There are now 69 people sleeping rough on the streets of Croydon, more than double 2014’s numbers as local authorities and volunteers try to cope with the crisis in homelessness across the capital this Christmas.
In an October survey, which is yet to be released, the Croydon-based homelessness organisation Nightwatch and Croydon Council counted people sleeping rough in the borough.
Even with the Council’s narrow classifications – people sleeping in bus shelters are counted, while people who catch night busses for a warm place to spend the night are not – there were 18 more people sleeping on the street than in 2015.
“This is the highest I’ve ever known it,” said Jad Adams, Nightwatch’s chair. “Still, we’d add quite a few people [to the count], as by anyone’s estimations, they are homeless too.”
As well as counting more rough sleepers on the street, the charity has also recorded a spike in people that they serve at their Sunday trips to Queen’s Gardens in central Croydon, where they hand out food, clothes and utensils to people in need.
In 2003, there was an average of 30 people waiting in the park to receive goods. By 2015, this number had risen to 76.
Croydon is one of the top 15 homelessness hotspots across England, according to Shelter’s latest calculations. All are in London, and include all of ELL’s boroughs. Hackney is sixth in the list and Tower Hamlets at eighth. Croydon is thirteen and Lewisham one place after.
At 8pm on a Sunday night in early December, Don, a gardener in his sixties, is already heating up soup in two big saucepans at Nightwatch’s base in the centre of Croydon. Other volunteers arrive, and start packing up donations of food and toiletries in blue plastic bags. The volunteers arrive shivering; it’s a biting two degrees outside.
Nana, 36, is one of these volunteers. The civil servant became involved with Nightwatch in 2002. “I’d just finished university and I thought I’d just do it for one Christmas, but I’m still here,” she says as she folds a donated duvet. “I like this job helping people. It’s nice to feel like you’re doing something with your life.”
She’s known some of the regulars for years, and has formed strong bonds with them. “When people die, it’s painful. You’ve known them for years,” she says. “People can’t last that long on the streets. It’s so hard on their health. People don’t get that much nutrition.”
At 9.30pm, everyone heads to Queen’s Gardens park to meet the 70 people gathered to receive food, toiletries and clothing. Religious groups sometimes chip in with food, and tonight a group of men from a Sikh temple hand out steaming curry.
People mill about, chatting and eating. “It seems like chaos, but it’s not just about handing out goods and getting people in and out,” a volunteer in her twenties says. “These nights are also community building. It’s where people come together to talk and socialise.”
A Polish man asks Adams for some “job shoes”, or work boots. He says he works as a builder and has been in England for three years.
“A lot of Eastern Europeans that we see are literally ‘tramping’ in the old sense of the word – travelling about looking for work,” says Adams, who finds some size 10 steel-capped shoes in the boot of his car. “They work cash in hand, so we put in a lot of effort for them to get National Insurance numbers and bank accounts.”
A Bulgarian woman in her fifties and her suitcase is hurriedly dropped off by a car, which whizzes away into the night. She looks dazed, and in broken English tells us she was thrown out of the house she was staying with friends, and referred here by the police.
She has nowhere to stay tonight.
The police know that Nightwatch can’t do much, but “they know we’ll be sympathetic,” says Adams. Nightwatch, which hasn’t run a temporary shelter since the mid-90s, has no choice but to leave her in the park. Adams calls the national charity Homeless Link to notify them, but is put straight through to answerphone.
“The worst aspect of this job is finding someone in distress and not being able to help them,” says Adams. “There’s no emergency accommodation centre in Croydon. We do have the church’s floating shelter service, and access to that is controlled by the council.”
“When people are between 18 and retirement the council has no obligation to them at all unless they have severe needs,” says Adams. “They have an obligation to give advice to single homeless people,” but nothing else. Even asylum seekers have been wrongly referred to Nightwatch for help.
“Croydon Council do use bed and breakfasts for cold weather provisions, but they don’t pay towards the floating shelter, or give us any money either.”
It was revealed in March this year that nearly half of Croydon’s homeless families have been living in temporary accommodation for over three years. It has also been named as the third worst borough for vacant houses in London.
However on 6 December, Croydon council approved an investment of a further £15m into the Real Lettings Fund, a joint scheme with charity St Mungo’s that helps households at risk of homelessness to get private rented properties.
The scheme has already received £30m from the council, who say it cuts the amount of money the council needs to spend on emergency bed and breakfasts. The extra money will provide a further 47 two-bedroom properties to the program which already houses 169 people.
Councillor Alison Butler, Cabinet Member for Homes, Regeneration and Planning, said: “We recognise there is a housing crisis in Croydon and we need to do more.”
She said the extra money “will support dozens more households into a place of their own, help tackle demand and further cut our use of emergency accommodation, which is not only bad for families but expensive for the council.”
Earlier this month, Croydon Council celebrated being awarded a second-place prize by the London Homelessness Awards for its “groundbreaking” Gateway initiative. According to the Council, Gateway has “helped more than 1,000 families avoid homelessness, 5,400 people to become more financially independent, and over 600 into employment.”
In a joint statement to ELL, Croydon Council and London Housing Foundation – one of the sponsors of the award – said: “Rough sleeping is an increasing problem across London. The London Borough of Croydon has a number of projects in place to support vulnerable people and work with rough sleepers.”
“The London Housing Awards judging panel recognises the importance of the Gateway scheme in providing support and assistance to those in need and help avoid homelessness.”
Croydon experienced welfare changes including benefits caps in 2013, when over £8m benefits were lost in the borough.
A nationwide report from the homelessness charity Shelter, released last week, ranked Croydon 13th in the country for areas with the worst levels of rough sleeping and people in temporary accommodation.
According to the charity, 7,716 of Croydon’s population of 173,000 are currently living in temporary accommodation, and 1 in every 49 people in the borough are experiencing some form of homelessness. Their research is based on government figures from 2015.
Lee, 22, from Croydon:
“I’ve been homeless for three months. I was doing well, before. I was renting a room from a private landlord. He sold the house and didn’t give me my deposit back and he kept all my stuff. My mum can’t have me stay at her’s, so I had to resign from my restaurant job. I’m waiting for the council to help me but it’s taking a while. It’s so cold. I’ve got a bad chest infection; I can’t stand much more. And when you live on the streets you find yourself doing bad things, things you would never do before.
I used to sleep in a car park but now it’s too cold so I try and find somewhere enclosed. The other day we got soaked in the rain. We were out in the street with no sleeping bags, nothing. My lips went blue. It was horrible. The next day I went into a pub and sat under the drier for about four hours to get warm.”
Shelter’s Top 15 Homeless Hotspots
Below are the number of people living in temporary accommodation followed by the number of people sleeping rough and the rate of people who are homeless per head of the population.
1. Westminster, London: 7,794, 265, 1/25
2. Newham, London: 12,218, 28, 1/27
3. Haringey, London: 9,447, 22, 1/28
4. Kensington and Chelsea, London: 4,550, 24, 1/30
5. Brent, London: 10,527, 55, 1/33
6. Hackney, London: 7,754, 20, 1/34
7. Enfield, London: 9,278, 7, 1/35
8. Tower Hamlets, London: 7,335, 12, 1/37
9. Waltham Forest, London: 7,239, 33, 1/38
10. Barking and Dagenham, London: 5,167, 20, 1/40
11. Barnet, London: 7,719, 21, 1/48
12. Redbridge, London: 6,094, 43, 1/48
13. Croydon, London: 7,716, 51, 1/49
14. Lewisham, London: 5,772, 9, 1/50
15. Ealing, London: 6,892, 31, 1/53