A crowd gathers in Queen’s Gardens in Croydon at 9.30pm every night of the week. It is roughly 90 per cent male, most born local, some foreign and varying in age from the mid-twenties to seventies. It is the first week in February and temperatures are sub-zero. One man is dressed in a big coat, scarf and hat – yet missing socks. Tonight there are 80 people huddled in the crowd; this is not uncommon for a Sunday night, last year the count was over 100.
Sundays are when the carrier bags of groceries are handed out.
The group are patiently waiting for Nightwatch: a voluntary, outreach group who bring supplies to the homeless. Locals founded the group in 1976 after a homeless man named Jamie froze to death in the gardens.
The team visit the same site seven nights a week. There are no paid employees, only volunteers. They bring soup, sandwiches, tea, coffee and anything else donated by local businesses and individuals. As well as providing food they also offer clothing, blankets, sleeping bags and kitchen utensils. Those who find a temporary hostel to sleep in have access to kitchens, but no appliances to cook with.
Volunteers step out of their vehicles armed with supplies. The manner in which those waiting eagerly move towards the volunteers is polite and they exert patience, irrespective of their need.
With hunger in their eyes, they ravenously grab whatever they can. It isn’t something that I’ve seen before.
Homelessness action groups often cite widespread stereotyping of those on the streets as damaging to the cause. Prejudicial preconceptions include the belief that the homeless are ‘down and outs’ who will spend the two pounds you spare them saving for a bottle of Smirnoff. Or the belief that it’s laziness that leads people to beg on the streets whilst scrounging off the state simultaneously. Those depictions are certainly not what I find in Queen’s Gardens.
Jad Adams, Chair of Nightwatch, says: “Homeless people look like everyone else and they are striving to look like everyone else.” Those who appear under the influence of drink and drugs, more often than not owing to addiction, are just the most “visible homeless,” he says.
Adams explains that a large proportion of their clients have an “institutional background in common: children’s homes, mental institutions, prisons and the armed services.”
Mental health problems are common among those on the streets. A 2014 report from the charity Crisis, suggests that 45 per cent of homeless people have a diagnosed mental illness – which is almost double that of the population.
Peter has come to the gardens tonight to receive food. He is currently sleeping on the floor of a friend’s flat but was previously sleeping on the streets. He says: “For four-to-six weeks I was at the mercy, on the streets. I slept under a stairwell of some flats in South Croydon by a church. I would stay in the church grounds until 10:00pm then I would go to the flats.
“I slept out in the open, it was very cold. I would wake up sometimes at 3.30am and catch the bus to the hospital where I could sleep in A&E.”
Peter holds a 2:1 degree in economics and trained as a chartered accountant. He worked straight, for 20 years, however he then could not work for 10 years due to mental illness.
Peter started sleeping on the streets after his rent substantially increased and he could no longer afford it: “I ran out of money and I couldn’t afford the bills so I thought the best thing to do was to go homeless.”
Peter’s case is not a unique one. Jacqui McCluskey, Director of policy and communications at Homeless Link explains: “Without access to affordable housing and support when they reach a time of crisis, many people feel they have little choice but to sleep rough.”
Another man, who didn’t provide his name, comes over to chat to me. He was in the army and talks to me about his service in the Falklands. Motioning to a park bench, he says: “That’s where I sleep, right there.”
He proceeds: “I’ve frozen a couple of times. The ambulance had to come and get me from Lambeth cemetery because I had hypothermia.”
While people briskly walk home to the comforts of their central heating during these winter months, it is evident that there are still many cases where others do not have the same basic right of a home. It was the case for Jamie in 1976; almost forty years later it is the case for the many who wait in Queens Gardens every night of the week.
Download the app ‘Streetlink,’ free of charge from Homeless Link. This allows you to send an alert when you see someone sleeping rough. Homeless link will then pass this on to the relevant Local Authority who will send an outreach team to find them.