, and not hotels, that is needed.

Sean Bradley, of the Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust said: "I've been living in the Grassmarket for 40 years and homeless people have always been around here, they've always been our neighbours.

"Cowgate Free Church has been in social use for 100 years or more and 40 years as a health facility for the homeless."

And he added: "There are 7000 people living in the old town and what we need are more houses, not more hotels"

The clinic currently provides a range of health services including general practice, mental health support and dentistry.

Clinic staff are not allowed to speak about the plans but are known to have been alarmed by proposals to move the service to Spittal Street - where there is a needle exchange - or Parliament Square, where the council's emergency accommodation service is based.

NHS Lothian is now planning to temporarily house the clinic in Leith Street within an existing service.

Danny Campbell, project manager at North Edinburgh Drug and Alcohol Centre, said the clinic was an invaluable service and the "main support medically for homeless people in Edinburgh".

"They work with the most ostracised section of the population, who have complex problems," he said.

"I think people will not engage with the service, and nobody will be monitoring their ups and downs. If people are not engaging with a basic level of treatment I think you will see an increase in rough sleeping and probably see an increase in drug related deaths."

He said without dedicated services, some homeless people struggle to access help - with mental health services refusing to do assessments unless someone is drink or drug free, for example.

"They are moving the service without a clear plan to improve it, for financial reasons, to my mind. The Old Town is now full of wine bars, cafes and boutique hotels and the Cowgate clinic's client group don't fit with that image."

However NHS Lothian said services would continue after the clinic's lease is terminated in July, while a longer term solution is sought.

Professor Alex McMahon, Director of Strategic Planning, Performance Reporting and Information, NHS Lothian said: “The access practice in Edinburgh city centre, which provides GP, nursing and mental health services is split over two sites. The rented building in the Cowgate will be vacated in July, following its sale.

"The practice is currently considering possible, interim accommodation options meantime while it works on a longer term, solution. This includes NHS Lothian’s Spittal Street Clinic which currently accommodates the Harm Reduction Team and has space available.

“It is our intention to eventually merge both facilities on to one site as soon as a suitable business case is concluded, but in the meantime, services will continue to be provided as normal at the Leith Street centre, which also offers extended facilities and provides advice on housing and social work."