From being homeless to helping those still on the streets during the pandemic

Amy’s Space logo. Pic: Amy’s Space

Sixty per cent of England’s homeless population are living on the streets of London. On any given night, it has been estimated that 280,000 people sleep rough across England, 170,068 on the cold, hard and dangerous streets of our capital. 

In Tower Hamlets alone, this figure stands at 459, making it the sixth worst borough for homelessness in London- according to Statitsa. In Croydon the homelessness number is at 306, in Hackney 275 and 229 in Lewisham.

Debbie Brown, 52, is one of many people who have experienced the loneliness and emotional plight of being homeless. After eight years of never having the opportunity to call a place home, Brown transformed her life for the better and created a voluntary community group to help the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham. Brown later named this group, ‘Amy’s Space’.

In August, 2018 Brown chose to start Amy’s Space as a way to help those that had supported her and as an act of remembrance to her late child, Amy Louise. Brown said: “I was homeless myself for eight years. So, when I got my flat in 2018 [in Beckton, Newham]. I felt really guilty because I left a lot of people out there. The homeless community saved me from myself. So, me and some friends got together and formed Amy’s space”.

Debbie Brown started Amy’s Space in 2018. Pic: Debbie Brown

Pre-pandemic, Amy’s Space had up to fifty volunteers but now due to government guidelines and restrictions, the group have had to cut these numbers to just ten, making aiding those in need a lot harder. Although, this hasn’t stopped the group from working tirelessly to help and support the communities of Newham and Tower Hamlets by providing lifesaving items such as clothing, toiletries, surplus food supplies, sleeping bags and much more. The majority of the volunteers at Amy’s Space have come from a background of trauma with many having had experienced homelessness themselves.

The groups community hub is located on Pepper Street in the Isle of Dogs with a further site that is currently being used as a storage and office space at Custom House in Silvertown, Newham. Both sites are open most days excluding Saturday and Monday afternoons.

However, with Government restrictions surplus food/items are being placed outside both locations for those in need to take. Brown said: “We are unable to set a scheduled time as the whole thing is volunteer led. The best way to keep up to date is on our page”.

Since the pandemic struck last March, Amy’s Space stepped up, acting as a backbone for the community whilst offering help to anyone and everyone in need. The group largely extended their services by helping those that had been hit hard by the benefit system or those who had lost their jobs to the repercussions of Covid. 

Brown said: “It’s really sad. People just haven’t had the backup money to cope. It’s basically a situation of heat or eat, so if they put money on their gas, they haven’t got nappies or food. We’ve literally gone from providing outreach services to providing anything.”

Suggestions that local authority efforts during the pandemic have reduced homelessness numbers are wrong, says Brown: “There has been a massive rise.” Brown suggests that this was down to the mishandling of offering homeless people a place to stay over the first lockdown. “Believe it or not, it’s not very easy to come off the streets. These guys, some of them are really conditioned, I know people that still sleep on the floor even though they have a flat.”

“There’s addiction problems, problems around budgeting their money and personal hygiene problems. There’s lots of problems and when you put these guys in hotels. Yes, they should be happy that they’re getting three meals a day but when there’s no other support there, you’re setting them up to fail. So, a lot of them wouldn’t go back in making a massive increase now.”

Brown said there should be a wraparound service where individuals receive help for mental and physical issues as well as being given a dedicated worker for around the clock support.

Volunteers making sandwiches for the homeless. Pic: Amy’s Space

Brown described her life before she began to help others: “Chaos led up to this. I was abused as a young child and lived a chaotic life. I told my parents throughout my life about the abuse and wasn’t believed. I walked into a police station to make a statement about my abuse. Within a week I’d had a complete nervous breakdown and was admitted to Newham mental health unit. I was diagnosed with five different mental health issues and then I was released to the street. I’ve definitely slept in my fair share of bin sheds but I’ve fought through it.”

Browns life changed after getting referred to Anchor House in Newham -a homeless charity that provides accommodation and life skills support. Brown said she arrived with no money or birth certificate: “I had nothing so a friend of mine paid for my birth certificate and for my admittance.”

After three years of living in Anchor House, Brown volunteered, became involved in outreach work, raised money and created her own market stall. “In 2018 I was nominated for my property, so that was great! I got my property on the 27 of July and started Amy’s Space on August 1 so I was only moved in a few days when that started. The flat was not decorated, no flooring…nothing and I just built an empire.”

Brown added: “For me, I believe that if I can be the person that I needed when I was in crisis then I’m winning.”

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