When Croydon was hit by riots last year, dozens of local families who had lost their homes to arson found themselves living on the streets. Local homelessness charity Nightwatch was well equipped to offer assistance after having run resettlement programmes for more than ten years.
While the council found new accommodation for the displaced, Nightwatch furnished the properties of those who were rehoused. The charity was able to provide support for 11 families, supplying new bedding, crockery, pots and cutlery.
In addition to resettlement assistance, each night of the year charity volunteers meet homeless people in Queen’s Gardens in central Croydon; offering food, clothing, advice and guidance.
When Croydon resident Tony Sewell, 43, started volunteering 14 years ago, teams used to see a steady 30-40 people a night seeking assistance. With the increasingly tough economic climate, last month Nightwatch saw their highest ever number of cases – in excess of 90 people on just one night.
Tony began volunteering with Nightwatch when he felt unhappy working as a data analyst for an electricity company. He was introduced to the charity through a family friend and after work one Friday he went along to see what the charity did.
“I got really captivated with Nightwatch and I had a sense of fulfillment of my Christian faith. It was about giving back into the community, it’s not just a buzzword but also its something that is real and tangible. I felt a sense of purpose.”
In 2001 while attending Nightwatch Tony met a homeless person who had been badly beaten by members of the public. Tony wanted to find out more about the man and began advocacy work for his case to help integrate him back into society.
Now Tony works full time in the resettlement service for a local authority, while still being the team leader for the Friday night team.
“Homelessness is just a word away from anyone”, Tony said in an interview with ELL. “I’ve seen someone who was medical student. He got stressed out and resigned from his hospital job but couldn’t get benefits and he lost his home. We have also had ex-millionaires, it really can happen to anybody.”
The charity, which was founded in 1976 by locals, has over 160 volunteers from all different backgrounds and beliefs.
Tony’s 19-year old daughter Naomi and wife Florence also help out. Now at university studying law, his daughter still has time to join the Friday team most weeks.
Tony explained: “Our volunteers are either retired so they can give that time, or they have to work and then give their spare time. The most valuable asset we can give in Nightwatch is time.”
Last year Nightwatch won the Team London Award from Mayor Boris Johnson and has more recently received the voluntary group of the year award from Croydon Council.
Despite this, the charity’s Lottery funding ended this year after eight years, with the Lottery stating that tracking and reporting on the project’s progress was not as strong as other applicants.
“Nightwatch is about 95% funded by the goodwill of the community. In a recession it’s hard and people tighten up their belts but the community still give and it is very much appreciated.”
As Tony and the other volunteers look to the future of Nightwatch, homelessness is always going to be an issue. “In a world of utopia, you wouldn’t get people living on the streets. We would have moved on from that chapter”, he said: “But as long as there is a need, Nightwatch will be available to meet it. It is a lifeline for so many people.”
For more information on how you can help, visit the Nightwatch website.