Community comes together to 'shine a light' and demand action on homelessness problem
PUBLISHED: 17:00 11 October 2019 | UPDATED: 11:11 14 October 2019
A little compassion makes a big difference when you're living on the streets.
That's according to formerly homeless man Andrew Fraser, who says society needs to change negative perceptions of those sleeping rough - a stigma perpetuated by archaic laws - if it is to solve the "absolutely appalling" homelessness problem.
Speaking at a World Homeless Day event in Stratford on Thursday night, Mr Fraser said: "There's people dying at an incredible rate and the true figures are not revealed.
"These people are extremely vulnerable, and often have mental health issues."
He pointed out that the "hugely out-dated" Vagrancy Act 1824, which remains in force today, makes it an offence to sleep rough or beg for money in a public place.
"If people don't want to give, then don't give, but these people shouldn't be thrown in police cells because they sit outside asking for help," he said.
"The amount of hassle that people get from councils, police and the public; the attacks they face - fireworks thrown at them, people urinating on them; the amount of prejudice against homeless people is horrible."
Mr Fraser says he was attacked in the night several times when he was homeless, including being kicked in the face while he slept.
"That just becomes your normal when you're on the streets," he added.
Mr Fraser wrote a book whilst living on the streets for more than three years in Stratford, Barking, Romford, Ilford and elsewhere.
He hoped the book, Invisible: A Diary of Rough Sleeping in Britain, would change people's attitudes about homeless people.
Mr Fraser said: "Treat them like a human beings. It doesn't have to mean giving food or money - although that helps when you're in that situation - but just someone sitting down asking them how they are, what happened, or what they need, can make someone's day.
"These people need our love and compassion and support, because they're human as well, and people seem to have forgotten that."
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The event was run by Stratford-based The Homeless Coalition, a partnership of grassroots charities who serve the area including Lola's Homeless, Hope 4 Newham, Cann Hall Mosque and NishkamSWAT.
Held outside Stratford station, it was unfunded and run entirely by volunteers.
Some served free food and drink to people living on the streets, while others collected donations from the public and handed out information about ways to help the homeless.
Volunteers symbolically wore pyjamas as well as bright-coloured tops with the words "You say homeless, we say human".
Donated sleeping bags were distributed and homeless people were able to collect a new one in exchange for their old, dirty one, which will be dry cleaned and reused.
Everyone was encouraged to bring a torch to "shine a light" on the desperate conditions those living on the streets face and the extent of the homelessness problem in Newham, which has the highest rate in London.
The event also featured entertainment from choirs, a band and other performers as well as celebrity appearances from former X-Factor and Love Island contestants and Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
One of the organisers, Linda Whelan from Hope 4 Newham, said the coalition want the government to prioritise social housing and increase the local housing allowance so people on benefits don't end up on the street.
"The message we want to send is that homelessness is not acceptable in the UK," she said.
"Everyone deserves a home, everyone is equal, but the people we need to protect, we're not doing anything for them and they're being victimised because they're being stereotyped."
A petition to the government was also circulated at the event.
Lola's Homeless founder and event organiser Lorraine Tabone said: "This event is our call to the government to wake up.
"The general public need to be made aware of what is happening on their streets and in their communities."