A protest camp outside London’s St Paul’s cathedral has become a magnet for rough sleepers. So why are they flocking to the site and are homelessness charities right to be concerned? Alex Wellman investigates.
The business card handed to me is made of thin paper and has a Christmas sticker with a west London address for a place called St Paul’s Close on the back.
‘Roger Choules,’ it says, ‘Insegnante Professionale D’Inglese’ - roughly translating from Italian as ‘English teacher’.
With a long, grey beard, white eye patch and straggly hair, Mr Choules, the man who has just handed me the card, looks to have lived every minute of his 67 years to the full. It also looks as though he has his addresses confused because we are not at St Paul’s Close, Ealing, but at St Paul’s cathedral in central London.
A former rough sleeper, Mr Choules says he has come to the Occupy London protest camp at the cathedral to offer support. He fills water bottles at home in Ealing, puts them in a trolley and gets on the tube to bring them to St Paul’s where he hands them out to protestors camped outside the iconic building.
Twiddling a Centrepoint keyring through his fingers, Mr Choules says he has not slept rough for a number of years and now has ‘a nice little place’ in Ealing.
‘I just come down to help out really,’ he says. ‘Most of the guys here are very welcoming and I know for a fact that people [rough sleepers] have been put up here.’
Protestors have been onsite since mid-October, demanding a better share for the ‘99 per cent’ of people they say don’t benefit from the current political and financial system.
In that time, homeless people or those recently off the streets have come to the camp to join in, seemingly attracted by the inclusive, if rather vague, political ideology and the promise of food and shelter. But there are growing concerns that the camp is exacerbating homelessness in the area. Last week Inside Housing reported that rough sleeping has increased in the City of London by 25 per cent from 20 people to 25 since the camp was set up.
So why are homeless people drawn to the site, what is the protestors’ view of the situation and what are charities doing to tackle the problem?
Help or hindrance?
Homelessness charities, including No Second Night Out - the mayor of London’s scheme to prevent anyone spending more than one night on the street - fear rough sleepers are being diverted from established services that could help get them into stable housing. They also fear that when Occupy London eventually packs up and leaves, these often vulnerable people will have that support suddenly removed.
‘I would have a concern that it [the St Paul’s camp] is a magnet,’ says Howard Sinclair, chief executive of charity Broadway, which is responsible for supporting rough sleepers in the City of London. ‘Our concern is when the camp goes, for whatever reason, what we don’t want is that a significant number of people have gone there, lost their accommodation and are back on the streets.’
Protestors argue that by helping rough sleepers they are merely filling the widening void left by public service cuts. The camp has taken on responsibility of providing support with a ‘welfare tent’ which protestors can go to for advice on a range of issues from mental health to housing.
Alison Playford, a protestor who has been camping since day one, has been at the forefront of setting up the welfare tent. She says she shares Broadway’s concerns about the long-term welfare of the rough sleepers - but says it is a situation out of the protestors’ control.
‘That is a huge concern, especially if people feel that it is great to have a community and then to leave them high and dry is hugely worrying,’ she says. ‘I have heard people say that [homeless people are leaving hostel accommodation] but we are not encouraging that.
‘If they choose to do that, we can’t control it - we are just trying to do the best we can by them while they are here.’
Petra Silva, director of No Second Night Out, disagrees with the way the camp is providing street-based support to rough sleepers. ‘Anything that is set up to provide food or advice from the street will get more people out and is not best placed to provide support,’ she explains. ‘We provide services off the streets for a reason [to get people inside] and I am doing everything in my power to get Londoners to think differently about how they help people.
‘There are plenty of services off the streets and that [welfare tent] would worry me greatly.’
Occupy London has always said that the camp is a ‘beacon’ for marginalised people and that the welfare tent would provide access to and signpost people to mental health, alcohol, drug and homelessness services.
Ms Playford says the main focus is to provide support to people who are already in the camp, but that they would not send new people away ‘willy nilly’.
‘Right from the start there have been homeless people here,’ she adds. ‘A lot of the rough sleepers have just got on the case and become part of the vibrant community. You only have problems if people have drug or alcohol problems and that is something we need to manage. We have had a handful of not good incidents [involving aggressive behaviour].’
Broadway’s Mr Sinclair says the charity reacted to the camp as soon as it arrived. ‘We have had informal contact pretty much right from the beginning,’ he says. ‘It’s our job on behalf of the City of London to do that.’
The charity has extended its service in the rest of the City of London to the camp, identifying rough sleepers, talking to them and offering support networks.
‘We want to make sure they don’t lose accommodation if they have it, or if they have medication they don’t forget to take it, or if they need to go to the jobcentre to sign on,’ he says. ‘That practical level of support we offer.’
Mr Sinclair adds that Broadway is not involved in the camp’s welfare tent because it does not want to alter the way it offers its services, but leaflets explaining what the charity does and how to contact it have been given to protesters to hand out in the tent.
Joy Hollister, director of community at the City of London Corporation, is clear about the effect the camp is having on local rough sleeping numbers. ‘The more services that are put on there, the more it’s going to attract people,’ she says. ‘Broadway is acting as a bridge between us and the camp and it is identifying vulnerable people. The danger now is how many more is this going to bring in? The message we are getting back is there is an increase [in rough sleepers] and it is directly attributable to the camp.’
Ms Hollister says the corporation does not want to dictate the way the camp runs its services but that she would like the protestors to work with it through Broadway. ‘We have said we will give the camp a list of details for agencies that can help,’ she adds.
Somewhere to belong
Most homeless visitors to the camp gravitate to a tent offering food and drink which protestors pay for through donations. It is here the sense of community in the camp is most evident. People sit inside playing guitars, singing and eating sandwiches.
Right next door in a tent lit only by a small candle sits a high-profile rough-sleeper, Adan Abobaker. Last year he leapt into the Thames to rescue a drowning woman, only returning to the shore to find his clothes had been stolen - a story that saw him labelled a hero in the media.
But Mr Abobaker says he still has no place to live [St Mungo’s told Inside Housing he still has a flat and tenancy] and claims to have had little support since the media attention died down. He is fed-up, and on the night I visit the camp he is staying in a tent with a non-homeless friend. Mr Abobaker has moved from his normal rough sleeping site in London Bridge and cites an affinity with the protestors’ cause as the reason.
‘Homeless people are politically motivated too and a number are here as they are the people most hit by the current way [economic climate],’ he says.
Like many at the Occupy London camp, he has a friend here and a community to which he can belong for the night. But as someone who was supported to find a home of his own following his heroic deed last year, his return to the streets is concerning.
Mr Choules says that if he were still homeless he would rather have looked for somewhere indoors to stay than head for the camp.
‘I would not be attracted to a place like this myself, but then other people might take anything,’ he says. ‘It depends on your state of mind and sadly a lot of rough sleepers have mental health issues.’
But the draw of the camp is not lost on him either. Just a few minutes later Mr Choules admits he has a tent and a sleeping bag packed in his trolley, ready to unfurl once again.
He is stopped from doing this as no new tents are allowed on the site. Nevertheless, the pull of the camp is such that a 67-year-old man is prepared to leave his home and reconnect with a life on the streets.
His motives may be political or they may not. Whatever the reason, it is clear the arrival of the protestors and the sense of community they offer is enough to make Mr Choules, and others like him, return to the streets and once again sleep on cold concrete.
Adan Abobaker shot into the media spotlight last November when he dived into the river Thames to save a woman who had fallen from Blackfriars Bridge.
Mr Abobaker, 38, was being supported in a St Mungo’s hostel at the time.
Offers of work and support flooded in following media coverage of the incident and he was supported to find a place of his own. Nearly a year later, however, Mr Abobaker claims he is back on the streets and desperate to find a way out, although it is unclear why he is unable to return to his accommodation - which is still under his name.
‘The girl I saved is [now] a friend of mine and writes to me every now and then to a friend’s address,’ he says.
‘After what I done I had the media running around wanting to talk to me but when it came to helping me they all went away.
‘I want somewhere to live. Do you know what it is like sleeping on concrete and waking up with bad hips and all bruised up?’