From the seventh floor of the multi-storey car-park at this late hour the view is rather magnificent, but a cruel wind is whipping up the rubbish and there is not a soul around. I’m a Thames Reach London Street Rescue team volunteer tonight searching for rough sleepers with my colleague Rob and we have received a self-referral from a man sleeping rough in the car-park. It’s been a frustrating night. In Hounslow we discovered plenty of cardboard bedding but not the group of Lithuanians we feared could be sleeping rough. Under Kew Bridge and in a park in Putney the lone rough sleepers we have been tasked with contacting were not in their usual places. I ruminate on the unsettling paradox of being grievously disappointed not to find someone sleeping rough in sub-zero temperature.
But here on the stairwell we find our man, a 21-year old Pole called Karol. His is a story which is virtually a generic tale of youth homelessness. He came to this country as a fourteen year old unable to speak a word of English. He found his feet at school after a difficult start, but then his mother re-married and he couldn’t get on with his step-father. Over time the tension between them intensified and culminated in a thrown punch and a swift eviction from the family home. Karol has no intention of returning and has been sleeping rough intermittently, with occasional respite on a friend’s sofa. He sleeps close to the lift as from this position he can hear it jerk into motion in the middle of the night, advertising the approach of the car-park attendant on his rounds. Karol can then scurry out of sight and return when he has passed by. It doesn’t lead to a restful night’s sleep.
His deepest frustration lies with the local council’s Housing Options service. As an able bodied young man he has no statutory entitlement to housing, which he accepts with equanimity. What he can’t comprehend is why the housing advisor should hand him a list of hostels that offers some hope but, as he studiously rings each of the numbers provided and finds that most are no longer in operation or connect him to projects for which he is ineligible, turns out to be a distressing hoax, or so he perceives it. ‘This list is just to fob me off’, he rages, throwing his hands up in dismay.
The No Second Night Out hub is the only chance of somewhere out of the cold for Karol tonight and, late in the evening, they inform us of a space. Walking into the building with my woolly hat pulled down to my eye-brows I am impressed with how solicitous the member of staff keeping pace with me is, indeed unnervingly so. Then I realise she thinks that I am booking in and Karol is the volunteer. So we swop places. The room is full of men sleeping on the floor in various states of dishevelment, one of whom is emitting a monstrous, spluttering porcine snore that ricochets around the space.
Taking in the very basic provision, Karol pragmatically calculates that staying at the hub is a step worth taking as it gives him the opportunity of exploring his options. It’s not the kind of place where he would want to stay for more than two or three days, but that is the point of the hub; no frills, no danger of settling in, but good quality advice and assistance and an unambiguous offer of help, called a single service offer.
We have one last call to follow up, a self-referral from a man who wants to meet us outside the entrance of a housing block. Once there, we ring him on his mobile phone and he limps towards us out of the gloom. Malcolm is currently bedding down in the corridor by the door of the flat where, for six years, he lived with his mother until she died in 2011. He continued to stay there after her death but was evicted three weeks ago. He embarks on a convoluted tale involving tenancy succession rights and rent arrears. Bewildered and painfully unassertive, he seems utterly helpless in the face of this humiliating catastrophe.
To date the council has been unable to help him, but he has an appointment with it pending and we conclude that with some advocacy support there is some chance that we can pull him out of this steep downward trajectory that will otherwise culminate in him sleeping rough on a cold pavement.
This is a story of two very different men connected by the disquieting similarity in their experiences of seeking help from local authorities. Both describe with bemusement journeys that involve taking numbered tickets from machines, waiting in queues, finding it is the wrong queue, being given lists of addresses with numbers that don’t exist, hearing baffling, incomprehensible phrases - local connection, statutory rights, eligibility, rights of succession, priority groups. A palpable Kafkaesque horror emerges in the telling. And, if there is one lesson to take away, it is that to stand a decent chance of getting a hearing and a satisfactory outcome then a knowledgeable advocate is, if not essential, then a huge advantage.
We also have experiences of housing advisors providing advice which is accurate and comprehensible imparted with politeness and compassion in circumstances where the options at their disposal are often desperately limited. But the variableness of response is simply not acceptable and if we are to hold back the encroaching tide of new rough sleepers then timely, effective, preventative housing advice has to be delivered with far greater consistency.
So at around 1.30am I get on my bike and pedal home, reflecting on the fact that the two men we have seen self-referred and wanted to be found and musing over how many more people there are sleeping rough in blocks of flats, on stairwells, in derelict buildings and in car-parks, hiding themselves away across the capital.
A shorter version of this blog was published in Inside Housing on March 1st 2013