Last month I spent a night at a winter homeless shelter in Wandsworth, run by the charity Glass Door. I wanted to understand why rough sleeping in England has risen so relentlessly since 2010 – up 16% last year and 30% the year before. I talked to guests, staff and volunteers about the disparate problems that had brought people there, the Government cutbacks that are making the situation worse, and what life on the streets of South London is really like…
When I arrive at St Mark’s, Peter is already waiting outside. We nod hello to each other and then Ben, Glass Door’s Night Shelter Manager, lets us in. It’s 6.30pm, an hour and a half before the doors officially open, and the volunteers are busy preparing for the evening’s guests.
There are seven churches on this borough’s circuit, each responsible for one night of the week. It’s a simple set up: sleeping bags and mats on the floor, coffee, tea, dinner and breakfast, in and out in 11 hours. Ben is overseeing tonight’s programme, but volunteers will cook and serve the food.
What makes Glass Door different from some other winter shelters is that they will take pretty much anyone – including drug addicts, people with profound mental health problems and ex-offenders with a history of violence.
Some temporary shelters, including Lambeth’s equivalent scheme, Robes, are run entirely by volunteers. They provide a vital service, but they’re not equipped to manage the highest risk clients. Glass Door’s model is to be open to all, and so they hire paid, trained staff, as well as recruiting volunteers, so that they can accept more challenging referrals.
I learnt about Glass Door through Ace of Clubs, the day centre for homeless people in Clapham where I’ve spent time over the last year. They regularly refer people to Glass Door, including those the other shelters won’t take.
As the sun goes down over the South Circular, it’s a relatively warm March evening. There will be no frost tonight. But the improvement in the weather is bittersweet for the guests here. It marks the end of winter shelter season. Nine days after my stay temporary shelters like this start to close across the capital. Those guests who haven’t found housing will go back to sleeping on the streets.
There are a few shelters that open year-round, but they are heavily oversubscribed and Government cuts to local authority budgets have ensured that what beds remain are declining. Follow-on accommodation – bridging the gap between shelters and proper tenancies – is now almost non-existent in London.
Glass Door sleeps around 95 people each night from November to early April across their three circuits – Wandsworth, Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea. “Without much effort we could fill that again,” says Ben. “I think the waiting list has never got below 70.”
Glass Door has been helping homeless people in London for 18 years. Originally offering soup, bread and a place to sleep through the coldest months, they now help people into housing and employment year-round as well. “Last year we got about 125 people into accommodation,” Ben says. But it’s getting harder. “Because of the cuts, local authorities are using the letter of the law, more and more, to get out of their obligations.”
While the volunteers lay out tables and cook tonight’s dinner – tomato soup, spaghetti Bolognese and bread and butter pudding – I talk to Peter. He’s 61, has chronic emphysema and has suffered several heart attacks. Every day he has to take 24 tablets and use two inhalers. In the two weeks since he first came to Glass Door, he’s been hospitalised three times.
The doctors tell him he doesn’t have long to live, and yet each time they’ve discharged him from St Thomas’ straight into the care of a shelter where he sleeps on the floor. “They’ve told me there’s nothing they can do for me,” he says. “They can stabilise me, but then they have to let me go.”
Peter was born in France but moved to the UK with his family when he was three. He lived and worked here for more than fifty years before he moved back to France when his aunt, who he’d cared for, died. But his health rapidly deteriorated, and he ended up in a coma in a Calais hospital for a month. Uninsured, he racked up huge medical bills, which wiped out his savings, leaving him with just £200. Unable to pay his rent and not knowing what else to do, he packed a bag and took a ferry back to the UK. That was a month ago.
“I caught the coach to Victoria and I stood there, in Victoria Station, thinking ‘what the hell do I do now? I’m 61 years old. How has it come to this?’” That first night he slept under a motorway bridge because he was too scared to sleep out in central London. The next night he collapsed and was rushed to St Thomas’ hospital. When they let him out, they referred him to Glass Door, and he’s been a guest ever since – albeit with three further stints in hospital.
“The people out there, on the street, they look at you like you’re something they just trod in,” he says. “The volunteers here, they don’t condemn you, they don’t judge you.” I ask him what he would have done if he hadn’t got a place here. He pauses. “To be honest, I’d either have done myself in, or died on the streets. That’s the truth.”
Tonight St Mark’s Battersea Rise is providing food and shelter for 25 men. Some shelters on the circuit cater for women, but this church has only one available room, and Ben says it wouldn’t be safe to mix. He explains, however, that demand from women is much lower – other services exist to help. “The women we see tend to be more high need [as a result],” he says. “If you’ve gone through the other safety nets then you probably have severe and enduring mental health problems – or you’re a female migrant who has no access to public funding.”
The doors open just before 8pm and tonight’s guests file in. Volunteers offer hot drinks and hand out name badges, although most people seem to know each other already. Some are laughing and joking, others shuffle up the stairs in silence. One man is clearly very unwell and sits down on the floor clutching his stomach.
Ben introduces me to James – smartly dressed in a shirt and tie, smiley and chatty. He looks far removed from a stereotypical vision of a homeless person. He’s 56, and started sleeping rough in November last year.
“I was sleeping in bus shelters, bus stations, parks – anywhere dark where no-one would see me,” he says.” Sometimes at night it got so cold that the best thing to do was not to sleep, but just walk.”
James’ background is in transport. A couple of years ago he had an accident and broke his neck and back. He was lucky to survive. “That’s when my problems started,” he says. “There was a long recovery, but I got back into work quickly. A bit too quickly, because I put myself back in hospital – twice.”
Injured and unemployed, the bills started to build up. “It was a domino effect,” he says. “Main thing was not being able to pay the rent. I didn’t want to go to the social, but eventually I had to. But it takes so long to get things sorted that by then it was too late. Eventually I just packed my bags and was gone. Bad decision when you think about it, but I just wanted a bit of peace and quiet. I thought I could sort myself out later.”
From late November to early January he moved around, rarely sleeping in the same place twice. “I did my washing and shaving in a park, or in McDonald’s,” he says. “You get a cup of water then go into a cubicle – it’s like a bed bath in hospital. You make sure your feet are clean – that way your socks last a bit longer. You adapt.”
I ask what it felt like that first night when he left home. “It was quite surreal, actually,” he says. “It was getting a bit chilly in the early hours, so I walked from North-West London to South-West London. It was a long walk, but there was something calm about it. The harsh reality sets in the next day and the day after.”
He explains how he learnt to survive in those early days. “I had a little bit of money left, and I was budgeting on about £1 a day,” he says. “I could get a tin of fish and some bread for that. I was looking for bargains at the supermarkets – they do late night throw outs where they reduce everything. But I missed tea, that was a big one.”
When he first went to see the council back in Wandsworth to ask for help, they initially didn’t believe he was homeless because he looked so clean. They had no bed for him, but they introduced him to Glass Door, who found a place for him. “It pains me to sleep on the floor like this, with my injuries – but I’m very grateful,” he says. “It’s much nicer than the pavement. Warmer, safer and dry.”
He says the social aspect is important as well. “It’s lonely, when you’re on the streets. You feel you’re losing contact with the world. No communication really at all, except maybe if you go into a supermarket. But here, everyone’s in the same boat and there’s loads of good banter.”
He’s currently working with one of the Glass Door team to apply for jobs, and temping. He’s confident that he’ll be back in full-time work soon. Accommodation is another matter, however. “That’s the million-dollar question,” he says. “I’m not dwelling on that yet, because I need to focus on finding a job. I have irons in the fire, so hopefully something will come of that.”
Ben is the youngest person I talk to. He’s just 21, but has been sleeping rough on and off for two years. “I’d lose jobs, or something would go wrong, and there was no-one to catch me,” he says. His mother died when he was four, and he was kicked out of home at 18 by his stepmother. Initially, he managed. “I was working – doing building work, labouring, bits of painting and decorating – so I got my own flat.” But the work proved too irregular to keep it, he says. “So I slept on Clapham Common, Wandsworth Common, night buses, the night tube.”
Sometimes he gets work, sometimes he doesn’t. The night we meet he has a job on a site in Croydon the next day. But he’s not earning enough to afford regular accommodation yet.
“Before I was homeless this time, I was getting a bit of cash in hand work and living in a hostel. Really cheap, about £12 a night. Then work dried up and I was back out on the street. I was out last time for four months. It’s tough, but you get used to it. It changes you. You appreciate the basic things in life, like something to eat, a shower, washing your clothes. And talking to someone.” He looks around the room. “It’s funny. After a while, it starts to feel strange just being inside.”
Ben isn’t the only person I speak to who’s working tomorrow. After dinner, I meet Herve, a 58-year-old antiques dealer from France. He was in the process of setting up a business importing artefacts from Mali when war broke out. He lost everything and fled to the UK with his English partner. Their relationship then broke down and he ended up sleeping rough for nine months.
“At first you feel a bit ashamed not to have organised anything better for yourself,” he says. “It’s very strange. People do not see you. You could be in the middle of the street, but it’s not their problem.”
“When I tell people I don’t have an address, they don’t understand how I function,” he continues. “But I live a perfectly normal life. I’m working tomorrow morning. It’s just that I have this problem at night where I don’t know where to sleep.”
After dinner, people plug in their phones and unroll their sleeping bags. I notice a few power bricks – a vital accessory if you’re expecting calls from employers but don’t know when you’ll next be able to access electricity.
A few people stay up chatting, or go for a last smoke outside, but most bed down early. Shortly after 10pm, the lights go out. Ben and I continue talking quietly by the light of his phone. Slowly, as people nod off, the cacophony begins. It’s an extraordinary sound – a chorus of roaring snores, hacking coughs, jitters, spasms and rustles, and people talking, moaning and even shouting in their sleep. All par for the course here. “Sometimes you almost want to stay out there it’s so bad,” Ben says.
By 11pm, we’re all down. As part of my initiation, Peter and Ben have placed my mat next to the room’s worst snorer. They say they want me to get the authentic Glass Door experience. “It takes a couple of weeks, but then you get used to it,” Ben assures me. But of course despite the fact that I get no sleep at all – my ear plugs prove no match for my neighbour’s sinus problems – there is nothing authentic about my stay at St Mark’s. I get to go home afterwards.
When the lights come on at 6am I notice several berths have already been vacated. James has left for a temp job, Herve is setting up his stall.
As I tuck into toast and a cup of tea, I’m introduced to Sam, from Brixton. Two days ago he was released from prison after serving 10 years for robbery. He tells me he has longstanding problems with his mental health and addiction. In the past, when prisoners were released they were offered temporary accommodation to help them reintegrate into society, and reduce the chances of them reoffending. Those days are largely gone. When Sam got out, there was nowhere for him to go. He spent two nights sleeping outside a supermarket before being referred to Glass Door by his probation officer.
“I can understand that when people come out they shouldn’t just expect somewhere to go,” he says. “But I think it makes it 99.9% easier for people to stop committing crimes, to stay off the drink and start bettering their lives. If you’ve got no roof over your head, you can’t do anything. And to be honest with you, I’d rather be back inside than sleep on the streets.”
The previous evening I asked Ben, the manager, about the impact of austerity on homelessness. He’s worked in the sector for nearly 18 years, including six seasons at Glass Door. Cuts to probation are first on his list. “There’s a crisis in the prison service,” he says. “There simply isn’t an adequate service for making sure that people coming out of prison are housed. Ask any probation officer what the reoffending rates are for people who are unhoused and they are something like eight times higher than for a person who is housed. So by cutting the prison service, we are increasing crime levels.”
Cuts to local authority budgets have also had a big impact, he says. “Because of the cuts, everything is being questioned. When people are assessed for housing, the test is, are you able to find your own accommodation? That’s an opinion, and it gives local authorities a lot of leeway.” They’re in a tough position, though, he says. “There aren’t any low priority beds any more. And so the threshold [for how vulnerable you need to be to get help] is getting higher and higher.”
Have numbers coming to Glass Door risen since he started? “I know the numbers [of people sleeping rough] have increased nationally, and the numbers have increased in London,” he says. “But where we’ve really seen the difference is the quality. It’s the level of chaos – people coming to us straight from prison, being discharged directly from hospital to us.”
By 7am we all have to be out. The church resumes its normal functions. Some people will join the commuters and go to work. Many, like Peter, will simply wander the streets until day centres like Ace of Clubs open, where they can shower, wash their clothes and eat lunch. They close at four, so then it’s more wandering until Glass Door reopens at 8pm.
I head back to my bed. To my shower. My fridge. My roof. Things I take utterly for granted.
That homelessness exists at all in a country with the fifth largest economy in the world is shameful. That it is growing so quickly, propelled by Government policy, is a scandal.
Glass Door gets no Government funding. Neither does the Robes project in Lambeth. And yet local authorities increasingly rely on shelters like these to fulfil their statutory responsibilities to house people, relinquishing what little accommodation they still have to plug the holes in their budgets that austerity has created. It is not a sustainable situation.
“There is no move-on accommodation left,” says Ben. “We’re not building enough housing and there isn’t enough rent control. So it’s going to get worse and worse and worse. And we are the absolute bottom of the safety net.”