Laat month, Zisca Burton stepped onto the stage of the Mariott Hotel in Canary Wharf on behalf of Lewisham charity the 999 Club, to accept the Judges’ choice prize in this year’s Docklands Community Champion Awards. It was a sign of recognition, a prize to praise and celebrate the “unsung heroes” in the communities surrounding the DLR network.
Based in Deptford Broadway, the 999 Club is Lewisham’s homeless shelter and the Mayor of Lewisham’s local charity of choice.
The 999 Club became known after the installation of ten sleeping pods in its night shelter. The Docklands Community award is a further consecration, proof that the shelter’s efforts to help rough sleepers does not go unnoticed.
Tim Fallon, the 999 Club’s chief executive, owes the charity’s success to Lewisham’s sense of community. The charity admits relying heavily on community support and volunteers. And its success has led it to hope to spread out and offer its services to other areas such as Greenwich, Bromley and Bexley.
“I think people like the fact that we’re a small charity with a local identity and that we’re not trying to become a big national charity,” he says. “People like how linked we are to the community, to the colleges or to Goldsmiths, University of London, and how reliant we are on volunteers. They feel like they have a sort of input into what’s happening; it’s not just run by the staff.”
This sense of community helps the charity forge strong relationships with the rough sleepers in Lewisham – regular guests or occasional users. “We probably know everyone in Lewisham that’s rough sleeping,” Fallon says. “The key thing that we’ve noticed through feedback and surveys is how we make people feel. Quite often, homeless people feel like no one wants to talk to them or get to know them. So the main thing we get from our feedback is that we make people feel welcomed. They feel valued and not judged.”
The shelter works to relocate rough sleepers by putting them in contact with landowners or organizing house viewings. It also offers advice to people at risk of accommodation loss; experts are available onsite to help guests, people who apply for benefits claims or identification papers.
“Rough sleepers quite often don’t have anywhere to store any of their belonging, so people come to us without passport or birth certificates, or any form of ID,” says Fallon. “Without those papers, people can’t claim benefits.”
The day centre, known as the Gateway, is open from 9am for rough sleepers and 10:30am for people who need housing advice. The Gateway gives guests the chance to do their laundry, access the Internet, shower, and rest. A GP is available onsite every week, while mental health and drug specialists come every other week.
Burton works as the Learning and Activities Coordinator at the 999 Club. She ensures guests, mostly rough sleepers or people in a housing crisis, “expand their horizons” through the activities and workshops offered at the shelter.
For Burton, the shelter helps “make the homeless feel part of the working world, instead of feeling marginalized.” The activities and courses “equip people with things to put on their CVs; it gives them confidence to go look for jobs and go to interviews.”
The night shelter allows rough sleepers to stay off the street at night; guests can use the overnight facilities for several weeks, provided they sign a contract (reviewed every 28 days) and follow the rules implemented by the shelter, which include a no-alcohol or illicit substances policy and respecting the 8pm to 8am curfew. Users are provided with breakfast and dinner, and are also assigned a case manager to help them with their queries.
The charity aims to provide the rough sleepers an infrastructure and support to stay off the street. For Fallon, the Night Shelter is a temporary measure. “Once they come into the night shelter, we try to get them into longer term housing,” he says. “We’re trying to help them on their journey so they can get accommodation as soon as possible.”
‘Nick’ is a former guest of the 999 Club. Homeless after a family breakdown, he slept in his car for two weeks before Lewisham Council referred him to the homeless shelter. He stayed in the night shelter for 11 weeks before he was able to relocated into supported housing, an opportunity he owes to the charity.
“If it hadn’t been for here, I don’t think I’d be out of homelessness,” he says. “If it wasn’t for this place, and these people, the support we get, the family atmosphere we get, having been outside and homeless, it’s quite special.”
For Nick, being “treated like a human being” made all the difference. “So often when you’re outside, you’re not. When you’re sleeping in your car, or you’re sleeping rough, or wherever you are, you’re treated badly. Here, you’re not; you’re called by your name, you’re respected. And that’s starts you back on the road you need to be in.
“It does more than you think it does, to be here. You feel safe here. The door is shut. Having somewhere to sleep, that’s safe and warm. You feel safe and secure and that’s massive.”
Nick has begun a new journey, and is willing to share his past to help change other’s futures, something that for Fallon remains quite common at the shelter. “Quite often the people we’ve helped and that have gone on to other things want to come back and help other people, and Nick has been quite good at that,” he says. “He wants to come back and see how he can help.
“There are people in the same situation and they really do pull together and work together and that helps create a family setting. There are people going through a difficult time and they can help each other quite a lot, and we support that. Of course, like in any family, there are disagreements and squabbles but mostly they really help each other pull through.”
However, Fallon is conscious of the dependence guests can develop for the shelter. “The balance we want to strike is we don’t want people to become too dependent on us, but we also want them to know we’re here if anything goes wrong.” A balance that is also maintained through follow-ups; the charity remains in contact with most of its former guests. Many, like Nick, come back for the activities or the courses offered by the shelter.