STEVEN DOWNES spent Sunday night speaking to the rough sleepers in the town centre who did not have a roof over the heads
It is 10.45pm, and a cold, wintry wind whips along George Street as a handful of people leave East Croydon Station on their way home.
Sitting beside a tram pylon near the corner with Dingwall Road, with her knees curled up into her chest for protection – from the wind, or worse perhaps – is Eva. She is one of a band of around a dozen rough sleepers who nightly this past winter have been congregating in doorways and alleys along George Street and the High Street in Croydon town centre, seeking what shelter she might find, and what loose change the passers by might spare.
Some of the homeless in the town centre actively beg, either with some pathetic message scrawled on a scrap of cardboard, or by asking for money by rote. “Excuse me, sir, any spare change,” one repeats, his eyes rarely looking upwards from the pavement.
Not Eva. She just sits there. Her tatty old cardboard coffee cup is on the pavement at her side. The cliché would be to say “more in hope than expectation”, but that’s not the case with Eva. As she looks up, her eyes suggest she lost hope long ago.
Just a few yards away, in Boxpark, an organisation called Evolve is staging a charity fund-raiser, which they call a Sleep Out. The 150 or so who have volunteered for the Sleep Out will actually be sleeping under a roof. No one seems to recognise that contradiction, one of several evident on the night.
Inside, the Sleep Out volunteers are being given a briefing before the start their night “roughing it”.
A few latecomers scuttle past East Croydon Station, their big, 12-Tog sleeping bags and a roll of foam tucked under their arms, some have extra blankets or pillows. The barrier outside Boxpark is cleared out of their way for them by the security guards on the door.
The volunteer sleepers include two Croydon MPs, Steve Reed OBE and Sarah Jones, and a handful of Croydon councillors, including Alison Butler, the council cabinet member responsible for housing in the borough. Again, the evident contradiction seems to escape those taking part.
The volunteers at the briefing, some clutching commemorative mugs full of hot tea, all seem in good spirits, excited at the prospect. It’s the jolly atmosphere you’d expect to encounter before the start of a charity fun run.
The gathered Sleep Outers are told that their efforts of getting sponsors for their one-night ordeal has already raised more than £45,000. There’s a round of applause, even a couple of whoops.
A few yards away, on the hard pavement outside, Eva shivers in the cold.
A woolly hat pulled down over her hair, her cheeks have the accumulated grime and dirt of days and nights spent on the streets, barely sleeping.
She says she is originally from Poland, and has been homeless and sleeping rough for 18 months. “I lost my job, I lost my home,” Eva says.
“I worked in a restaurant,” Eva (not her real name) says. The contradiction of where she is now, outside the re-purposed shipping containers which house more than 20 bars and restaurants, where burgers routinely sell for a tenner a time, is not lost on Eva.
Since being forced to sleep on the streets, she has lost her passport, and so without any paperwork, she says she finds it difficult to access any formal help or support. She’s been along to the soup kitchen in Queen’s Gardens earlier in the evening, and now is waiting for the last stragglers to pass from the station before finding a more sheltered spot to huddle.
I ask: does she know what was going on inside Boxpark?
“In Boxpark? Now? No, what is it?”
I tell her they are raising money for the homeless. Eva gives a shrug, as if to suggest that it will be of little help to her.
Had she heard of Evolve, the charity organising the fund-raising event? Had they ever approached her, offered her any help? “No. Who are they?” she asks.
For the last two years, Evolve has been involved in a project called CR Zero 2020, with the apparently estimable aim of ending rough sleeping in Croydon town centre. This, though, has not always been as benign as they might want it to be portrayed.
Last year, Alison Butler’s Labour-run Croydon Council announced it was having “a crackdown on begging hot spots” in the town centre. They did this working with Croydon BID, the business improvement district organisation, who were one of the co-organisers of Sunday night’s charity Sleep Out event.
Croydon BID’s members include Boxpark and many town centre retailers, some of whom have complained that street beggars are bad for business, putting off shoppers from coming to the high street. Some of them have looked for ways of stopping people dossing down outside their shop fronts overnight, because cleaning up the mess is costly and tiresome.
One of the agencies the council and Croydon BID used in their “crackdown” on street begging was Thames Reach, an organisation which has been funded by the Home Office as part of the Tories’ “Hostile Environment” policy, who would seek to repatriate foreign nationals if they encountered them as they tended to rough sleepers.
Thames Reach is also one of Evolve’s partners in their CR Zero project.
And Evolve’s CR Zero project is not just for any homeless people… they say it is for the “chronic homeless”, by which they mean people who have been forced to sleep rough for at least six months.
Eva, though, homeless for 18 months and now curled up on the pavement outside Evolve’s Sleep Out event, is just one example of a homeless person who had never heard of Evolve, or their CR Zero campaign, and never been approached or offered any help or assistance by them.
I asked the public relations agency which was working for Evolve and Croydon BID on the Sleep Out event for their statistics on the number of rough sleepers in Croydon since they began their CR Zero project in 2016.
It is less than two years since Evolve was seeking volunteers to engage with the homeless to conduct a survey of the rough sleepers in the borough. “We believe that no one should be living on the streets in Croydon and it’s time to find new ways to end chronic street homelessness in Croydon for good,” Evolve said at the time.
But Evolve’s PR agency failed to get back with any answer based on the statistics Evolve said they were collecting in 2016 and 2017.
According to another charity working with the homeless in Croydon, the number of rough sleepers in the borough has actually been decreasing in the last couple of years. This, though, seems to be more because of the impact of Brexit than because of any work being done by Evolve to help the homeless.
“The reason for the decline is mainly the disappearance of many indigent eastern Europeans following the Brexit vote,” a charity worker told Inside Croydon.
“They may have felt less welcome, may have gone to other EU countries to work, may have gone back to their own countries. Poland’s economy is now doing well, for example. Immigration from the EU is down since the Brexit vote.
“Organisations like Crisis have done excellent work since they came into the borough in 2016,” they added.
Croydon Nightwatch and the Croydon Churches Floating Shelter have also continued chipping away at the most extreme end of the homelessness problem.
According to figures from a government-backed street census for Croydon, there were 68 rough sleepers in the borough in 2016, 31 in 2017 and by 2018, that was down to just 15.
Perhaps Sunday was an unusual night for rough sleepers, then, because as I walked from East Croydon Station, past the Sleep Out event in Boxpark and along George Street and then along the High Street and towards the Croydon Flyover, I encountered Eva and nine other rough sleepers, all in less than one mile.
Back at the Sleep Out, and after some Boxpark staff had cleared away the tables used by the restaurants and bars’ customers earlier in the evening, the volunteers got ready to bed down. Spirits were high. Three middle-aged women in their tracksuit-like pyjamas popped up the stairs and out the door by the station entrance, to sit beside some planters having one last cigarette and a chat before lights out. They clearly wanted to do something to help.
A man, at a guess in his late thirties, a hoody pulled up over his head, worn under a nylon bomber jacket, walked past. The security guards watched him carefully. It was clear he wasn’t going to be let in.
Mick (not his real name) approached me. “Thank you for acknowledging me,” he said.
He didn’t sound drunk or out of it in any way. Just tired and careworn. His face, like Eva’s, also had the rubbed-in grime of life on the streets, with added dried blood around his nostrils. Perhaps from a rougher night sleeping rough.
“I would offer to shake your hand, but…”, Mick said, holding out his hand with dirt thick under his fingernails. I shook his hand. It was more for me than him: I felt ashamed that here, in one of the richest cities on the planet, in 2019, people were left to try to exist in this manner.
Mick said he had been sleeping rough for three years, and that because he lived outside the system, the system had no help for him. “You have to have an address, fill in forms, go on the internet. I have none of those things,” he said.
Had he heard about Evolve, or been approached by the charity offering him help? “No,” said Mick.
Did he know what was going on in Boxpark tonight? “No. The guys on the door just said it was some charity thing.” There had been no invitation to a homeless person to come in to the event raising money for the homeless, not even just to share a cup of tea.
A few minutes after Mick had limped off into the night, another homeless person wandered up to where the Sleep Out was happening. In his late 40s, black, with long dreadlocks, he didn’t offer a name.
“I’ve been sleeping rough since before Christmas,” he said. Less than six months, so not “chronic” enough for Evolve.
He said he’d lived in Croydon all his life. “Then my mother died. My dog died. I lost my home.” He sounded more confused than Eva, or Mick. “I haven’t slept for what… 36 hours. The mice, they’ve been eating at my tent, and the water’s got in.” He said he had a makeshift camp over by one of the town centre car parks.
“I just need to get some money to get in to the shelter. Get dry. Get warm. Get some sleep.”
I gave him what I could, and set off for the George Street tram stop, where I was told “Dennis” (not his real name) regularly bedded down and might talk to us about his experience on the streets.
The Croydon charity worker who we spoke to last week said that some of the government’s policies have had an impact. “Doubtless the ‘hostile environment’ fostered by the Home Office will have had an effect on the eastern European population, as they will have been enforcing the expectation that immigrants are looking for work and deporting them if they are apparently not, or are merely destitute, and in no condition to do so.”
The charity worker did highlight that Croydon Council’s Gateway service, and council staffer Julia Pitt, have been doing “excellent work… really dedicated to helping rough sleepers”.
Nightwatch Croydon, which runs the soup kitchen at Queen’s Gardens, has been keeping a tally of the people attending each week. It reached its peak, of nearly 90 souls, in 2013.
“Our clients aren’t only the street homeless, of course,” Jad Adams, the chair of Croydon Nightwatch, told Inside Croydon.
“As an open access facility, we support those on the streets, in hostels, in squats and overcrowded accommodation and people who have been our clients and still have trouble living on their own and come to us for help.
“The real problem now is not the small number of ‘entrenched’ rough sleepers (not that I like the expression), but people who were sleeping out but are now living in hostels. Many of the people you see begging in fact live in hostels. What we need is more move-on accommodation – which brings us back to the housing crisis.
“When there isn’t enough of anything to go round, the poor get the least of it, in this case housing.”
By now, it’s 11.30, and I’ve started the walk from the railway station towards South Croydon. I do this walk, at around this time, most weeks, and have noticed since just before Christmas, there is a steady nine, 10, 12 people sleeping rough in doorways along the route.
Passing the queues in McDonalds and across Wellesley Road, I see one kind gesture, of a man approaching the two bedding spots by Electric House carrying a bag of fast food for those in need. It all seems so inadequate though.
Round the corner, and under the awning of what was once Allders, we find two people with sleeping bags and blankets in what amounts to a human nest.
“Hello. Are you Dennis?” I ask.
“Yes,” the bearded man says.
“I’m a journalist. Do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions?”
“Can you come back tomorrow? Earlier? I’m just so tired mate,” he says. I apologise and leave him.
He’ll have to contend with street noise, traffic and trams, until about 4am, when he’d likely be moved on. That’s the nightly cycle of conditions under which Dennis, and rough sleepers like him, have to struggle to survive.
Back at Boxpark, the 150 volunteers did good work, raising £45,000 or more for the cause of homelessness, and in the morning were promised to be given a “breakfast bun”, whatever that might be. But whatever it is, it is probably more than Eva, Mick or Dennis will have been given on Monday morning.
There was even a specially made goody bag for the charity fund-raisers, just like a finishers’ medal after they’ve done a fun run, for those who endured the one-night Sleep Out. Which was staged under a roof in a venue surrounded by restaurants and bars, and which hires security guards to keep beggars and rough sleepers out.
Alison Butler, by the way, managed to raise £625 for her efforts on the night. Since 2014 when she was made cabinet member for housing, Croydon has not built a single new council home. And earlier this month Brick by Brick, the council’s housing company which Butler helped to set up, started putting houses on the private market, three-bed detached homes being sold for nearly £600,000. Even every penny of the money raised on Sunday night would not be enough just for the deposit on one such house.
As the charity chairman said, “When there isn’t enough of anything to go round, the poor get the least of it, in this case housing.”
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