The housing crisis: As homelessness soars to record levels, how one East End charity helps

Rough sleeping in London Pic: Thames Menteth

London has seen rates of rough sleeping soar Pic: Thames Menteth

In the final part of our series on housing, Thames Menteth-Wheelwright reports on how one East End charity is helping the homeless this Christmas; video by Parisa Borghei.

A local charity is giving generously this holiday season as they take a more thorough and personal approach to tackling homelessness.

GrowTH is a Tower Hamlets based charity which operates emergency night shelters for homeless people across the borough. The shelters can sleep up to 15 homeless men and women per night, who are given hot meals and linked with an advocate worker to help assist them into permanent accommodation once their 28-night stay comes to an end.

When it was started in 2010 by a group of local churches who realised their church halls could be used to house the homeless, GrowTH ran for four months. Now, because of increasing demand, it keeps its shelters open for seven months each year.

“This time of the year we get a lot of referrals”, Matt Endersby, operations manager at GrowTH, told ELL. The shelters, the first of which opened for the season on November 1, are run out of 23 churches and community centres across the borough with the help of more than 450 local volunteers.

Read all the stories in the housing crisis series:

Recent figures show that homelessness and rough sleeping in Tower Hamlets has reached critical levels. The borough saw a 91% increase in those sleeping on the streets between 2016 and 2017, a trend that Endersby recognises.

Such is the demand for the shelters that the team at GrowTH “aim to get every bed filled every night”, said Endersby. There is also a waiting list for guests if a place becomes available.

Free hot meals are served each night at the shelters Pic: Thames Menteth Wheelwright

Gerry Hamilton, a new volunteer at GrowTH, believes that soaring rates of homelessness in Tower Hamlets are because people are being priced out of the borough.

“I’m astonished to think why haven’t these people got a flat? … The amount of buildings and houses that are empty in Tower Hamlets is diabolical.”

Born and raised in Poplar, Hamilton has seen the Docklands and surrounding areas change drastically in his lifetime. “People are being evicted with three kids because they can’t pay the last month’s rent”, he said.

While Hamilton calls GrowTH “a drop in the ocean” of what’s possible, he believes more schemes like this could make a difference. “The change it can have on someone’s life is tremendous.”



One of those fortunate enough to recently get a place is a 50-year-old man who goes by the name of Kino. At Hanbury Hall, an historic chapel in Spitalfields used as a GrowTH shelter on Monday night’s, he told ELL that he was “desperately seeking to rent an apartment.”

Kino was made homeless after the ending of a long-term relationship plunged him into depression. He couldn’t work or pay rent; when his eviction notice came the case was taken to court and Kino had to pay fees of £1500.

Kino, who worked as a hair stylist for 25 years and had always rented privately in the area, registered with homeless charity Crisis in Tower Hamlets and was referred to the night shelter through Providence Row.

GrowTH volunteers Fiona and Rasmus Koefed-Jesperson preparing food for guests

GrowTH volunteers Fiona and Rasmus Koefed-Jesperson preparing food for guests Pic: Thames Menteth

The private rental sector is an increasingly unaffordable option for people like Kino. While the average cost of a property in Tower Hamlets is now around 14 times what a typical worker earns, across the UK increased rates of homelessness are from the sharp rise in numbers evicted from the private rented sector.

Fancis who was born in South Africa and has lived in Enfield for most of his life, was referred to GrowTH through Crisis and like Kino, it’s his first time being homeless. Like Hamilton, he blames lack of housing and the economy for the current crisis.

“It all started with the crash in 2008,” said Francis. “Maybe it’s the way that you people voted on Brexit”, he said laughing. He added: “The official stats on homelessness, I don’t think they reflect the reality of this crowd.”

All guests are provided with beds at GrowTH night shelters Pic: Thames Menteth Wainwright

According to Endersby, the two men at Hanbury Hall are typical examples of the kinds of people who they see at the shelter.

“The majority I’d say have more recently become homeless… They’re anyone like you or me who have just hit a crisis and they need a safety net to catch them, so that’s what we’re here for”, he said.

Endersby emphasised that the charity really does make a difference in the lives of these people: “Seeing people come from rock bottom on the streets and now in housing, or married, or in work… it’s really rewarding.”

Last year, GrowTH helped 57 guests move into more permanent accommodation, 40% of all those who stayed in the shelter; another 42 were assisted into further temporary shelter.

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