An outreach shift.
We were covering much of South East London, responding to Street Link reports of people rough sleeping. We’d been round a scrubby park in New Cross, and a bus station in Eltham, and some alleyways and car parks in Catford. As is often the case there was no-one there, the people reported that day had already moved on –or were never there.
Then we went on to Central Lewisham, to a park between a dual carriageway and a railway embankment. It was dark and we needed torches to find the man blinking from a sleeping bag, and looking confused and a bit frightened. I was the volunteer on the shift so I listened as my colleague asked the questions. Jay hadn’t been seen on the streets before, and he was eligible to the No Second Night Out service with an assessment hub just up the road.
As he relaxed and we made phone calls, he told us his story. He’d been working as a security guard in a local supermarket and he’d been attacked at work – he showed us pictures on his phone of a head wound and blood, and the scar on his forehead was prominent. He’d been in hospital and because of this he’d lost his casual job. He’d been staying with a relative, but without his contribution to the rent and the bills there was no room for him and after trying and failing to find a job he’d found himself in the park in Lewisham. He’d never claimed benefits and wasn’t sure if he could. The phone calls we made were fruitless that night, the No Second Night Out hub was full. I don’t know what happened to him after that – he wasn’t seen again by outreach teams - with doubtful eligibility for benefits his options were probably limited to finding a job and persuading the relative to take him back.
Fast forward to the early Spring of 2020, and this time I was with our outreach teams again. This time it was the middle of the day. It was the early days of lockdown and they were there to find people sleeping rough in Heathrow airport and get them into accommodation where they could isolate. That day we were working in Terminal Five, and supported by Heathrow Travelcare, we were making sure that people were ‘triaged’ by medical teams, and then assessed and transported to accommodation, generally in hotels across London.
This was a very different scene from that park in Lewisham, a bit chaotic, bright lights, loads of people, a lot of PPE, and sandwiches and coffee for all. People were waiting for transport in cabs, but despite the wait the atmosphere was upbeat.
I got talking to Omar, who’d been assessed and was waiting for transport to a hotel in south London. He was keen to talk, and told a story of a marriage that didn’t happen; estrangement from his family in the North West; moving to London; working in a restaurant, and a bed in a house owned by his employer’s cousin. This all ended when the restaurant closed and he found himself without a bed. Heathrow seemed like the best option. He told me that he thought he could patch things up with his family given time, but he was looking forward to having a bed for the night and some peace.
I know that Omar got into the hostel, but I don’t know what happened next.
It is often argued that homelessness can affect anyone and that we are all just one (or two) paychecks away from the streets. For most of us, that isn’t the case. At the worst, we have people we can turn to who have sofas that we can sleep on. But there is a group for whom this is not the case. Generally they live on friends’ floors, or in accommodation tied to their job. They live in the private rented sector but they don’t have tenancies.
These are people who don’t have the complex needs around mental and physical health and substance misuse that Thames Reach is used to working with. When they work, they work in jobs that are now often seen as ‘essential’, but have little security, either of employment or in accommodation, and when things happen, whether that’s an assault at work or a pandemic, they are quickly squeezed into homelessness. They are the people who make London work for us, and they are the victims of a chronic lack of resilience in the housing system for people who lack resources or connections.
This blog was written by Bill Tidnam, Chief Executive of Thames Reach, who will be will be chairing the Tackling Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Forum. Taking place online over the mornings of 14th and 15th October, this will provide the unique opportunity to explore how local authorities can successfully utilise funding to establish preventative measures to eliminate homelessness and rough sleeping.
For more information on Thames Reach - www.thamesreach.org.uk