Sarah Miles has been Centre Manager at Ace of Clubs day centre in Clapham for the last six years, but has worked there for more than 16. The centre provides lunch, showers, clean clothes, advice, education and much else besides to homeless and vulnerable people in south London. I’ve been spending time there over the last few months talking to some of the regular clients and seeing how the place is run.

Last year,
a Government report revealed that rough sleeping in England rose by 30% in 2015 from the previous year. I asked Sarah about the changes she’s seen in her time at the centre, and what impact she believes austerity is having on the people Ace helps…

What brings people to Ace of Clubs’ doors?

Well, there’s a lot of financial poverty, obviously. People who’ve had their benefits cut or lost their jobs. There’s a fair amount of domestic violence. Mental health issues, disability, drug and alcohol problems. Gambling is another big one. But whatever the underlying issue is, in most cases it’s because people have let a situation go on for too long.

Human pride is a massive barrier. People lose their jobs but refuse to sign on. So the debts start building up, the eviction notices start coming in. People leave it and think it’ll get better. I’ll get another job. My partner will stop beating me. The meds will kick in. As a society, we don’t like to ask for help, so we just keep going until suddenly there’s this massive crash and everything comes tumbling down. And you end up here.

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Around 80-100 people visit Ace every weekday. Numbers have more than doubled in the last six years, Sarah tells me

So what do you offer when they get here?

It ranges. Some people just need lunch for a pound. [For many of the clients I’ve spoken to over the last few months, it’s the only meal they eat each day. Not all are homeless, many are simply struggling with the cost of living in London.] For others it’s using the telephone, charging your mobile, registering to receive post here, being referred for outreach.

I’ll wash your sleeping bag, you can have a shower. I’ll get you clean clothes, help you to apply for a disabled blue badge, do a safeguarding referral for you. The nurse comes once a week. I’ll help you fill out your Jobseeker’s online claim, or for ESA (Employment and Support Allowance).  We run computer courses. I’ll register you with a doctor, accompany you to an appointment. The other week I took an old man out to look at second hand tellies at the British Heart Foundation because the one he’s had for 50 years has finally packed up.

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Miriam hands out lunch (£1), coffee (20p) and tea (10p) tickets. The centre is open from 12-3 every weekday

So quite varied, then…

What we don’t have is accommodation. People often get the wrong end of the stick about that. We’re a day centre.

Primarily, what I want to offer people is a safe space, a place where they will be treated with kindness and respect. We want to make it a positive experience for people to come here. I know it can be scary – it’s a big step for some people.

So the way we treat people here is very important. We know there are people who will leave here at 3pm who will not speak to anyone, because no one will speak to them, until 12pm tomorrow when they come back and we say hello to them again. Put your hand out, shake their hand, touch them. Smile. It’s so important, but for these people it’s not what normally happens. [In the months I’ve spent talking to clients at Ace, this is something that has come up frequently – that it’s the one place where they’re treated with respect and where nobody judges them.]

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There are usually four or five options for lunch, plus a cheaper soup and sandwich service later in the afternoon

How has the number of people that come to Ace changed over the last six years?

When I first became Centre Manager a busy day used to be 30-40 people. Now, an ordinary day is 80-100 and a busy day is a lot more than that.  Some of that is because we have a better chef, but a lot of the issues we talk to people about stem from the cuts.

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How so?

You notice it particularly in front line services, in health and mental health especially. There is very little support left, and when very vulnerable people miss a couple of appointments they’re just taken off the register for that service, as if they no longer need help. There’s so much pressure on these statutory services that as soon as they can relieve themselves of a client, I feel that they do.

There’s a lot of isolation, a lot of loneliness, a lot of neglect. The people who come here are at the fringes of society. In some cases they can’t string a sentence together. There’s nobody left to look after them, no one has any time any more. You feel that there’s no longer any empathy in these services.

Let me give you an example. One client, wearing a T-shirt with more of his dinner down it than it than a small child, who admitted to me that he’s been wearing the same one every day for several months… in his social services meeting they asked if he could manage his washing. He said yes and she just believed him.  This is the problem with our society. People are not using their eyes. They don’t want to see.

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What about benefits? A lot of the organisations I’m working with have told me that changes to the benefits system are at the root of a lot of the cases they deal with.

Yeah, a lot of people come here because of cuts to their benefits, and the speed at which they’re sanctioned these days. People who are clearly in no position to work, whose lives are in chaos, are getting cut, are being sanctioned. And the whole benefits system is now so complicated, people can’t possibly navigate it by themselves. A lot of our clients still like to try and fill out their claims, out of pride, but they don’t understand when they get it wrong and get sanctioned.

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Helping clients to navigate bureaucracy – to find a bed for the night, to sort out their benefits, to register them with a doctor – is one of the most time consuming aspects of Sarah’s job

So do you think the way people are treated by the benefits system has changed?

It’s definitely changed. It’s tougher, more complicated, more demoralising for the people who need it. And it seems to be one of these things that’s done by jobsworths reading from a script, not looking at the person in front of them.

Does being homeless count as something that could go on your Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claim? No, because apparently being homeless isn’t sufficient for you to not be looking for work. I’d argue that having to get up every morning, pack up all your belongings, find somewhere safe to stash them for the day, not have a bathroom to use or anywhere you can wash, is something of a hindrance. But they don’t care.

Organisations that have been cut don’t have enough staff, that’s the reality. People are stretched. They don’t have time to care.

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Amy Hall is part of Guy’s and St Thomas’ Health Inclusion Team. She sees patients every Thursday at Ace

Has Ace of Clubs itself been affected by the cuts?

Fortunately, no. Or at least not directly. We don’t take money from any local authority or Government body. The reason for that is that often council money is restricted to dealing with clients from that borough only. Our policy has always been open access, so our clients can be from wherever. No one has to sign in. No one has to give their name. That’s exactly why people feel comfortable here, because there is no initial interrogation. You can just walk in, pay 10p, have a cup of tea and sleep for three hours.

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Ace’s Director David Logan in his office. Among many other things, David is responsible for bringing in the big donations that keep Ace going

So how are you funded?

We have two charity shops, and a lot of funding comes from fundraising within the local community – Christmas collections, Harvest Festivals, that sort of thing. Then David [Logan, Ace’s Director] does the big applications to people like Pret, the London Community Foundation, Evening Standard Dispossessed Fund, Bank of America.

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And what about other organisations and services that help homeless people in the borough?

We go through the budgets in March or April – just to find out how many hostels in Lambeth have closed. This year, they’re closing one – Ferrini House in Streatham [see my previous post below for more detail]. But Graham House in Vauxhall will become smaller as well.

The other big problem is move-on accommodation. Lambeth is probably better than most boroughs [for homelessness] because it has an assessment centre, which has a crash space. In most other boroughs you just have to go to the hubs in King’s Cross, Shepherd’s Bush and Lewisham. But if the hubs are full, what are you going to do?

People are only supposed to stay at these crash places for a maximum of three weeks, something like that – but there’s so little move-on accommodation left in London now that there’s nowhere for people to go. I’ve got a guy, a client here, who’s been in the assessment centre since before Christmas.

Toni's journey to Brixton

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