Spice, curry and scuffles: An evening with rough sleepers at the Stratford Centre
PUBLISHED: 12:33 26 October 2018 | UPDATED: 12:37 26 October 2018
After last week's revelation that at least eight people have died homeless in Newham this year, we meet the people working to improve the lot of rough sleepers. Hannah Somerville reports from the Stratford Centre.
It’s Wednesday evening at the Stratford Centre, and scores of homeless people are queuing up for curry in the middle of the shopping precinct while others stand in line to get their hair trimmed by volunteers.
In purgatory, small gestures go a long way.
On an ordinary night Hope4Newham feeds between 80 and 150 people. Unlike the late-night shoppers and commuters threading their way through to get home, police outside estimate that up to 50 people will eventually bed down here for the night.
And by 10pm, at least 30 people are preparing to sleep on the floors.
Some have blankets or sleeping bags. Others have propped up haphazard cardboard structures against the shutters of Footlocker and H. Samuel.
The Stratford Centre, a public right of way, is open 24/7 and presently a lifeline for people looking for a dry place to sleep.
But as the Newham Recorder revealed last week, it is also the site of an ongoing tragedy. At least two rough sleepers have died here since January.
Anne Croney, co-ordinator for Hope4Newham, said: “It’s nice to have a chat sometimes, and just let people know that they’re human; they’re invisible most of the time.
“But a lot of the time it’s really sad. Most weeks we go home and we’re really low because we don’t seem to even be making a dent.”
Conditions inside are far from ideal. The toilets close at 7pm along with the shops, and a debate rages as to whether and why the air conditioning is on in October.
The youngest rough sleepers were a couple aged 16 and 19; the oldest was in their 70s.
A 20-year-old ‘living’ at the centre since a family fallout six months ago said: “I’ve been worried about my safety here. It gets quite loud.
“After a while it feels like you are with a load of family. Being homeless slows your life down. You feel like you’re going to be on the streets for life.”
Each night at about 9pm, metal barriers are erected around part of the shopping precinct in a bid to keep rough sleepers separate from pedestrians.
Police are stationed at the back entrance by McDonald’s. At about 8pm officers intervene to break up a scuffle in the middle of the floor.
A sweet, stale smell drifts over from the corner by JD Sports, where at least 12 people have gathered to smoke Spice.
Spice is a synthetic cannabinoid, outlawed since 2016, that has unpredictable and sometimes fatal effects. It was the cause of at least one death at the Stratford Centre this year.
Lorraine Tabone, who runs the Lola’s Homeless voluntary organisation, said she believed use of the drug had soared since January: “It is a problem now. It wasn’t before.”
Lola’s has run on a shoestring budget for the past three years and tonight is collecting names for an emergency 20-bed night shelter run by St Mungo’s.
It is an uphill struggle; many of those who would like a bed are hesitant to give their full names or mobile numbers.
According to Shelter, one in 25 people in the London Borough of Newham is officially homeless.
Last year the council accepted 1,450 people as homeless, of which 1,143 were assessed as being in priority need.
Score of other rough sleepers also congregate in other locations such as the Canning Town Flyover – where a homeless man, Vaidas Sakalauskas, was murdered in an unprovoked attack – or the Memorial Recreation Ground, which is considered safer.
Ms Tabone said: “Our borough is like Oliver Twist. Whether people take drugs or drink or whatever, their situation shouldn’t have happened to human beings.
“I feel proud to have so many beautiful people in my life supporting me. But I’m disgusted that I’m having to scream and shout and argue with everybody along the way to be heard.”
What the council is doing now
Newham Borough Council has scrambled to reduce the number of people sleeping rough in the run-up to winter.
It has done this with two separate windfalls: a £1.6m grant from central government, and £300,000 from the Greater London Authority (GLA), both split over two years.
Since 2017, 58 rough sleepers have been removed from the streets and placed in accommodation, and the council’s outreach team has expanded from two workers to six.
The week after our visit to the Stratford Centre on October 16, the council began a two-week operation with charity St Mungo’s and the GLA to support rough sleepers. As of Tuesday, October 23, 12 people had been taken off the streets for assessment.
A 10-bed specialist assessment centre is due to open on Monday, October 29 and emergency hotel beds for up to 20 people have so far been found, while night shelter provision has been expanded to 15 beds until April.
A further £100,000 has been earmarked to provide ‘move-on support’ for rough sleepers alongside a rent deposit scheme.
After an inspection on the evening of Monday, October 23, the council said that Meridian Square was clear of rough sleepers. It counted eight people inside the centre at 6.30am the following morning, although Hope4Newham said it had fed 100 people inside the centre two nights later.
Mayor of Newham Rokhsana Fiaz said: “As a resident of the borough I am acutely aware of the situation in the Stratford Centre. I have had conversations with homeless people sleeping there and I am ensuring they get appropriate support from council services.
“The work done by the voluntary sector in Newham has been brilliant, and I have told them how much I value what they do.
“I have made tackling homelessness in the borough one of my top priorities. The results so far have been encouraging, but any person sleeping rough is one too many and we are not complacent. We must continue to work using these new partnerships, projects and facilities to stay on top of the situation, especially as the weather deteriorates.”